Part II: My Family is Falling Apart – Part II
I burst into the room, ready to swing at the first thing I see. My arms drop as something small and fluffy jets toward my legs. There’s soft whimpers, whining, and then drool─ lots of drool.
“Daddy! Daddy it’s a puppy.” Karis wraps her arms around the little wriggling being, her face getting covered in slobbery kisses. I laugh and bend down to scratch the little guy’s head.
I’ve seen some cute pooches in my life but this guy takes the cake. I’m a little sad to see that his tail has been cropped, but he’s still as beautiful as he is cute. He nips playfully at my hands and I flick him on the nose.
I turn toward Jen, “You’re going to have to train him not to nip. This breed is known for that.” Jen breaks into a smile and nods her head, “I know. But you know me and herding breeds.” I do know. A lump rises in my throat, this was the dog we’d always talked about getting. That’s why I had gotten a home nearly 30 miles from the city with 4 acres of land. Which is ironic with her living near the middle of the city.
“I got him for us.” she says, almost hearing my inner thoughts. I stand next to her as Karis occupies herself with the dog. “For us?” I ask. She nods, “I had completely forgotten that I got him as a surprise for us and had got him from a breeder.” She smiles as she looks down at Karis, “I know I should have told them no, but I’d already paid and I knew Karis would love him.” I frown at her, “But─ you won’t be home enough to take care of him. You know aussie’s will tear everything up if people aren’t home. They need a lot of room to run.”
She still smiles at me, her eyes taking on a strange twinkle. “Karis, honey, stay in here with the puppy, I’m going to show daddy something and we’ll be right back.” “OK!” Karis practically sings as she’s only half paying attention. She’s already toting the little guy around wrapped up in a blanket. Well, that’s that. It’s Karis’s dog. I shake my head and follow Jenna out into the hall.
She grabs my hand and guides me along. It’s a very long hallway. I look around, confused at how much space this place has. We pass three bedrooms before it hits me. I stare out across the place and get a good look at the whole thing. This isn’t a loft─ it’s a mansion.
“I’m sorry, what?” She giggles at my confusion and shakes her head. “I’m not kidding, Tom.” I shake my head and turn my head out to the grassy field. The whole thing is enclosed but it’s natural. It must be a solid two acres of land and it’s completely private with a garden, a pond, and a hedge maze. A god damn hedge maze in the middle of downtown. What on god’s-green-earth possessed her to live like this? This was nothing like her, and now she’s lying.
“There is absolutely no way you are going to stand here and tell me that this place is three grand a month.” I cross my arms and look sternly at her, “don’t you lie to me, Jenna. How much are you paying for all of this?” She shakes her head, “You don’t believe me, that’s fair.” She crosses over to the door, “Come here, I want to show you something.”
I’m getting tired of this, why won’t she just tell me? “Jen, look, I understand that you probably paid more than you would have liked and you’re going through something. I am too, but we’ve never lied to each other, let’s not start doing it─ OK?” She keeps walking and I have to jog to catch up to her. She’s barely heard a word I’ve said and now she’s giving me the silent treatment.
I’m getting more irritated by the second as I try and keep up. She’s fast, really fast. For every step she’s taking, I’m taking five.
I’m practically panting as I catch up to her in the hall. I jump as the door closes behind me. Jenna stands there smiling at me. I spin around to where she just was surprised to find nothing there. I turn back, “Jen─ what the hell?” She looks up at me innocently, “What’s up?” I frown, looking from the door to the spot she was before and then back to her. Her features are smooth, her eyes still twinkling. “How did you do that?” Her eyebrows furrow and she purses her lip, “Do what?” she asks. I shake my head, “Nevermind. What did you want to show me?”
We’ve come to the part of the story where, I’m not sure if I have gone completely insane or I haven’t slept in a week. Much like a scene out of a classic Henson film, Jenna is staring down at me─ from the ceiling. I’m half expecting a rock ballad to sound and Karis to always appear just out of my reach in a maze of stairs and doors.
I close my eyes, breathe in a few times and then open them. Jenna is still there, at least fifty feet up, maybe more. She’s laughing so hard her face is turning red as she covers it with her hand. She skips across the ceiling, running from one side to the other. I scowl like a child on the ground, crossing and then uncrossing my arms. I’m unsure what to do with myself, feeling small and insignificant beneath her.
