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Author's note: this story was written in response to Girl Friday's Story Fest challenge on the theme of "A Fresh Start." I hadn't planned a sequel to "Time and Trials," but it just seemed to work out that way. This story will make a bit more sense if you read "Time and Trials" first. Please note, though, that the sex in this sequel is more implied than explicit. Many thanks for the assistance of my editors; the remaining errors and shortcomings are, of course, solely mine.
I couldn't help but notice, day after day, the reminders of my life. A touching scroll my eldest had written for a recent Father's Day hung above my desk:
A blue Dad, a broccoli Dad, a gardening Dad, a swimming, traveling, books Dad,
A reading and a mustache Dad
My Dad's a coins Dad
My Dad's a skiing Dad
A brown hair Dad
A brown eyes Dad
A 3 kids and a wife Dad
A "drive me to dance and the BBQ Dad"...
I'd loved her. I'd never understood the idea of 'kids', not until I saw that first ultrasound. They told us shortly thereafter that they suspected trisomy 18, that we should consider abortion. By then I'd seen her on a second ultrasound, happily swimming in her amniotic paradise. We would take our chances. Funny -- how as a teen I'd been so sure that every child should be a wanted child, that 'defectives' should be aborted. Now, seeing her sucking her thumb in the womb, I was more than willing to take a chance, more than willing to deal with an imperfect, doomed child.
God, in His wisdom, rewarded our choice with a perfect, beautiful child. And two other, perfect, beautiful children. So perfect, so beautiful, that they often took my breath away.
Not that my wife, Belinda, and I never had problems. Far from it. As wonderful as our children were, I had a big problem with being displaced from #1 to, eventually, #4 in her life. But we weathered the storms, and by the time Cindy, our eldest, was approaching her 12th birthday, we were doing a pretty good job of "Leave it to Beaver," a fairly happy, very conventional family.
We'd inherited a summer cottage, shared with several of Belinda's cousins. During their declining years, her grandparents had let quite a lot of the maintenance go. One sunny spring day Belinda took some time off work and took the kids out of school to go up to the lake, to choose new carpets as part of the much needed renovation of the cabin. I probably could have taken time away from work myself to join them. That I didn't would haunt me for the rest of my life.
It wasn't altogether unusual for an RCMP officer to come into my office. After all, one of the projects I was working on was a retreat for peace officers suffering from the inevitable consequences of meeting social pathology head-on, day in and day out. But he wasn't there to talk about that.
Instead he told me how Belinda had fallen asleep at the wheel, how her minivan had crossed the centerline, how the oncoming semi had obliterated my family.
I'd read widely enough to know what the word "automaton" meant. I became one. I managed to dress in my navy-blue suit for the funeral. I managed not to vomit at the sight of their caskets. My two sisters held me up and got me through the service, and even propped me through the obligatory reception after the service. Then I cast them away, as I did my in-laws and Belinda's cousins and anyone else I knew.
Through good financial fortune Belinda and I had managed to acquire a spacious home, some 3,500 square feet on a generous lot in the suburbs. With perspicacity on her part, all our debts, including the mortgage, were insured. We had planned that, if one of us were hit by the proverbial bus, the survivor would be able to afford a nanny for the kids and carry on working. In the event, I was left more than well off }-- the house was free and clear, and I had the life-insurance pay off as well.
How odd it was. As a child, with my parents struggling, and largely failing, I had thought that the only important thing was money. Suddenly I was worth well over a million dollars, and it didn't mean a fucking thing.
I guess I'm a sick bastard, but to keep hold of some vestige of my married life I went through the dirty laundry and got as many pairs of Belinda's underwear as I could find and put them in zip loc bags. I was never going to have sex again, not with a live girl, but at least I could touch once again my wife's most intimate secretions; she who had been the love of my life for some 25 years.
What does "bad to worse" mean? Losing my parents was awful; my father unexpectedly first, then half a dozen years later my mother. I'd always been sure I'd go before my wife, leaving her to raise my children with her kind, deft touch. The idea of another man taking my place in my children's lives, and in my wife's bed, was, of course, distasteful, but I'd always assumed she'd do better the second time around. It had never dawned on me that I might be the survivor.
I wasn't equipped to be a survivor. As seemingly perfect as things were before, I'd already had inklings that I didn't know how to live, and so didn't know how to be a father - and, for that matter, a husband. My job, upon which I relied for validation, was dead-end, albeit well
paying. Now, my parents gone, my wife gone, my children gone; what, really, was left?
I applied for a leave-of-absence from my job. I set up an automated pay plan to have yard work done, so that the neighbours couldn't complain. And then I shut myself off from the world.
