SWEET DREAMS - JAKE HINKSON
Everyone in the house is asleep. Carol is in our bed, her face turned toward the moonlight. The boys are in their bunk beds. Ronnie’s wearing Batman pajamas. Timmy’s in a white t-shirt. My family is slumbering, and I’m sitting downstairs at the kitchen table with a gun in my hands.
I’ve been thinking about this for months now, since everything went to hell at the company. Since Arthur called me in on Christmas Day.
“Come to the office,” was all he said. Then he hung up on me.
Carol was furious with me for going in to work on Christmas morning.
“It’s Christmas,” she said. “We’re dressed and ready to go to church. Can’t Arthur wait?”
But what could I say to that? No, Arthur Brennerman could not wait.
So I dropped Carol and the boys off at church in time for Sunday school and promised I’d be back in time for the Mass, but I knew I was lying. As I raced through the freshly plowed streets on that quiet Christmas morning, I already knew it had all gone to hell. Maybe, I thought, we can find a way out of this.
But then I walked into the office and found Arthur at his desk, sipping whiskey at eight-thirty in the morning, staring at the snow accumulating outside his window.
“We’re ruined,” he said.
I sat down in the green leather chair across from him. I’d sat in that same chair the morning he hired me twenty years before.
“We can still manage this,” I said.
“No,” he said. He took a sip of his drink and sighed into the glass. He was only sixty-two but he looked like he’d aged two decades in the last year. The bags under his eyes were swollen, and his words came out slow. It wasn’t the alcohol, either. The words just hurt to say.
“No,” he said again. “We cannot manage it any longer. We thought we could. For the last ten years, we’ve managed a façade while our foundation rotted out from beneath us.”
“We could sell some—”
“Matt,” he said, “there’s nothing left to sell. Everyone knows now. They know we’ve been peddling trash for the last nine years. We’ve nothing left to bundle, sell, or swindle.” He turned and looked at me, those heavy bags full of uncried tears. “We’re ruined.”
I stared at him, that old man I’d regarded as a mentor, as a father even. I stared at him and realized I’d never really seem him before.
“What...are our options?” I asked.
He rubbed the mahogany top of his desk. As always, it was clean. As always, Arthur and his office were immaculate.
“Ruin,” he said. “Followed by jail. No options.”
“There’s nothing we can...”
He wiped imaginary dust from his desktop. “Our firm is in the hole for the better part of nine billion dollars, and I can’t even afford to buy you dinner,” he said.
He nodded and sucked in his lips, picked up his glass and took another swallow of alcohol. “You should go, be with your family,” he said.
Now my family is asleep upstairs, and I’m down here looking at the gun in my hands. It was my father’s gun. He was a truck driver, my father. Kept this hunk of metal under his seat just in case, but he never had to use it. He died of a heart attack on the road, sleeping in the back of his truck. Too many sausage biscuits, too many packs of Kools. I swore that wouldn’t be me. I worked my ass off, went to college and stayed up late seven nights a week hitting the books, working like a slave, working like a man trying to prove something to the whole goddamn world. And I did, I succeeded, and now Arthur’s dead of a stroke and I’m stuck with the consequences of our mistakes.
A lot of people made mistakes. A bunch of poor people bought houses they couldn’t afford, and a bunch of financial wizards figured out a way to build a financial system on top of those shitty mortgages. What a combination. Arthur bought into a lot of MBA doubletalk and dumped all our money into hoping that people poorer than my father would keep buying houses they couldn’t afford.
If I’m going to be honest, I have to admit I bought into it, too. I signed off on all of it. We built mansions on top of swamps and lived like kings until our mansions began to sink. Now we have nothing.
Carol knows something is wrong. She hears things. She reads the papers. But she doesn’t say anything. No news is good news as far as she’s concerned.
What she doesn’t know is that her life is ruined. My wife. She left her first husband for me. He was a high school English teacher with dreams of being a poet. When I met her, she was twenty-eight and wondering what had happened to her life. She said I was her knight in shining armor, riding in and rescuing her from that poor dumbass. We used to make jokes about that guy. But he’s still a teacher making thirty-something grand a year, and now I couldn’t buy my wife a cup of coffee. She would have been better off with him. Oh, Christ.
And the boys. My poor boys. I treat them hard, especially Ronnie because he’s the oldest. Timmy’s so fragile. I push Ronnie because he’s tougher. But now both my boys will see me ruined. They’ll see that the whole foundation of what I taught them is a gigantic lie. The whole thing. We’ll have to move. I don’t know where. We’ll have to sell the SUV. They’ll be ruined, my sons, my little boys.