Even hanging upside down, the blood rushing to her face, Jenna manages to make all other women look like trolls. Her hair is spilled out and her teeth glimmer in the dim space. “You aren’t crazy,” she says between giggles. Who is this woman posing to be her? Jenna has always been a bit carefree in some ways, but not like this. It’s as if my very discomfort brought her pleasure. “This place─ It’s amazing, Tom. I can’t explain it, but each room holds a surprise. I’ve managed to get into a few of them. Some are just, you know, ordinary rooms. But some─” she spins around, her arms outstretched, “are just special.”
“Stop it,” I snap. “Stop this right now.”
She quiets and shifts above me. A few pebbles drop to the floor. I look up at her and search for some way that she could be suspended. Some way that it can possibly be happening. I look at her shoes. They’re just normal tennis shoes, not thicker than normal. There’s no way that they can support her. They barely go to below her ankles. There goes my magnet theory.
I look for some trick in the light, maybe she’s hooked up to something and suspending from it. I start believing this to be true when she steps away from the ceiling.
Like an angel, she flips herself around in mid-air and floats gently to the floor. She’s inches from me now, her eyes still carrying a jovial sparkle, her lips turned up into a sly smile.
Her breath comes out and she leans into my ears. I shiver as her breath brushes against my neck, “You aren’t crazy, Tom.”
She leans back, her eyes finally calming to the Jenna I know. Shy, sweet Jen.
“What is this? Some sort of trick?” I blurt out suddenly. I’m feeling embarrassed, quick, yet again, to fall under this beautiful creature’s spell. How does she always manage to make me fall for her, over and over?
She frowns, shaking her head. “I’m sorry.” Jen stares at the floor, unable to meet my eyes.
I can feel my anger mounting. I don’t want your stupid apologies, I think, I just want some answers. “Why did you bring me in here? To laugh at my reaction?” I ask. She shakes her head, her hair falling down her shoulders and hiding her face.
I swallow thickly, my eyes lingering on her soft curves. I want to wrap her up and bring her close to me. There’s something about her delicate frame that makes me want to protect her. Before I realize what is happening, my arms wrap around her.
“Don’t,” she yells.
Too late, I feel it. It’s disgusting. Thousands of tiny movements push beneath her skin. Something skitters across my arms, then there’s a sharp pain.
I scream and rip myself from her, falling to the ground. I scramble to my feet, my eyes never leaving her face. It’s darkening under the long blonde mane. The smell hits me next. It’s a confusing mix of dirt, the air before a storm, and rotten death and decay.
A low groan escapes from behind the curtain of hair.
The room fills with the sound of wind. My hair whips around and dust blasts into my eyes and nose. I sputter, covering my face from the barrage. It’s so strong, I can barely manage to stay on my feet.
There’s a loud suction noise and then as quickly as it began, it subsides.
The room goes quiet, and I feel it instantly─ I’m alone. My eyes roll to the back of my head. The last thing I can remember feeling is my body slamming to the ground.
I jerk awake, pushing myself up.
“Tom?” Her voice comes out quiet, concerned.
I sit up and look around. I’m at the bottom of the stairs. “Daddy, are you OK?” Karis bends down and tilts my face up toward hers. Her little eyes are swollen and red, she’s been crying. I groan and shift my legs underneath me. Jenna is next to me in an instant, her arms under me and helping me to my feet. “You shouldn’t move before I’ve had a chance to check you over.”
I start at her touch, expecting to feel something jump out at me or the smell. I relax when I feel nothing but the warmth of her touch and the brief scent of her perfume. I inhale the fresh, clean smell and sigh in relief. “I’m fine,” I mutter.
She frowns, shaking her head, “You are not fine. You took a big tumble.” She points up to the top of the stairs. I gaped up at how far I fell. No wonder she’s being insistent. How the hell am I even alive after that?
I poke experimentally at my ribs and move my limbs carefully. Satisfied that nothing is broken I smile over at her, “I’m fine,” I repeat, more to myself than her and Karis. I can tell by the look on her face she won’t believe me until she checks it out for herself.