It took the best part of two months for people to finally piss off. My sisters kept up longer, but I didn't want to see anyone, didn't want to talk on the phone. If I had to leave the house I'd try to do
it at night, when I wasn't likely to run into a neighbour. Most of the time I just laid on the bed and stared sightlessly at the ceiling. I stayed in the basement because going upstairs to the bedrooms,
which remained as my family had left them, overwhelmed me.
I existed in a nether-world between life and death. I knew I had to move one way or the other - to get busy living, or get busy dying. I was leaning strongly toward the latter.
So I began to 'get my affairs in order.' I'd always been a packrat, so I started with my own junk, throwing away valueless things like love letters I'd received in high school, a subway ticket from a
journey on the Paris Métro when I was 16, a photo of me with my first love before her high school graduation. Things that might be of value or interest I cataloged and tried to figure out the appropriate person to bequeath them to.
One night, as I slunk out to get the mail from the box down the street, I heard a car door close behind me, and caught a faint whiff of familiar perfume - something in my subconscious said it was 'Oscar.' Before I could place the association, a soft voice called to me.
I turned. For just a moment I didn't recognize her. I hadn't seen her for some 10 years, since my father had died.
"Kathy? What on earth are you doing here?" I rasped, having hardly used my voice in weeks.
"I came to see you, Jim. Not that you made it easy. You don't answer your phone, you don't come to the door when someone knocks. Damned anti-social of you, I'd say."
"Well, uh, I really haven't felt much like company... ," my voice trailed off.
"Then you're going about it the right way. Course I'm family, so I don't count as company. You going for a walk? Good for you, I'll join you."
Kathy was a cousin of sorts. She was the niece of my step-mother, of the woman my father married when he left my mother. We'd been thrown together often enough as kids, then didn't see each other for many years as we got busy growing up. We were re-united around my father's death-bed, which resulted in a brief but very torrid fling. Then we went on with our lives, me back to rebuild my life with Belinda, and Kathy to go on to meet Pete, the most successful romance she'd ever had. Kathy and I had kept in touch via email until a couple of years before, when her company cracked down hard on personal messages. Since then I hadn't heard a thing, either from her or about her.
We walked for a while, me huffing and puffing after months of inactivity. Kathy led the conversation through a series of banal, harmless topics. Nonetheless, it reminded me of what human interaction was like, and I was surprised to find that I'd missed it. Clearly time, therefore, to move beyond the banal.
"I'm surprised that Pete would be willing to let you stake out a strange man's house."
"Pete understands about friends needing friends. If he didn't understand that, I couldn't be with him."
"You guys have been together for what, seven years? That's about five years longer than your best-ever record. And you'd dump him for that?"
Kathy turned to me, the light of a full moon glinting off her mane of fiery red hair.
"I'm not letting you get away with it."
"Get away with what?" I asked as innocently as I could.
"I'm here to kick your ass. I'm going to stay until it's kicked so thoroughly that your head pops back out. Any questions?"
I was completely taken aback. No one had spoken to me like that in years. My mother, maybe - I never fooled her, but she'd usually been more diplomatic when she told me off. For a minute I wasn't sure what to do.
Kathy resumed. "I wasn't quite sure what kind of shape I'd find you in. I wondered if you'd be drinking yourself to death - but your eyes are way too clear, so that's not how you've decided to go."
It amazed me how right-on she could be. I'd confessed to her at my Dad's wake that I had been scaring myself with my drinking. In the subsequent years, before the accident, I'd been increasingly seduced by the sensual pleasures. Too much good food, far too much good booze. And sex, of course, when I could persuade Belinda, or more often manually with the help of the internet and some favourite erotic authors. Then, after the accident, it was like a switch had been thrown. I barely ate, and dropped probably a hundred pounds. I had no interest in booze - it was the longest I'd gone without a drink of some kind since I was maybe 13. Nor had I had so much as an erection,
let alone an ejaculation.
"The kick-ass program starts tonight. You never held a wake, did you? I thought so. You just crawled into your hole and pulled the turf over behind you, right? Didn't deal with it, and then decided you didn't want to live. How'm I doing?"
I could only look at her and shake my head.
"We're going back to your place. We're going to talk, and cry, and look at their things and remember. You're going to grieve properly, and get it out of your system." We'd gotten back by this point to where she'd parked her rental car. She opened the trunk and took out her overnight bag, and a 40 of scotch. "It's great that you haven't been drinking. Tonight, though, this is going to be your medicine. You're going to open up if it kills me. Capische?"
That set the tone for the next few days. We did talk, and we did cry - I cried a river of tears, and my rended soul began to heal. Kathy slept in Cindy's bed, and I stayed in my basement room. There was