Two and a Half Men: Consequences

by Ben Barrett

I fell in to a burning ring of fire

I went down down down but the flames went higher

and it burns burns burns.

The ring of fire, the ring of fire.

-Ring of Fire, Johnny Cash

Day One

Charlie Harper woke up on the couch, empty scotch glass in his hand. He couldn't remember falling asleep here, couldn't even remember making his way here. How smashed had he been last night? He must have been completely blasted to not even manage to get to his own bedroom. Then again, there was no hangover, no drymouth, no sensitivity to light and sound. There was only the empty scotch glass and an odd lack of memories.

He got up and made his way to the pisser, where he emptied a bladder that seemed close to the bursting point. He had to piss so bad his dick actually hurt. It felt good to release it. The only thing better than a wake-up piss was a beautiful woman. God, when was the last time he'd been with a woman? It must have been days, which was far too long. One thing he liked having available all the time, other than the booze, was women. He'd do anything to get a fine lady into his bed, even if it meant telling a whopper of a lie, which he'd had to do a couple of times.

Not that it happens very often, he thought with a smile as he shook it off. He was rich, he lived in a nice house, he drove a nice car, and he had a cushy job. What was there to lie about, other than his more-often-than-not embarrassment of a brother? Ah, but therein was the rub. Alan was usually what he had to lie about. Women didn't want to hear about your homeless brother living with you. It was a turn-off. So on occasion he'd had to lie and say that Alan was someone else, like his housekeeper, or he'd only fudged the truth and lied a little bit by telling them that Alan had just moved in.

He walked out of the bathroom after stopping to wash his hands (he was nothing if not very hygienic) and past his grand piano, sitting up there in front of the balcony windows like always. He might stop there to write a new song later, but right now he had coffee on his mind. He didn't like starting his day without coffee; it made him irritable. He walked into the kitchen, expecting to see Alan or Jake sitting there enjoying their breakfast. He was surprised to find the place completely empty. Even Berta was nowhere to be seen.

How unusual.

He shrugged this off and put the coffee on. It would be awhile brewing, so he went outside to fetch the paper. He was looking forward to reading the sports pages. He was pretty sure he'd placed some money on some sporting event or another, so he needed to keep up with what was going on. With the Swiss cheese holes he was finding in his memory, however, it seemed as though he wouldn't know what he'd bet on until he got a call from someone trying to collect from him or give him his winnings.

I can't even remember if I've bet on anything. How much did I have to drink last night?

He looked down at his stoop and was surprised to find that the paper wasn't there. Odd. His paperboy was usually pretty good about delivering the paper, because he knew Charlie would tip him a pretty good bit. He could count the number of times his paper had failed to show up on one hand, and even then he wouldn't use all his fingers. He wondered if maybe the boy was out sick or something.

He went back inside and sat down on the couch. It was too early for him to be watching TV, so he had nothing to do until the coffee was ready. On the table was one of Jake's school books, a copy of the Divine Comedy. It was more commonly known as Dante's Inferno. He remembered reading it when he was in school and picked it up. He flipped it open to the bookmark and noticed one particular passage was highlighted: all hope abandon ye who enter here. Charlie felt a little shudder go through him and he closed the book. He'd forgotten how much he'd hated reading it in school. Not because it was a bad read, but because it covered subjects Charlie didn't like to think about, like the afterlife. He didn't want to spend his whole life worrying about where he was going to go after he was dead. After all, if you spend all your time worrying about what will happen when your time runs out, have you really lived at all?

That's good. I've gotta remember that one.

There was a knock on the door, causing him to jump. He got up and crossed the room, wondering if it was the paperboy come to apologize for running so late with his paper. He opened the door and was surprised to see Judith standing there, her eyes red from crying. He could see the worry on her face as if it were a word etched across her forehead.

"Oh, Charlie!" she cried. "Jake didn't come home last night. Please tell me he's here with you."

"No," Charlie said. "Neither Jake or Alan are here right now. When was the last time you heard from him?"

"Last night before he left the house," she said with a sniffle. "He went out with some friends of his and he was supposed to call me and check in every hour. He called at eight, he called at nine, but ten came and went, then eleven, and he didn't call and he didn't come home."

"Have you called the police?"

"Of course I have!" Judith spit back at him, then caught herself. "Sorry, I'm just a little tightly wound right now. I called the police last night. They told me to wait and see if he'd come home. When morning came and he didn't show up, I called again. They said they'd look for him. They came and got a picture of him, told me it would go out to every cop in the city."