Karis plows into me and squeezes tight. “Are you really OK? Like, for real?” I burst into a laugh bobbing my head up and down. “Yes, baby. I’m OK,” I say. She giggles and squeezes me tighter. I let out a fake wheeze and cough. She giggles more, trying her hardest to squish the life out of me. Jenna crosses her arms, “Alright, alright little miss. Let me take a look at your dad before we go putting pressure on him.” Karis lets go and backs away sheepishly.
I know that look. “Hey, honey, it’s OK. Mommy isn’t mad at you, she just wants to make sure that my insides are OK.” Karis nods but continues to stare at the floor. The tension is real.
I clear my throat and point upstairs. “I bet your puppy would like some of those squeezes.” That does it, she’s bouncing up the stairs and giggling the whole way. I envy kids ability to just forget everything and be stupidly happy in a matter of seconds.
Jen doesn’t waste a second, she’s stripping me in the hall. “Whoa, whoa,” I say, feeling very naked. “At least buy me a drink first.” She ignores my lame joke and starts feeling along my ribs.
She moves methodically down both arms, then neck and back then finally along my legs.
Satisfied, she stands and hands my clothes back to me. “You’re damn lucky all you have is some bruising, but you could have some internal─”
“Jen, I’m fine. You know all the symptoms of internal bleeding, and so do both of us. You made sure of that, remember?” I say.
She nods, hugging herself with her arms.
My mind flashes back to the room upstairs and to everything I saw. I stare across at her, unable to hide my fear. Her eyebrows furrow as she looks at my face, “What is it? Do you feel any pain?” I shake my head. “No─ nothing like that.” I’m struggling to trust myself right now.
“Jen,” I start, “I─” the words die on my lips as she wraps me up in a hug. I’m genuinely confused by her behavior. Was everything that happened before just in my head? Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to be standing here half naked embraced by Jen in the middle of this…house?
I look up the stairs and then follow it along the hallway. It’s all still there, the rooms and the wide opening. So I didn’t hallucinate that. This is a house, we are embracing and Karis is upstairs.
I repeat these facts in my head a few times. I need to feel like all of this makes sense, that I am not completely and totally insane.
I pull the covers up to her chin the way she likes it. She grins and squirms beneath the blanket. “Night Daddy,” she coos, rubbing her nose against mine. It’s been a while since she has done that. I lean down and snuggle her a bit, not wanting to let go.
I know what’s waiting for me.
She giggles and hugs on my face, “I love you,” she whispers. “Love you too, sweet girl,” I say. I sit back and run my finger through her hair. She smiles and closes her eyes. In just a few minutes her breathing becomes heavy and I know she’s out. I don’t want to move. I’ll have an entire week to myself with nothing to do but throw myself into work and binge watch movies.
It was a rare occasion that Jenna asked for time off of work, but apparently, she was taking some time to herself this week. She dropped this latest bomb on me as I had walked up the stairs to tuck in Karis. They were supposed to be going on a mommy-daughter trip to Jenna’s hometown. So the long 3 days Karis would be gone had just turned into 7 days.
I’ll admit, I’m more than a little jealous that kiddo will see it before I did. Jenna had always been strange about telling me things. Especially her childhood. In all the years we had been together I never met her parents. She is an only child, so I’d always known she had a small family. Stranger still, her grandparents had passed away when she was only a child.
So no family, and I never met her parents. It was equally strange for me since I came from a large family with two younger brothers, and an older sister. My parents were freaking saints, so our home was always a home for foreign exchange students. Needless to say, I never had a moment to myself. It came with tons of downfalls until I moved out. We never missed a holiday and we always had each other’s backs.
My parents had always been a bit of a mystery to most people. They managed to stay in love for all of these years. The topic of divorce was never something mentioned in our home.
Yeah, I grew up pretty sheltered.
I might be simple, basic some may even say, but I knew what I wanted in life. Jenna and Karis were all that I needed.
I pause at the top of the stairs, looking out over the house in its entirety. Was what Jenna said before true? It couldn’t be. There’s a shift in the air and she’s here, at the bottom of the stairs.
I sniff and blink. When had she gotten there? Had she been there the whole time while I tucked Karis in? At least an hour had passed. I had taken my time reading her favorite stories and watching her sleep.
Her face is radiant, almost inhuman in its beauty. I slowly walk down the length of the stairs, my eyes never leaving hers.
