A/N: I want to thank everybody for sticking with this story. I know this particular iron has been in the fire for a long, long time and I can't tell you how much I appreciate your reviews and your feedback. Thank you!
Leave me out with the waste
This is not what I do
It's the wrong kind of place
To be cheating on you
It's the wrong time
She's pulling me through
It's a small crime
And I got no excuse
And is that all right?
Give my gun away when it's loaded
Is that all right?
If you don't shoot it
How am I supposed to hold it?
When his eyes flickered open at 4:30, blinking out dark water, he was surprised to hear soft, unencumbered breathing. Could it be? He rolled onto his back and cast a quick glance to the side. Helen lay next to him. For once, at least as far as he could tell, she was not feigning sleep. The second pillow was warm - he was the insomniac. How unusual.
Kevin folded his fingers over his stomach and closed his eyes. A deep breath in, and then an exhalation. If he cleared his mind, he reasoned, and thought of nothing but taking in oxygen, he would necessarily slip back into sleep. And so he breathed in, then out, all the while trying his hardest to think of nothing at all.
After what felt like a few minutes, he opened one bleary eye and shot a glance at the clock.
He uttered a short, sharp swear word into the darkness and then threw the blanket back.
Under the searing hot jets of the shower, he bit his lip to keep from screaming.
There were certain cliches that came with suburban living and on days like today, it was so much easier to fully commit to parody. Saturday in Sandy called for neatly pressed shorts – in a modest khaki, of course. Anything more colourful screamed tacky. A equally tasteful polo shirt would complete the look. He'd selected a dark green today, more fatherly than flamboyant. His sunglasses and watch were necessary accoutrements for greeting the neighbourhood as he sprayed cold water over his broad green lawn.
Rolling up the hose, he took a step back to admire his handiwork. From the street, his home was a masterpiece of intricate stonework and conscientious gardening. Not even the wide bay windows revealed the imperfection within: Helen's manic, cluttered workspace, for instance, or the small, empty room on the second floor with its naked pink walls. Imagining the room in his mind's eye, he drew in an uneasy breath. He made his way up the cobblestones. He hesitated.
Over the past few months, he'd entertained fantasies, if only for a few minutes at a time, of throwing a suitcase in his trunk. He had envisioned the things he would bring along, and the places he would visit. Sometimes, but not often, he imagined floating the idea of taking a "solitary vacation" without his family. But never once in his life, not even while staring down the barrel of a gun in Uganda, had he so seriously contemplated, well, leaving. Perhaps "quitting" was a better word. It was so tempting, and yet so unthinkable. He couldn't serve his family a letter of resignation, give his two weeks' notice. He hated to think what filing for divorce would do to Helen, let alone their children. And, really, what grounds did he have? He would have to admit adultery or... or...
He closed his eyes, drew in a long, deep breath, and swung open the front door. He had been alone with his thoughts for too long. He needed something, anything to do; hands on a broom, fingers squeezing out a sponge. Not only was cleanliness next to godliness but, Kevin had learned, compulsively performing chore after chore was an extremely effective method of emotional suppression.
Penitence, he thought to himself, as he cleared the cutting board and brought the knife down on a neat row of bell peppers. Frittatas were his one and only breakfast speciality, and maybe, just maybe, this meal would be enough to endear himself once more to his family, enough to ward off suspicion. Enough, even, to convince himself that he was still in control of his circumstances.
He sighed, cracked an egg open, and sent it sizzling into the frying pan.
"What on earth are you doing?"
He turned. Helen stood in the doorway, a deep crease forming on her forehead. Despite her neat bun, suspended with hairspray, and her freshly ironed dress, she looked exhausted.
"Morning, bunny." He tried to muster a smile.
"You're up awfully early," she called. She was already rolling her eyes and turning on her heel. Her office was only a short way down the hall, and he knew that once she went in...
"Helen! Wait - I'm taking over your breakfast duties," he chirped. "God knows you've got enough on your plate – I figured I could, you know, add a frittata. To your plate."
She peered through the door, raising an eyebrow. "Did you sleep at all last night?"
He sighed, abandoning any guise of cheerfulness. "You're one to talk."
"I work best in the evenings."
"Right. Okay." He threw up his hands. "I woke up early. It was a fluke. I woke up too early, and then I had trouble getting back to sleep."
She hummed in response, and leaned her thin frame against the doorjamb. "What is this really about?"
Kevin sighed, turning back to the stove, and ran his spatula under the runny egg.
"You're never up before dawn. Well, you're never this productive before dawn. Watering the lawn?" She paused, cocking her head to the side. "Frittatas?"
The thin line of her mouth, he noticed, curved decidedly downward. "Look," he said, desperate, "You – you don't need to turn this into an interrogation. I just wanted to make breakfast for you and the kids."