"Is that where Alan is, out looking for Jake?" Charlie asked.

"N...no. I thought he was here up until you told me you were here by yourself. I have no idea where he is."

"Tell you what," Charlie said, "I'll leave a note for Alan and go out and help you look for Jake. I'm not really doing anything right now. I'd be happy to help you."

"Thanks, Charlie. Really, thank you."

"No problem."

Fifteen minutes later, Charlie was in his car, driving toward Eldridge's house. He was certain that Judith had already tried there, but it never hurt to be safe. Perhaps Jake had shown up there recently. Maybe he'd just been out all night having fun, getting drunk, getting laid. Charlie hoped that was the case. He hated thinking of anything bad happening to Jake. After all these years, he'd grown rather attached to the boy. He was like the son he never had. Sort of. Berta still bitched about the state of his room and his clothes, both of which usually ended up fairly dirty, and he let her do it because it amused him. Hell, he'd cracked more than one joke at Jake's expense over the years, implying that the boy was dumb and lazy, but at the end of the day he still didn't want anything bad happening to him.

Please God. I don't ask for much, other than that no women get pregnant and that I don't end up with herpes, but I'm asking you now to keep Jake safe.

He didn't know what had possessed him to start praying. He wasn't a religious man by nature, choosing to stay a safe distance from God whenever possible. Not that he didn't believe in God, because he did. He just didn't see much sense in organized religion. He liked his liquor and his bimbos too much, and God required that he give both of those things up when joining the church. He had no intention of doing that. Life was too much fun to spend it living in fear of a Creator who seemed intent on taking that fun away.

He pulled in at the McElroy house and jumped out of the car. He made his way up the walk and rang the doorbell, a little buzzing thing that sounded like the two-way speaker system in an apartment building. There were footsteps, the curtains in the front windows rustled as someone peeked out, then there was the sound of a lock being disengaged. Lyndsey stood there, looking just as worried as Judith.

"Any news?" she asked.

"No," Charlie said. "I was hoping he might have made his way here."

"No," Lyndsey replied. "If he had, I would have called."

"Well, be sure to add me to the update list," he said. "If you hear anything, call me. If you don't have the number, Alan has it. Call me and let me know..."

"I will."

They said their goodbyes and Lyndsey closed the door. Well, that was pointless. He should have known better than to try there. Surely if Jake had gone to his best friend's house, somebody would have been notified. He needed to do more than this. He needed to get out there and cruise the streets, go to Jake's favorite hangouts, dig around, get his hands dirty. Maybe he'd check the makeout spots, too. Maybe Jake just had a little too much fun in the back of a car last night and fell asleep with his pants around his ankles. Maybe he was curled up with a pretty girl right now, completely oblivious to how worried everyone was. As angry as that would make Charlie, he had to admit that right now it would be a welcome relief. At least he'd be safe.

You're overreacting, using words like safe. He's probably not in any danger.

Perhaps not. Perhaps this whole thing was just a misunderstanding and Jake would show up at home wondering why everyone was so upset. At the very least, he was going to get a royal ass-chewing from his uncle Charlie. Nobody worried Charlie Harper like this, nobody. There would be hell to pay.

He was driving down the boulevard when he spotted someone walking who looked like Jake. He pulled his car over to the side of the road in a squeal of tires and jumped out. He ran up to the person and grabbed them by the shoulder.

"Jake!"

The person turned around with a look of confusion on his face. It wasn't Jake at all. He didn't know what had possessed him to think it was Jake. From this distance, they looked nothing alike.

"Sorry," Charlie said. "I thought you were someone else."

"Well, I'm not," the boy said. "I'm me and I've always been me."

He gave Charlie a wary look before turning around and walking away. Charlie stood there for a couple of minutes longer, trying to collect his thoughts. This was not going to help find Jake, accosting random people on the street. He needed to get his head together and come up with a plan. Where would Jake frequent? There was that chicken place he liked so much. What was the name of it? He couldn't remember. Besides, it was unlikely that his nephew would have been at a chicken joint all night, unless they were having some eat-till-you-bust special. He had to think harder than this. He'd tried at Eldridge's house. What were the names of some of his other friends?

The phone in his pocket went off and he fished it out and flipped it open.

"This is Charllie."

"Charlie, what's this note you left for me?"

It was Alan.

"Alan, your son is missing. We need your help to find him. Where have you been?"