“Jen, can we talk?” She smiles slowly and nods. “Yes, I think that would be a good idea,” she says. It’s barely above a whisper, seductive. My heart leaps in my chest and my hopes soar. Maybe this is it, maybe she will finally come to her senses. We belong together, she feels it.
“Jen, please.” My hand is covering hers and I can feel the heat rising in my cheeks. “Don’t say that.” Jenna shakes her head, her hair shifting to cover her right eye. I can barely make out a slight quiver in her lip. She doesn’t want to do this, she just is because she’s in a bad place mentally and doesn’t know what she wants. Be patient, I tell myself, don’t push her so hard.
At least, that’s what I thought. What came out was, “I just don’t understand you. You’re so sweet, kind and caring one minute and then the next you push me away. What’s with the mixed signals Jenna?” I say her name so harshly even I cringe a little inside. I’m being childish, but my bitterness just won’t stop from spilling out.
“Do you think this is something that I want?” She shot back, her eyes flaring as she ripped away from my touch. “Could have fooled me if it isn’t” I growl between clenched teeth. We stare across the table, sizing each other up.
Like always, I’m the first to fold. “Look, I’m sorry. But you won’t tell me anything. All I know is that you keep telling me it won’t work, but you refuse to tell me why.”
She closed her eyes and drew in a long, deep breath. “Tom, listen to me. Really listen.”
I stare at her for several seconds, my anger slowly starting to subside. Jen is always the reasonable one. It can be infuriating at times, but even I know when I am being ridiculous.
I’m feeling scared, left out and alone. More importantly, I’m lashing out.
I nod and sit patiently.
She gets up, her shirt brushing against my arm. Her scent rushes up all at once─ fresh and flowery like laundry mixed with a summer breeze. At some point, she had made coffee, when she returns she has two mugs.
The clinician in her has kicked in, she’s going to be in counselor mode.
“Tom,” she starts with that annoying sound in her voice. The one she uses to explain things to our daughter when she doesn’t understand.
I cross my arms and stick out my jaw. I don’t like being treated like a child.
Despite the seriousness in her voice, she can’t help herself and starts laughing. “You look just like her,” she breathes between laughter. My arms drop and I join in her laugh. We’re two fools back in our home, laughing over the dinner table.
She wipes delicately at the corners of her eyes. “Honestly, what do I do with you?” I smile sheepishly at her. “Take me back?” That was hands-down the lamest thing I managed to say at this moment. Pretty much at any moment of my life ever. How stupid can one dude sound?
She sighs, then looks at the ground. “I honestly want to.” I look up at her, shocked but hopeful. “Then let’s try. Whatever it is, you can tell me and we can work through it.” I’m beyond caring about how desperate I sound right now. The fact that she feels even a little bit like me is enough.
I always assumed it was one-sided.
She smiles and her eyes take on a sad, far away look. “I said I wanted to. It doesn’t mean that we can.”
It’s my turn to look at the ground. Since it’s in front of me, and the only thing I know to do I reach out and take the cup of coffee. It’s strong and robust, definitely a blend that came from south of the border. Jenna was an avid coffee drinker, she even roasted her own beans. I don’t know nearly as much as she does but I know good coffee when I taste it. She’s ruined the store-bought brands for me forever.
Finally, I break the silence. “Can you at least tell me why? I think I deserve that much. You keep saying that we can’t. Is it me? Something I did?” she shakes her head and takes a sip from her own mug. “You do deserve something,” she says.
Her eyes look dark. For the first time, I notice how tired she looks. There are dark rings under her eyes and her skin, though soft and supple, looks pale. It looks like she hasn’t slept for days. I reach across the table and return my hand over hers.
“If you want to be with me, why can’t we be together? You and Karis are all that I ever wanted.” Tears form in her eyes. She shifts her hand under mine and we sit together holding hands. She swipes angrily at her face at the tears falling.
“Damn you. I wanted to be firm tonight. You have no idea why all this is happening, and that’s what makes it hard.” The words are gone from me. She sighs heavily, “Tom, I’m sorry.” There it is again. Those damn, infuriating words. Those words that are ruining my life over and over again but mean nothing. Like before the voice sounds in my head.
“Stop it.” There’s a sharp slap across my face. “Stop this now” she screams.