"It's breakfast, Helen. You don't need to ask why."
She pursed her lips, and he couldn't help but notice the deepening crease of her worried, furrowed brow. It was as though she wasn't sure whether to be appreciative of the gesture or wary of it. She was not a woman who trusted. She especially didn't trust him; that much was plainly obvious. And to see him up at 6:30 on a Saturday morning, chopping vegetables with a grin on his face probably numbered among the most bizarre things that she had observed that week. Obsessive-compulsive homemaking was her most reliable method of lie-telling, after all. She could probably smell the falsehood on him, too.
"Look, I just wanted to give you a day off. I'm making breakfast. I'll chauffeur the kids around all day. You can have the house to yourself."
"I don't need the house to myself."
"It'll be quiet. You can write."
She chewed on her lip, indecisive. Finally, she leveled her gaze at him and spoke: "Matthew has an SAT prep course at the U. That starts at noon and ends at 3:30. Mark and Luke's soccer practice starts at 10:00. Don't forget the sunblock, and don't forget Luke's hearing aid. Jack will stay with me."
"Are you sure? I can rig the booster seat, you know. It's really not that much trouble..."
She glanced over his shoulder and out at the driveway before responding, shaking her head rapidly as she did. "Kevin, don't be ridiculous."
"It's got a five-star safety rating."
"I – I know, but nobody drives their kids to soccer practice in an..."
"A Cadillac." Her arms were firmly crossed over her chest now, and wisps of blonde were beginning to escape from her stiff bun.
"We are not having this fight again. Do you know how many lunch meetings I go to? They're a part of the job, Helen – I can't walk out of a four-course meal with a half dozen of my colleagues and ask the valet to bring around your mini-"
She raised her eyebrows insistently.
"...Your minivan. No, Helen, I'm not taking your minivan."
Her arms dropped to her sides and Kevin began to cross the kitchen floor. "There's one other thing - I was thinking I could drop the kids off with the Petersens tonight. I'm sure Marge wouldn't mind looking after them again. You and I could use some time together, couldn't we? We could have a nice night in, rent a movie..."
He swallowed, unable to finish the sentence. Helen's mouth fell open, and she sighed deeply. "Kevin, no. I'll... I'll be in the middle of a draft. You know I work best when it's dark out."
"Come on. It'll just be a few hours."
"No," she answered bluntly. "No, because I'm already behind on this release. No, because I have to do the grocery shopping..."
"Bunny, I can pick up the groceries while the kids are at camp. It's not a problem."
"No, but... I have to weed the garden, and wipe down the windows, run a net through the pool..."
She trailed off, then stared up at him.
"Helen, can I ask you something?" He put a hand on her shoulder. In her eyes was something like fear. He breathed in, deep: "Why don't we ever have sex any more?"
"What a ridiculous question," she spat. Her entire body was trembling.
"Is it me? Are you..." He swallowed, reading the crackling in her eyes, and began again. "Are you tired of me?"
Her chest heaved, and she shrank away from him. "Stop. Just – just stop, Kevin. I do not want to talk about this right now. I'm busy. I'm so busy, and it's so difficult. It's so, so difficult."
"What's so, so difficult?"
"Oh, where do I begin?" she said. "Everything. All of it. You. You are difficult, Kevin Price."
She swivelled out of his grasp. He closed his eyes, then slowly raised his fingers to his temples. He began massaging slow, small somewhere far down the hallway, he heard a door slam. A few seconds later, the unmistakable hum of a computer booting echoed through the house.
It was just after noon when Kevin pulled onto the cramped side street where McKinley lived. These were old apartment buildings, built in the 1960s and packed together for blocks on end. The units here were popular among students; that McKinley lived here was more an indication of poverty than anything else. Pulling close to the curb in his Escalade, already the subject of so much controversy at home, he felt embarrassingly out of place. He twisted his keys in the ignition and yanked back the lever, then leaned forward. He let his forehead fall against the hard, lacquered wood of the against the steering wheel and screwed his eyes shut.
No more pretending. At the kitchen table this morning, standing by the field at soccer practice, and even kissing Matt goodbye at the U, he had been acting. Jack, dozing in his booster seat, was too young to judge him. And too sleepy, at any rate. He wouldn't see or hear his father crumpled in half, sobbing sloppily in the front seat of his stupid, ridiculous, overindulgent Cadillac.
After a few minutes, Kevin became aware of a knocking near his left ear, growing louder and more insistent. He lifted his head, wiping his face with the heel of his hand.
