A bit behind today. Between a two-week-old new born and a lack of sleep, I’m lucky to still be standing, but I’m going to do my best to complete my 30 day story challenge.
This is one of the first short stories I ever finished. It’s changed its stripes about thirty times since I wrote it for a Creative Writing workshop in college, but the foundation remains. It started out as a strict third-person limited piece (my attempt to write something even close to as tight and brilliant as “Hills Like White Elephants”), and has transformed into a much more complete, and harrowing, piece.
I hope you enjoy…
Korbin’s Last Meal
by Curtis A. Deeter
From the far side of the hill, the melancholic sounds of radio static and Seasons in the Sun swept over the neighborhood. A car engine backfired and sputtered but refused to die.
A rusty Ford came into view, swerving down Steel Street towards the uneven driveway of a lonely 1950s ranch house. It was the last house on the block without boards over its windows. The lawn needed cut and watered, long dead grass swayed in the wind, synchronized to the motion of a tattered American flag, and the rest of the neighborhood remained still. Silent. Thistle and ragwort grew where roses and petunias once thrived. Above the front door a spider tended to its web, the only real sign of life on the entire block. Just below the knocker, a faded, white eviction notice remained unheeded and frayed around the edges.
A balding, wrinkled young man with bloodshot eyes stumbled out of the truck. Inside, the house smelled of mold and rotten yeast, which didn’t bother him anymore. Flies buzzed around, alighting on every possible surface. Ignoring them, he dropped his keys onto the floor by a cedar shoe rack and lazily hung his coat up on the last hook. He missed and it fell onto a stack of unlaundered jeans. He never learned to use the washer. What he had learned was to no longer see the growing piles of greasy, stained clothing or the towers of food-encrusted dishes spread about the landscape of his living room.
Family mementos were scattered on the surface of the coffee table. There his son Jack’s boxing gloves, his daughter Hannah’s pink sweatbands from gymnastics, his wife’s knitting needles, and a stack of books gathering dust in the corner.
“You’re late again, Korbin,” his wife, Julia, said.
“I know. I’m sorry, Jules.” He rubbed his swollen eyes and flopped onto the couch.
“Working late again?” she asked.
“No, dear. Left early. I don’t think I’ll be going back.”
Korbin’s jeans hung loosely around his waist, knees stained with mud and hems hanging in tatters. His jacket, with golden arches displayed on the breast, stank of cooking grease and sweat.
“You went to see them.”
“I did,” Korbin said.
“That’s the fifth time this week. When are you going to let yourself move on?”
“I don’t know,” he answered, kicking off his boots. Dirt and chunks of grass flung everywhere.
“Well, you really oughta stop going back there. They’re still looking for who did it. That graveyard isn’t safe anymore.”
He sunk into the couch and opened a photo album titled ‘Jack and Hannah 1994’. He thumbed through the pages, stopping on a picture of two chubby babies in footy pajamas. Jack’s were blue and covered in superheroes, Hannah’s pink with princesses. Jack had the sinister look about him of an older brother determined to torment his freckled sister. He had been damn good at it, too.
“Do you remember their first birthday?” she asked.
“You weren’t even off work when mom showed up with the cake. The one you were supposed to pick up, I might add.”
He turned on the television, an old tube set he always planned to move out to the garage when the kids went off to college. Julia had promised him a flat screen for the living room and a new satellite dish for all the channels.
Wheel of Fortune was on, featuring yet another man from Ohio who had just gone bankrupt. Thirty thousand dollars were gone just like that. A small price to pay, though Korbin. A price he’d pay any day to get his old life back.
“I’m sure I was there,” he finally said. “Chocolate cake. With Vanilla ice cream. It was delicious.”
“No, we had a vanilla cake. I knew you wouldn’t remember.”
“That’s right. We had chocolate the next year, didn’t we?”
He flipped to the next page in the photo album, ignoring yet another budget advertisement for a bankruptcy lawyer. He suddenly felt the man’s business card burning a hole in his wallet.
“Yes, we did. You’re right.”
The single picture on the next page of the album was of their son with blue and white frosting all over his hands and face. The frosting was tear-smeared and his cheeks were cinnamon red.
“Look, Jack stuck his hands right in there. Hannah wouldn’t even try it. What kinda’ kid doesn’t like cake?”
Korbin tittered. It started to rain, even though there hadn’t been a cloud in the sky. After a while, more water would leak in through the one spot in the ceiling that he never found the motivation to fix.
He brought the album closer to him. In another photograph, the twins sat in their high chairs wearing glittery, cone-shaped party hats. Jack’s devious face grinned at Hannah who was pouting over a bowl of spilled cheerios. Behind them, the remnants of dozens of birthday presents, piles of action figures, Legos, dolls, and books, attested to what was once, so long ago, their life on Steel Street.