I hold my face and stare wide-eyed across from her. “Je─” “I said stop.” she interrupts. I’m stunned into silence, unsure of what I have done. Can she hear it too?
“Carroll called me today,” she says softly. The hit still stings, but I manage to lower my hand and look over to her. “She did? How did she─” “She’s quitting, Tom. And if you try and get a hold of her, she’ll press charges.”
I’m so confused my head is spinning from all this new information. Why did Carroll call Jenna? I mean, they had known each other but not intimately. What did she have to do with anything?
Jen shakes her head, “Look at you. You have no idea, do you?” The anger is slowly filling me again. Have no idea about what? The fact that my family is falling apart? That everyone is quitting on me? What the fuck is happening?
That infuriating note is back and I want to slap it right out of her. “I love you, but you need to leave.” My hands dig into the table. I’m fighting the urge to wrap my hands around her delicate throat and squeeze.
Carroll. So Carroll was in on it too. Were all the women in the world this conniving or was it just the ones I chose to bring into my life?
Looks like it is going to just be me and her from here on out. Karis. I glance up at the stairs leading to her room. Then a horrible thought occurs to me─ the trip. I try to keep my voice even, somehow I manage to do it “What day are you coming back?” There’s a brief, awkward pause but she manages to whisper, “Saturday morning.” She’s lying. I know she is.
This is her plan. She’s going to take Karis from me, her and Carroll. Jenna doesn’t have a family, this was all a plot to get me to leave our daughter here so she can take the only thing away from me that I have left in this world. What lies had she told Carroll? Did she feign to be a victim again?
I grind my jaw. Jenna sits across from me ready to bolt at any moment. Her hands are on top of the table, but she’s turned in a way that she can put some distance between me and her. She’s a good, strong runner─ and fast.
My mind flashed to before. How had she gotten so far away from me in such a short time after we left the room? Didn’t you fall down the stairs? I’m not sure which memories to trust. Did I actually fall down and did anything that happened upstairs actually happen? I turn to her, look her dead in the eye and say, “Jenna, did you get to show me the house earlier?” She blinked a few times, her face a mask.
There it is again. The same one she wears when she’s hiding something. “Jenna,” I yell, beating the table with my hands. “Yes.” she stammers. “And the room?” I prod, my voice bordering on hysterical. She raises her eyebrows and stares at me, “room?” I sigh. “The weird room.” I didn’t want to say too much, trying to figure out what was real. “The atrium? Yes, I showed you that one,” she says. Then, “That was the last room we saw before we were walking back to Karis’s room and you tripped.”
“Right,” I said. “I tripped.” She’s staring at me as I finish my words. She looks frightened, like a small girl. Her features are wide, innocent. I feel like the biggest asshole in the world.
Maybe this was all in my head. Maybe I should get myself checked out first thing Monday.
I reach over to her, but she pulls away sniffling. To my horror, her mask is gone and replaced with deep sorrow. Tears stream down her face, staining the pale blue shirt. Now I feel like the king of asses.
“Jen,” I say softly, “please, I don’t mean to scare you. I’m just, I don’t know. Strange things have been happening, Carroll quit on me through you─ I just fell down stairs and I can’t even explain to you what I saw when I was passed out. I honestly don’t know what to believe.”
She’s really crying now, her shoulders wracked with sobs. I do the only thing I know how to do and offer comfort with my arms. Finally, I feel her body soften against mine. She leans into the hug, burying her face into my shoulder. “I’m sorry, Tom.” she breathes again, “I’m so very sorry.”
Then, as quickly as it happened before, it slips away. Our moment is over. Jen stands and then waits for me to join her by the entryway. She’s pacing slightly as I slowly move to the front entrance. She stops, glances up the stairs and then back at me. I feel so defeated like somehow I have let them both down by not winning Jenna over. I wanted a full and happy home for our daughter.
We hug and I leave. Just like that, the whole thing is over.
I’m staring out across the field behind our back yard. The wind begins to pick up and there’s a slight earthy scent traveling through. It feels charged in the air, mirroring my own feelings. The calm before the storm. Last night was extremely hard to get through, I had called Karis first thing in the morning just to see her off before the trip.