"I've been out taking care of some business. What do you mean my son is missing?"

"I don't know how much simpler I can say that. He's been gone since last night and nobody knows where he is."

"Wha? Well, why didn't Judith call me and let me know? I would have come to help."

"I guess that's something that you'll have to talk to her about. In the meantime, why don't you come lend us a hand? Check all of Jake's friends, check his favorite hangouts. You know him better than I do."

"Okay, I'll leave right away. Have you checked with Eldridge yet?"

"That was the first place I tried, and the first place Judith tried apparently."

"My God, Charlie, where could he be?"

"I dunno," Charlie said, "but we're going to find him."

When he got Alan off the phone, he jumped back in his car. It was then that he saw the little slip of paper attached to his windshield. He grabbed it and read it. It was a ticket for parking and not putting change in the meter. Crap, he didn't need this kind of shit right now. He shoved it in the glove box and continued down the boulevard, scanning every face as he drove by, hoping he'd see Jake somewhere. The problem was, LA was a big place. Jake could be anywhere, in any building, on any street. It would be like hunting down the hay in the needle stack finding him without some kind of plan. He wished now that he'd paid more attention to Jake over the years, learned more about him. That kind of knowledge would be incredibly useful.

Shit, Jake, where are you?

Two hours later, Charlie pulled into a gas station. His meter was running on E and his LOW FUEL light had come on. He wouldn't be any help to Jake if his car ran out of gas. He slid his debit card into the machine and waited for it to give him the go-ahead. While he waited, his phone rang again.

"Yeah?"

"Charlie."

It was Judith, and she was crying.

"What is it?" he asked. "What's happened?"

"Oh, Charlie!" she sobbed. "They've got a dead body down at the morgue and they think it's Jake."

"Oh, my God," he said.

"Would you come with me to check?" she asked. "I normally wouldn't ask you, but I can't do it alone and my husband... he's out looking and I can't reach him on his cell. Please?"

"Of course."

Twenty minutes later, they were standing in the morgue. On the table in front of them was a body covered with a sheet. Judith was crying her eyes out. Occasionally, he'd hear her whispering things like "Please God, no" or "Don't let it be him, please". Charlie felt for her. He didn't want it to be Jake any more than she did. Plus she was going through this whole thing alone. She'd finally managed to get in touch with her husband, but he was all the way across town looking in the rough neighborhoods. He wouldn't be able to get all the way to where they were for at least half an hour. Charlie didn't hold that against him. He was doing the best he could. Alan, to his credit, was much closer. He'd be there in less than five minutes.

"Are you ready?" the mortician asked.

"Y-yes," Judith whispered. "I'm ready."

The mortician grabbed the sheet and pulled it back. From the moment Charlie saw the face, his heart sank. It was Jake, all right. There was no doubt about that. He'd had his throat slit from ear to ear and there was dried blood caked on his neck.

"Oh, my God!" Judith wailed, falling to her knees. "Jake, no! Please God, no!"

Charlie didn't know what to say. Who would do this to another human being? Especially to someone like Jake, who had never hurt anyone in his life. It was the worst thing he'd ever seen, and he ran to the trash can as he felt his gorge rise. He lost all the contents of his stomach in a big gush, where they splattered the discarded gloves and plastic wrappers. There was a half-eaten cheeseburger in the can which took the worst of it. That's what stuck with Charlie, that half-eaten conglomeration of meat, cheese and bread getting coated in vomit. Somehow that just made it all that much worse, and he vomited again.

"I can see that you're taking it very hard," the mortician said. "I can't say I blame you. They found him in the park. They're still not sure who did it or why."

Judith was beyond words, she was still down on her knees, crying into her hands. It was during all of this that Alan came rushing through the doors. It took him all of two seconds to take everything in before his hand flew to his mouth and he began to wail.

"No, no, no, no, no!" Alan cried. "That can't be Jake! It just can't be!"

But it was. Poor dim-witted Jake, the boy who had stolen the heart of everyone he'd ever met, laid out on a cold table with his throat cut open like a package of lunch meat. Charlie wanted to get out of there. He wanted to get away from these two grieving people, whose only connection to each other had just been completely severed. Their flesh and blood, the product of their loins, their pride and joy, was dead. Charlie didn't want to deal with this shit. He didn't want to hear the wailing, didn't want to look at the body any more. He just wanted to go home and drink himself into a stupor and forget that this had ever happened.

