If you’ve been keeping up with the excerpts I’ve been posting over the past couple of weeks, here is another one: a continuation of the excerpt from last week that is a fair bit longer than what has been posted already. This chapter being one I really like, I’m posting it in linear segments so that the people who are genuinely invested in what is happening will be able to figure out what is going on. For the later chapters, any excerpts from those will probably be out of order and more standalone scenes than anything else. Fair warning.
“Bethany,” his father started. Benjamin, with all the childlike, deep down, have-to-because-he’s-my-dad respect he carried for his father, never liked the way he said his mother’s name. It wasn’t hard or hurtful, it wasn’t loud and frightening. It was just…there, as if the words simply fell out of his mouth and sat there, in a take it or leave it sort of way. “Why do you invite those women over if you don’t even like them?”
“I told you, Jacob,” his mother said. The familiar clinking of glasses and plates shrouded her soft voice. “I do like them. They just–” She paused, the clinking stopped. Benjamin sat stiller. “take some getting used to.”
His father had a way of pacing. His brown leather shoes scuffing against the floor and his sigh, a long, drawn, rasped sigh, were enough to know what she’d said had done something.
“Come off it, Bethany.”
“What was that?”
“I said come off it. You know as well as I do all those women care about is–” Benjamin imagined his father counting off his fingers as he listed. “shopping, gossiping about their husbands and–”
“At least they can!”
She yelled it. And then there was silence.
An uncomfortable sitting silence broken by nothing.
“That’s not fair.”
“Why?” His father was louder. “Why? How about because I’m doing something important. That’s more than any of those women or their husbands can say.”
“They’re doctors, Jacob. And business men, philanthropists. I’m a psychiatrist, for crying out loud. I’m doing something important. And so could you, if you were here. At the very least you could be a father to your sons, but how could you? You’re always out, chasing fantasies like a child while I’m still here.” She paused. “So yes, I entertain those women and the crap they say to just be–”
“Normal?” his father said.
She breathed out. “Yes. Normal.”
A time passed. A time of nothing as far as Benjamin was concerned. They kept talking, but he didn’t listen. He craned his neck, tucked his knees to his chest, wrapped his arms around them, and stared. At nothing, really, but he sat there, his parents voices drifting out from the opening, brushing against his face before sweeping off and away. The conversation was punctuated by the clink clank of dishes being set back in the cabinet, every sound waking up a sleeping, almost sleeping, Benjamin that sat, under the table in the hall, nodding back each time he woke up again.
When they came out, they hugged, tightly, as if it were their first hug. As if it were their last, and when they left, his father to his office and his mother to the bedroom, Benjamin got up, wide stepping on the tip top of his toes back toward his room.
The foyer was a tapestry of light and dark. Rectangles of silvery moonlight stitched themselves into the floorboards, popping up among a medley of nighttime that grew darker as the light spots grew lighter. Benjamin stepped in the dark. Something sat back in the darkness, he knew, a monster, nothing human, watching if children stepped in the light, dragging them off through a hole in the hallway closet to a den five hundred feet below the house. He’d thought about it a lot when he laid awake at night.
He reached the bottom stair of the staircase, the landing at the top overflowing with blackness, spilling silently down the steps. Benjamin hadn’t noticed how dark it was at the top until now. He stepped up hesitantly.
The groan the bottom step let out was low and leaning as he was, licking anxiety into his ears like a foreign whisper from the darkness.
He stopped, heart racing, one foot on the step, listening, looking, to see who was coming, if anyone at all, because surely someone had heard. But they didn’t.
He stepped back. It groaned and again, no one had heard. So he stood there, waiting for someone to find him or the soft break of sunlight to fall through the windows in the morning; whichever came quicker.
Shuttering paper sounds came from the hallway. Benjamin peered out from the corner of the foyer to the cracked light from the door, slightly opened, at the end. It was his father’s office, a door he’d never been in that, to him, may as well have never existed. Page flipping fell out from the opening, quickening, frantically quickening, and concluded with a book slam, a silence, and another string of paper sounds. Benjamin crept on his toes, listening for the break in sound as a cue to stop, his left hand fingertips gliding along the white wall, pressing against it when he needed balance.
He pictured his father a spy once, when he was younger, a boxer, a fireman, an astronaut too. All at once. That’s how little boy’s believe, but at nine years, he was too old to believe his father was anything so fantastical and the sound of shuffling paper reminded him of that.
His best friend’s father was an accounts manager, or an accountant. Or a manager. Benjamin didn’t remember, didn’t know what it was and didn’t care; it didn’t sound all that interesting. And it wasn’t. He brought his work home from time to time and in a wrinkled white shirt and tie, the man sat there, head rested on his palm or his knuckles, (he switched it up) flipping through a stack of papers on a desk in his office, while Benjamin and his friend played tag or some other obnoxiously loud little boy game in the living room.
Benjamin took pride in knowing his father was more exciting than that, even if he wasn’t here, but at this point, he wasn’t so sure his father was so interesting.
The air felt warm when Benjamin reached the door. Warmer than the hallway, a lot warmer, hot even, all of it coming out from the opening.
No more paper sounds, just pen scribbles and foot steps.
The door felt warm too as Benjamin pressed his palm against it, pushing it slowly to avoid a creak.
Now only foot steps.
What is he doing?
How should I know?
The door opened inward, quickly, and his father, in a hurry, hurriedly tumbled right over his son.
The pain was quick, dull, at first, in his side, and warm, like a crescendo, rising up and stopping, right at the point of annoyance. His head, though, hit hard when he fell back. Pointed pain radiated from the back to the center, branching off, then receding, collecting again at the back in aftershock. And that’s when he began to cry.
It started as a choke, hopped up in his chest, his throat, croaking out as warmth flowed up through his face. But when the tears came, he lost it. And he sat there, clutching the back of his head as his father pushed himself off the floor. In the dull lamplight, his father looked taller, sharper when the shadows shaved off the soft contours of his frame. Even in the dimness, Benjamin could see the red in his father’s face and through his blurry vision, he could see his father was angry.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Benjamin recognized the tone. Harsh and biting, like a bitter wind, burning and unsettling, like a searing heat; it was his tone. The tone Benjamin had grown up with and the only tone in which his father had ever addressed him or his brother.
He wished, as he pulled his knees in close, that he would sit down beside him, rub his back, hug him like other fathers did, and tell him it would be okay. But he didn’t. He stood there, instead, staring down, towering over Benjamin and it was then that Benjamin felt further from his father than he ever had before.
Without another word, his father sent him back to bed, trudging through a darkness that no longer seemed so frightening and he laid there, hating his father in a way he felt was forever. The light from the moon fell on his legs in a soft silver, molding around the branch shadows that shuddered in the breeze. The house across the street, the Masons, he thought, left their outside lights on for their teenage son who, the other mothers said, “–is a delinquent, which he most likely wouldn’t be, if it weren’t for the lazy, single father he has.” Something about a party, or firecrackers, or joyriding, with his delinquent friends, followed up with something about how his father was an artist. Benjamin, even then, knew he listened to the mothers too much.
And then, there was a light, just one, near the window, there, then gone, like an auric wink on a backdrop of black. And then nothing. For a moment. Benjamin hopped out of bed and crouched by the window, peering up over top of the windowsill.
And then he saw the light again.
And another, and another, popping up and fading back asynchronously. He never paid attention to the fireflies as much as he did on nights when his father was home. They flickered, lights in the darkness, swirling up in the gloom, before bursting out against it, and it all made Benjamin happy.