She had been incredibly cheerful, gushing about her trip to see her grandma and grandpa. I wanted to tell Jenna to have a safe trip but the phone was hung up before I could. I guess it really was over. I’m the loser that’s just not getting it.
I’m not sure what this week holds, but I know a few things for sure─ Jenna is up to something, Carroll is helping her and Karis is going to be caught in the crossfire.
Or, you’re completely insane, I mope silently.
The second explanation sounds far better than the first. A co-conspiracy? Jenna? I stare out for a few minutes more and then step back inside. There’s no way she would do that to me.
The house is as unbearable as ever. All I can hear is the sound of the furnace kicking on and the air rushing from the vents. I sit on the couch and flip on the t.v. After scrolling through tons of movies I decide on a drama and then pull up my delivery app. Screw making dinner, I’m going to go all out. I glance at the clock and sigh. It’s barely 10 a.m.
By the time I’m done ordering, I’ve charged a small fortune in food and candy. Enough to pretty much last me the entire week. The best distraction for being sad is flooding your brain with endorphins and a shit-ton of food. I did hear something about happiness and chocolate once.
Four hours later I’m in m&m and snickerdoodle heaven. My first movie and most of my second one was over when the rumble starts outside.
It starts low and slow, lazily brushing streaks of white across the sky. Just as the first wave ends, the second comes crashing through. I jump as the sky explodes in a series of loud crashes. My eyes don’t leave the sky, dazzled by the brilliant flashes from the belly of the clouds. The sky turns an eerie shade of green and then quiets. The wind outside dies, almost as if it has been snuffed out. I can see that something is lighting the sky, but the sound is so distant it seems as if it’s now miles away.
There’s movement and one of the clouds separate from the others, stretching down toward the earth. I stare in disbelief at the slow-forming upside down cone. In a few moments, it will be long enough to reach the field less than a quarter mile from my house.
I feel the blood drain from my face and my palms grow cold and sweaty. The tower, now quickly gaining momentum is on a straight path to my back patio. I can’t move. Can’t breathe.
A horrible sound rips through the air. Like a train blowing its horn─ only a thousand times louder. My home shudders, pieces of fence getting ripped apart and sucked into the swirling dirt and air.
MOVE. My mind screams.
My legs won’t budge. Instead, there’s a rush of warmth down my left pant leg. I’m glued to the floor covered in my own piss. So this is how I die─ covered in pee and belly full of candy. I guess it could be worse.
Move, idiot it screams again. This time, I listen. I dive toward the hallway and into the small entryway closet. I’ve barely closed the door when I hear more of my house being ripped away. My teeth chatter and my body shakes.
I scream as something crashes into the closet door. I almost expect it to break, but through some miracle, it stays in place. I’m rocking back and forth, holding my knees to my chest with all that I’ve got. I sob uncontrollably into my legs. What would Jenna think if she saw me like this?
Thank god Karis isn’t here.
Silence hits all at once like a sledgehammer against a brick wall. It’s so quiet, it’s deafening. Terrified I snap a finger near my head. I relax as I hear the soft clink. Is it over? I wonder. I dare to lift my head a few inches and look at the space under the door.
I frown, staring at the movement by the door. Long, dark shadows spill into the small space like two skinny legs. They are still for several seconds and then move. They get longer and then abruptly shorter as the lines form into two circles.
Something is standing outside of my door.
I’m unable to move again, frozen in complete terror. There is something wrong on the other side. I don’t know how to describe what I’m feeling. The only thing I can say is that the air has turned sour. There’s a staleness to it that I can’t quite place. It’s old and ancient.
Then my brain catches up to my senses. Yes you have, I tell myself, during the last storm.
A blast of the putrid smell floods under the door and I nearly retched. There’s a foulness to it that only a demon could know. It’s a mix of burnt hair, rotting flesh, sulfur, and cloyingly sweet wet earth. And yet, there was so much more to it.
I feel it. Just like I did before.
The suction noise comes from the other side, slow and lazy. It’s toying with me. It knows I’m here, caged like an animal. Maybe because it fled the last time we met. Maybe because I saw something I wasn’t supposed to. Or maybe, just maybe─
I jump to my feet and yank open the door. I blink a few times at the wall. There is nothing there. I glance up and down the hall wearily searching every small space my eyes find. It’s gone.
Part IV coming soon.