I should have never married their mother, should have never brought them into this world.
I grip the gun. It’s heavy and solid, like nothing else in the world right now. Everything else is rotted out and disintegrating around me.
I should kill myself and spare them the humiliation of seeing me marched away in handcuffs.
But then what, Matt? Where does Carol go from there? Where do the boys go? Ronnie, he might make it. Maybe. But not Timmy. My poor son, he’s too weak. He’s too weak to make it in this world. All this time I thought he was too much like his mother. I thought I needed to teach him to be a man, but it turns out he’s just too much like me.
I was too weak to make it in this world.
But if I blow my brains all over the kitchen table, the explosion of the gun will wake them. Timmy will cry. Carol will rush downstairs and scream when she found me. My sons will see their father’s brains.
I’ve tortured all of them too much. I’ve failed them too much. My poor sons. My poor wife. I ruined their lives. I should never have been born.
I open the cylinder of the gun, look at the six bullets there.
My poor family.
I can still be a man. I can still do what no one else can do.
I go upstairs. Carol is sleeping with her face to the moonlight, and I shoot her in the temple. The volume of it scares me. Her leg kicks out, hits me in the shin, and I watch her back rise and fall as her body lets go of its last breath.
My ears are ringing.
I can’t see her face buried in the pillow.
I’m dizzy, but I push myself down the hall to the boys’ room. Ronnie is awake, sitting up in bed staring at me. I fire the gun, but I hit the wall and my beautiful son screams the most awful sound I’ve ever heard. The ringing in my ears cannot drown out the sound of his scream. He knows. My poor son knows what happens to him when I shoot him in the head. Timmy’s crying now, but I make him stop.
My ears are still ringing as I go back downstairs and sit at the table. The crying has stopped.
In a moment, I’ll be with them again. Maybe we can start over. Maybe I can explain to them and beg their forgiveness.
I put the gun in my mouth.
I’m so sorry.
There are two women talking over me, discussing what I did. They discuss all the vegetated patients in our ward, all of us brain-damaged or unresponsive. They discuss our stories.
“Veggie Tales,” one of them laughs. “Well, Chantel over there was hit by a car. And Natalie there had an epileptic seizure in her crib when she was just three months old. Been sleeping in a coma her whole life, nineteen years now.”
“They don’t have any cognitive function?”
“Oh, it’s impossible to say. The nurse who was here before me said she thought most of them were just a pair of lungs hooked up to a machine. Just totally nothing. But some of them, she thought, might have some deep undetectable brain function. Like little blips. Maybe fragmented memory loops, that kind of thing.”
“These poor people.”
“Yeah. Well, most of them are poor people. But this asshole here doesn’t deserve your pity.”
“What’d he do?”
“You don’t know about the family-murdering veggie?”
“You know all that financial shit on the news, all those toxic assets and foreclosures and crap like that?”
“Oh, I don’t understand anything about that stuff.”
“But you know what I’m talking about?”
“This guy was one of them. Lost billions in that stuff. I don’t understand it either. The bottom line was that he thought he was smart, but he wasn’t. So he ruined everything for all of us, and then he takes the coward’s way out and kills his wife and kids. But he screws up killing himself, and now he’s eating from a tube.”
“No. Forget that. Sorry, but my parents lost their ass because of a guy like this. Their retirement was wiped away like you’d wipe off a chalkboard. And all because some stupid asshole wanted a bigger swimming pool. Hell, it might have even been this guy here.”
“And he can’t hear or sense anything?”
“Who knows? I hope he can. Sweet dreams, asshole. I hope you’re in pain.”
“Ooh, that’s cold, Sherry. That’s cold.”
“I save my pity for the ones who deserve it.”
They walk away and everyone in the house is asleep. Carol is in our bed, her face turned toward the moonlight. The boys are in their bunk beds. Ronnie’s wearing Batman pajamas. Timmy’s in a white t-shirt. My family is slumbering, and I’m sitting downstairs at the kitchen table with a gun in my hands.
BIO: Jake Hinkson is currently at work on a book on film noir. You can find his fiction at The Flash Fiction Offensive, Crooked, A Twist Of Noir and Powder Burn Flash, among other places. You can learn more about Jake and his projects at his own blog, The Night Editor.