He left them to grieve with each other. As he was walking out, Alan was sliding a comforting arm over Judith's shoulders. Charlie stepped into the hallway and for one of the few times in his life wished he had a cigarette. He didn't even like cigarettes, but he thought that smoking one right now would really hit the spot. His only nephew was dead, his brother and former sister-in-law were going to pieces, and where the hell was his mother? Probably out gallivanting around, working her hustle and trying to sell a house. Nevermind that her grandson was dead. Had she even been told that he was missing? He was about to find out. He pulled his phone from his pocket and dialed her number.

"I'm extraordinarily busy right now," she said as she picked up. "Can this wait, Charlie?"

"No, it can't," he said. "Where have you been all day?"

"Excuse me?" she shot back. "Who are you to question where I've been?"

"So you had no idea that your grandson turned up missing last night?"

"Jake was missing?" she said, softer now. "Is he all right? Did they find him?"

"I can't believe no one told you."

"What's going on, Charlie?"

"Mom," Charlie said, trying not to choke up. "Jake is dead. We just found him in the morgue. Someone... someone cut his throat. He'd dead, mom."

There was silence on the line for several moments before she spoke again.

"Charlie, if this is a joke..."

"No joke. He's gone, mom."

"Oh, my God."

"Yeah."

"I'll be there as quickly as I can. I'm leaving right now."

Charlie hung up the phone, but he had no intention of waiting around for his mother. He'd had enough of this. He just wanted to go home and try and block all of this out. All he had now were the regrets, regret for treating Jake like an idiot, for making him and his father feel unwelcome in his home. If he could take it all back now, if he could make it right, he would. But hindsight is twenty-twenty, and there would be no taking it back. He would have to live with these regrets for the rest of his life now. Until the day he died, he would have to live with the fact that he made his only nephew feel like a stranger.

He walked out to his car and drove back to his house, barely paying attention to what he was doing. He kept seeing Jake in his mind's eye, his empty eyes staring at the ceiling, his throat looking like raw hamburger meat. It made him sick to think about it, but no matter how hard he tried, he could not get the image out of his mind. It was making him crazy. He needed booze.

He drove back to his house, where he proceeded to get drunk. He didn't even bother with the glass. He just started drinking from the bottle like an old bum. Down the hatch, and why not? He'd had one hell of a day, and it had not ended well. All he wanted to do now was get as drunk as possible. Booze numbed the pain, made it more manageable. Enough booze killed the pain entirely. He was halfway through the second bottle when Alan walked in, his eyes red. Alan took one look at him and lost it.

"What the hell are you doing, Charlie?"

"Gittin' drunk," he said. His speech was already slurring and he was having trouble staying steady on his feet. He sat down on the couch, turning his back on Alan. "What's it to ya?"

"Charlie, this is not going to help anything."

"It helps me."

He took another long pull from the bottle.

"Charlie, stop it."

"No, I don' think I will. Thissiz my house and I'll do whad I wan'."

"I cannot believe you're being so self-centered," Alan scolded, "especially today of all days. Why can't you think of other people for a change?"

Charlie took another swig.

"So now you're gonna sit there and ignore me," Alan continued. "How typical of you."

Alan walked past him and headed toward the kitchen. Charlie lurched to his feet and stumbled after him.

"Alan, wait!"

Alan stopped and turned. Charlie fumbled his way over to him, bottle still in his hand.

"'m really sorry about Jake," he said. "He wuz agood kid."

Alan stared at him in disgust for a moment, then pulled his arm back and punched Charlie in the face. Charlie hit the floor and his bottle fell next to him.

"How dare you," Alan said. "How dare you come up to me drunk as a skunk and pretend you give a damn about my son."

Charlie's lip was bleeding, but he made no move to get up off the floor, nor did he bother to respond to Alan's accusation. He just lay there in a drunken heap, listening to his own breathing. He heard Alan's footsteps as he walked away toward the kitchen. Still he made no move to get up, to defend himself in some way. All he could do was lay there, reeking of booze, and think about how he'd treated Alan and Jake over the years. He thought the alcohol would have helped with the pain, but it had done very little. In reality, he had only added to his problems by angering Alan. Now on top of a dead nephew, he had a brother who would probably never even speak to him again. As often as he told Alan he was a burden, a geek, an albatross around his neck, it shouldn't have bothered him, but it did. It bothered him a whole hell of a lot.

He fell asleep there in the middle of the floor, his last thought before losing consciousness that of Jake, his throat sliced open and his empty eyes staring blankly at the ceiling.