When he turned, tears sprang back to his eyes. Leaning up against his window, knuckles rapping on the glass, was a boy, young, no more than eighteen or nineteen, wearing – oh, God – a white button-down, a dark blue tie, and, unmistakably, a nametag. Elder Witt, Kevin read. Witt's partner – his partner – lingered a few feet behind him.
"Are you okay?" Elder Witt mouthed. Kevin didn't respond, didn't even nod, just stared blankly at him while sobs wracked his own body. The other boy was taller, and Witt, at the window, had a shock of bright red, curly hair, a smattering of freckles.
"Do you need help?" he yelled, the glass muffling the sound.
Kevin's mouth fell open. He could do no more than shoot the kid a long, desperate glance. Witt's partner stepped up to the glass – Elder Kingston, Kevin noted – and knocked on the glass. Witt shot a sidelong glare at his partner, then placed a hand on his friend's fist.
"We're sorry we bothered you, sir." Witt nodded, then stepped back, still gripping Kingston's hand tightly. Kevin's eyes fluttered shut and he began to shake his head. One hand reached for the dashboard, jamming a button. His window rolled down.
"G-guys," Kevin stammered. "I – I just... I'm sorry, it's been..."
Kingston was tugging Witt back, bending next to the window so his face was level with Kevin's. "Yes, sir?"
"...a hard week, it's been – it's been a hard few days. My friend... this, this friend of mine, he... my, he was... we did our mission... together..."
When the boys nodded in unison, Kevin's hand flew to his mouth to strangle a sob.
"Your friend – is he okay?" Kingston asked, genuine concern in his voice.
"No. No, he... he's sick. He's very sick."
Their faces fell; Kevin could swear he saw Kingston's hand tighten around Witt's.
"He lives here, and I came... I don't know, I wanted to – to talk to him, you know, because I don't know... I don't know if he has much time left, and..."
Witt's hand left Kingston's and rested on door of Kevin's car. "Is it all right if we pray for you, Mister...?"
Kevin nodded, and bowed his head. Over his shoulder, he heard Kingston, the tall one, begin: "Dear Heavenly Father, we ask you to comfort Mr. Price, and we pray that your hand of healing be upon his friend..."
"Mr. Price," interjected Witt. "What is your friend's name?"
His mouth began to form the first syllable when a sob leapt out of his throat. In an instant, his forehead was against the steering wheel once more. He felt a hand on his shoulder, and then one small squeeze of reassurance.
The prayer continued.
Kevin slowly mounted the grimy steps, one hand on the guard rail and the other arm supporting Jack. It had been just over a week since he had last been to McKinley's apartment, and the memory seared. Last week, he had parked his car on this side street at five o'clock in the afternoon. He had let McKinley lead him by the hand up these stairs. In his sparse kitchenette, Lionel had poured Kevin a tall glass of water. When a truck had rattled by on the street below, startling Kevin and causing his hand to shake and water to dribble down his chin, Lionel had thumbed it away. His face had been so close and Kevin couldn't resist tilting forward and... kissing...
As he knocked on the door of Lionel's unit, he tried to banish the memory. They had stopped just short of making love. When Kevin's hands slung low around Lionel's hips had collided with something that felt like a bandage, he had stopped moving, letting out a deep breath against the dry skin of McKinley's shoulder.
McKinley had tilted his head and whispered into Kevin's ear, "You don't have to."
Kevin nodded in reply, then planted a kiss against his shoulder. A little while later, he left. He was home by supper.
He had justified this second trip in his own mind as a caregiving visit. He hadn't seen McKinley at work all week – according to the employee database, he very understandably plead sick leave – and he figured he could stop by to say hello, or to take his friend out for a bite to eat.
In the back of his mind, he was also readying a promise: he wanted to help McKinley pay for treatment. If there were drugs he couldn't afford on his modest salary, Kevin wanted to bump his benefits. If there were special doctors who could ease his pain, or prolong his life, Kevin wanted McKinley to have access to them.
He knocked once, twice. "Leo?" There was no answer. Balancing Jack on his hip, he reached into his pocket, digging for the key that McKinley had given him as they'd said goodbye. He rested one hand on the doorknob, steadying it to insert the key. The knob tilted a few degrees. Kevin raised an eyebrow, then twisted the knob more deliberately. Why had McKinley left his unit unlocked?
He shoved the key back into his pocket. When he nudged the door open, he was met with a slight resistance. He glanced up – there was no chain slung in the gap between the door and the frame. He sighed, and leaned his weight on the door. There was some object – a chair, maybe? - on the other side, blocking the door. He pushed forward a few more inches, then leaned into the gap and peered inside.
He saw the arm twisted at a grotesque angle and the purple bruises blooming along his side, but it took a moment longer for him to fully register that the body lying at his feet was Lionel McKinley's.