Fiendish Father’s Day Honorable Mention
Sam laid flat in the bathtub, letting the water run into his ears. The noises of the world around him would be distant like a whisper shared between strangers, had there been any noises to be heard.
He twists and turns the golden ring on his left hand. Silent tears well in his eyes, then become part of the bathwater. He knows, soon, he has to get out. Put on a suit. Face his children. Face his distant family, face her family. Her…
His phone lights up from the laundry basket – it’s 11:00 A.M. – supposed to be his scheduled lab-time. He can’t be a scientist today, only a widow. Only a father. He doesn’t know how he’s supposed to be any of these things when he feels so empty inside, a void.
His wrinkled fingers remind him of what comes with age: loss – but she had so much more aging to do. It isn’t fair.
Sam sits on their shared bed, rubbing his burdened hands together. He is vaguely aware of how tired he looks – like a man on the brink of his own death. His sister opens the door, and his two children come spilling through – their grief is warded off by the blue light pulling their eyes down. Nothing absorbs ideas and thoughts quite like a void. Sam studies them, they seem to be in a world of their own.
A world where their mother never died, a world where their bodies sway at the entrance of the room they would run to when monsters were in the closet and in their dreams, but their souls were elsewhere, somewhere safe where nothing could take them away or ever hurt them.
He can hear her laughter, as if it’s coming from inside a can and he feels like his head is underwater again.
“Come here, Sloan, Clemence,” he pats the bed.
The twins move like dazed robots – they only cry when they’re not distracted, so he makes a point of keeping them distracted.
He turned into a robot himself. Movements mechanical, on auto-pilot – only glimpses of details that don’t matter and don’t bring him any comfort. Empty pews. A white collar. A face void of warmth. A photo full of life. A weight on his shoulder. Roses. A hearse. A hand rested on the shoulders of each of his children. Hands squeezing tighter than comfort calls for. Rearview mirror. Chattering. Food he hates. Empty house. Children go upstairs. Ticking clock.
Clemence sat beside his sister, she might be two minutes older but he felt the need to comfort her. His church shoes dirty the carpet of her room, but she doesn’t care this time.
Her phone holds a photo of their mother. She still hasn’t cried. But Sloan never cries.
He asks, even though he knows she’s not – but not because of twin telepathy, a thing their father called ‘a silly fiction’, – “Are you okay?”
He shakes his head, looking at her screen and she doesn’t yell at him for doing so. He wishes she would. He watches her fidget with the ruffles of the dress she didn’t want to wear. Dad insisted.
“I think Mom would also think that dress is incredibly ugly,” he offers.
“I know she would.”
They hear a door slam across the hall. Clemence flinches, they both hold their breath. Clemence sinks onto the floor, pulling his knees up to his chest. Sloan climbs down too, hugging her brother close as he sobs. They are just children, even if they protested a mere month ago that being thirteen (and two minutes) was the furthest thing from being a child.
Sloan could see the look in everybody’s eyes at the church – watching her like she was older now, but still talking to her like a child. The words ‘mature for your age’ were tossed around quite a lot.
Clemence is crying, and she wishes she could too, but it was clear everybody finally thought she was an adult now.
Sam paces the hall. Stopping outside each of his children’s doors, then starting up and down his path again. Sloan and Clemence texted each other, wondering what they ought to do.
Sam stops outside Sloan’s door again, she can see from the slight slit between the door and the floor that he’s there. Sam lifts a fist, readying himself to knock. He unclenches his jaw, and heads down into the basement – his ‘home lab’ – instead.
Clemence sneaks across the hall, feeling as though the void cast by the moon through the window is going to swallow him whole. He avoids the floorboards that creak. He closes Sloan’s door steadily, making sure no noise is made.
“Can I sleep here?”
Sam stands with a steaming cup of coffee in Sloan’s doorway. He lost count of how many times he had refilled his cup. His heart is beating at a rate that could electrify an entire town. He watches his children sleeping in the same bed, the way they used to when they were younger and before they ‘hated’ each other.
He smiles distantly, running through the void in his mind – if only she could see them now. He heads toward the bed, and gives them each a gentle nudge.
Their father seems like an altogether different man. There’s a cheer in his eyes they hadn’t seen these past two weeks, as though he had been brought back to life.
On the kitchen counter, Sloan sees the pink-flowered cup that was this year’s Mother’s Day gift on the counter. Ice cold black coffee is inside. Clemence only shrugs when she looks at him.
Sam watches them eat their breakfast cereal with clear impatience, his leg bouncing more than a rubber ball against hard concrete.
“What’s up, Dad?” Sloan asks after studying his body language for quite some time.
“How would you two like to…”
To Clemence, the rest of his father’s sentence fell into a void – his ears whining at what sounds like a cruel joke. Sloan looks at her father with deep hatred, not understanding how he would think this is funny. His smile enrages her. A bowl flies across the room. A spoon clatters. Milk is spilled. Clemence finds use in crying.
He ushers his stoic daughter and hysterical son into the basement. He can’t explain it with words.
“Sit,” he gestures toward the two swivel chairs.
Clemence immediately wants to move toward the one they know their mother used to sit in, writing and reading while their father worked away at one or the other thing they had no way of understanding. Sloan could see her mother now, in that chair, but in reality only a void sits there now. Her arm shoots out, stopping Clemence in his tracks.
“What are those?” she asks her father. “They look like… helmets,” she points with her other hand toward the cluster of wires and blinking lights resting on his desk. There are two of them.
“Well observed,” Sam simpers approvingly. “Please just sit, then I’ll explain. I didn’t mean to hurt either of you – so let me show you.”
Sloan looks at Clemence, her arm still in front of his chest. She drops it reluctantly and lets him have their mother’s chair.
“… you understand?” Sam asks, hooking up the last wire to his laptop.
Clemence pipes up, “So, it’s almost like virtual reality?”
“Exactly,” Sam smiles, sitting on a chair he took from the kitchen. “Except it’s like being sucked into something almost like a memory – where you can have new conversations, moments. Where you can see your mother again.”
“Will it hurt?” Sloan asks, her anger just a simmer now.
Sam looks up, the keys of his laptop no longer clacking as he speaks. “Not even one bit. It’ll be like you’re falling asleep,” he smiles reassuringly. “Just close your eyes.”
His children obey. Sam hits a key. He watches their bodies sink, limp in the chairs. Blood feels like it drains from him entirely as the laptop screen fades to black.
“No, no, no…” he repeats.
Sam rises too quickly, and trips over the excess of cords on the ground.
He pushes himself up with help from his desk. He rushes to his children. He shakes Sloan’s body first. He notices a drying tear on her cheek.
“Wake up!” he pleads.
Nothing happens. He repeats this process with Clemence. The results are the same.
“Please…” his voice breaks as he removes what Sloan referred to as helmets. “Please wake up.”
His heart sinks into a void, but there’s a slight flutter as he realizes his laptop screen is shining again. He moves around the desk carefully, like he’s too afraid to look. Two words pop up on the screen, written with perfect punctuation – Clemence.
The words disappear, and a new message comes through.
WHATS THIS PLACE – Sloan.
Relief crawls out of the void. His plan had worked. He sits back down on the wooden chair, his children’s bodies growing colder by the minute.
The keys clack, and clack, and clack.