“That was a good year,” Korbin said. “Finally got my raise. Jack and Hannah started talking. Both said ‘Mommy’ first, I think.”
“Of course they did. They didn’t see you that much, Kor. That was also the same year my mom died.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I forgot all about that.”
“It’s okay. It all seems so silly now, doesn’t it?”
“Want some ice cream?”
“You know I do,” she said.
Korbin walked to the kitchen and opened the freezer. He pulled out a gallon of vanilla ice cream and a bottle of chocolate syrup. When he opened the cupboard to find bowls, he found it empty instead. He turned to the sink and found a couple of dirty bowls. Scratching off dried milk from one, he added an extra scoop to the cleaner of the two for Julia.
“A couple years later Jack cut a big chunk of Hannah’s hair, remember?” she said, ignoring the ice cream in front of her.
“How could I forget? You never let me hear the end of it.”
“She cried and cried and cried. Not even ice cream could have cheered her up.”
“You were so mad,” he said. “I thought you’d never talk to me again.”
“You were supposed to be watching them, Korbin.”
“I closed my eyes for a second. Maybe I fell asleep. I don’t know. I’m sorry. I was always so tired and, besides, Jack just wanted to give Hannah a haircut. That’s all. It was starting to get pretty long.”
They laughed. Korbin felt the loving embrace of his daughter, ethereal and empty, and saw the shadow of Jack’s toothy smile on the wall. No matter how hard he tried, he could never forget them.
“You learned,” she said.
“I had to. You always had being a mother down. You were Superwoman. Cleaning, cooking, shopping, helping with their homework. Sure, I worked long hours to support you guys, but I always wanted to be more like you. Stronger. More patient and, uh…”
He shoved an over-sized bite into his mouth and shut off the television. The man from Ohio had just built his fortune back up only to lose everything again. Korbin couldn’t stomach it.
“You tried. You always tried,” she said. “Even after the shut down.”
“But I missed Jack’s first fight. My boss called. I left the game for a bit. Then in the car Jack asked if I saw his right hook and I didn’t even know what he was talking about. I just told him to hush, that I was on the phone.”
“He forgave you. We all forgave you. Why can’t you forgive yourself?”
“I missed Hannah’s first gymnastics meet, too,” he said with his mouth full.
He dropped his spoon into the empty bowl, placed it on the table, and pulled open a drawer. Among the clutter of drawings and keepsakes he found the medal his daughter had won that night. “Look at it. First time out and she won a medal. Who would have guessed that our daughter would have been so gifted on the high beam? They both had so much talent…”
Korbin laid the medal back down, nearly choking on tears. In doing so, his hand grazed a name tag that read ‘My name is Jack, how may I help you?’ He thumbed it over, tracing the grooves of his son’s name. Lightning cracked and lit the living room, illuminating their 4 by 6 faces on the wall. When it was dark again, Korbin could still see them on the insides of his eyelids.
“Jack always wanted to be like you,” Julia said.
“What do you mean?”
“When I dropped him off his first day at the grocery store he talked about how you were always working. About how excited he was to finally make you proud.”
“He wasn’t even sixteen, yet,” he said.
“What was his friend’s name? That cute, redheaded checker?”
“Ah, Mary Anne. They had a class together, too. Jack was crazy about her. He talked about her all the time before I told him to man up and ask her out already.”
“The first time I saw you hug him was when she left after their date.”
Korbin toyed with his wedding band. He turned it around and around before holding his hand out in front of him. He took it off to read the inscription: ‘Semper Amare’. Love Always.
“Maybe she was his one,” he said. “I met you at that age, couldn’t get you out of my mind, either. Those legs. That smile. How could I not be happy for Jack maybe finding the same?”
The storm outside calmed to a rhythmic pitter-patter. He picked up a paperback from the corner of the coffee table and blew off the dust. “Faulkner. Hannah’s favorite author.”
“Did you ever read it, Korbin? She always wanted you to read it.”
“I finally got around to it. There was never enough time when they were still here. Jack grew up too fast and Hannah was too smart for her own good. Remember catching her up late past her bedtime? Always reading, or learning something new, or writing in one of her jellyroll journals. I bought her so many journals and so many colored pens. She never asked for any of them, but I kept bringing them home. Did she like them?”
“We couldn’t be that mad at her for reading, could we?” Julia said. “I wish that had been the most of our troubles, in the end.”
“No, we really couldn’t. I almost had enough saved to send her to school. Somewhere nice. Maybe even Wayne State.”
He set the book of short stories down and took their bowls back to the kitchen. One was empty and the other was just melted sludge. He dropped them right where he found them. On his way out, he stopped to turn the knobs of the gas stove. A gentle hiss, barely audible, filled the kitchen.
Korbin stared into the darkness of the dining room. The table was set for four, cloth napkins folded lazily at each place. In the center stood two brass candlesticks, covered in a thick layer of dust. The gold-leaf candles Julia liked to burn during family dinners had long since burned down to their bases. Wax spread across the tablecloth and onto the corners of plates and handles of silverware. He replaced one with a fresh candle, struck a match and held it to the wick. The flame cast wicked shadows on the creases of his face.
He touched his hand to his shirt pocket where he always carried the note his wife had written him. Anytime he tried to read it his hands trembled and his palms sweat. He had found the note on the kitchen counter beside a single, wilted azalea pedal.
“What’s wrong, Korbin?” Julia asked.
“It’s all my fault,” he said choking back tears, again. “I should have been home. I would have known who that boy was, that bastard Parker kid. What he was doing to them under my roof.” Korbin pulled the worn, grease-stained note out and carefully unfolded it. “I know you blamed me. That’s why you left, too. You never gave me a chance to make things right. To make him feel pain like we did.”
He felt her hand on his shoulder and went to hold it. There was nothing there but a brief wisp of cold air.
“I didn’t blame you, Kor. Not once. Those kids were my entire world. I just couldn’t go on without them. And I couldn’t watch you do what you were going to do, but I didn’t want to stop you, either.”
Korbin opened the cupboard in the corner of the dining room. On the bottom shelf was an insidious black safe. Something heavy and steel and familiar called out to him. It had done so more than once during the Parker kid’s trial. He kneeled down to pick it up. His fingers fit perfectly around the rough handle.
“He almost died, too, ya know?” Julia added.
“But he didn’t, did he?”
“Korbin, I’m sorry. I really am.”
As his wife said this, he slumped down at the head of the table. He spread the note out in front of him, clasped his hands as if in prayer, and read the words out loud.
“Goodbye, Korbin,” Julia had written. “I need to be with the kids. There’s still so much I have to teach them. I hope in time you’ll understand that they need me. And I need them. Remember, I’ll always love you, despite everything that has happened. Maybe even more because of it.”
He stopped, scratching his temple with the barrel of the gun.
“Go on,” Jack said.
“The last part makes me laugh,” Hannah added.
At either side of the table, his children waited patiently to hear the rest. He realized he’d never shared the note with them. He realized he’d never shared much at all.
Forcing a smile, he continued. “P.S., there’s leftover roast in the refrigerator if you get hungry. I made the gravy extra salty, just like you like it. If you don’t eat it all in the next few days, you can always freeze the rest later for soup or something.”
As a family, they laughed at the absurdity of this last part. At least he could share these final moments with them.
Then, Julia said, “I’d take it back if I could. It was selfish of me. I never realized how much you needed me.”
Korbin read the note again, brushing off a maggot as it made its way across the table. The buzz of flies was worse in the dining room, a constant, deafening roar, but he was used to the smell that attracted them. One landed on a chunky, green bit in a bowl of sludge that might have once been a carrot or a potato.
“Yes, it was,” he said.
Hannah glared at him with hardened, jaundiced eyes. Her mouth, cracked and dry, gaped on rotten jaws and what was left of her hair clung in tangles to her neck. She no longer possessed the childlike beauty he remembered, but she’d always be his princess.
Jack, once so strong and bullheaded, sat on the opposite side of the table, reduced to a spindly shadow of the man Korbin tried to make him into. A chunk of his shoulder was missing from where his father had accidentally spurred him with the spade so many nights ago.
Korbin leaned forward, grabbed the hardened hands of his children, and closed his eyes.
There they were, one Christmas morning, opening presents and drinking hot cocoa. He was asleep on the couch, warn out and distant. Probably a bit worse for drink, too.
Then the kids were at the school on graduation day, tossing their bedazzled graduation caps into the sky and getting ready to be the adults they had already been for so long. He caught bits and pieces of the ceremony on DVD later that week.
And then they were gone, though when he opened his eyes his whole family was there, right where they should have been all along. Korbin was there, too.
He let them go, picked up the gun again, and pressed it just under his chin.
“You don’t have to, Daddy.”
“Pops,” Jack said, “we aren’t going anywhere.”
He didn’t respond. Instead, he read the letter for the last time and enunciated Julia’s word ‘hope’ with the crack of his 45. He fell backwards in his chair, legs straight up, just in time to miss another family dinner.