This story is by Linda Kasten and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The sign read: Do Not Enter.
No, it wasn’t a road plaque. Nor a sign on private property.
Dana had scribbled it with a stained piece of yellow construction paper. Stained from spilled ketchup and peanut butter.
The letters, sketched with a red sharpie, had faded into a hideous pink shade. It had been taped there so long, removing it would rip the door’s paint off. Three years now. To the day.
She touched the door handle, the cold metal knob like a snowball that refused to melt. If it would just thaw, then maybe she’d have no choice but to step to the other side.
But she left it, left the chill and the sign in place.
“You can’t put it off forever.” How did he sneak up on her? She jumped, unaware she wasn’t alone.
“Is there some law that says I can’t?” She turned and left her husband standing there, his lips sealed tight, like a Ziplock sandwich bag.
Laundry had to be done. The bathrooms needed cleaning. Weeds awaited her plucky fingers. She had a list a decade long. What did he have? A TV remote and La-Z-Boy.
How much longer would their facade hold up? That was the two-dollar question.
Again, she didn’t care.
After lifting a basket near the washing machine, she dropped a handful of clothes inside, another small load. Every load was small and had been for three years. Keeping busy, keeping busy, always keeping busy. Clothes had no chance to pile up.
Again, he found her. The sandwich bag unzipped. “I can do it for you.”
Oh, now he offers. To do the one chore he knows she didn’t want done. She ignored him.
“Is the sign gone?” She poured laundry soap into the dispenser.
“You can’t keep using that sign as a shield.”
“It isn’t for me.”
He walked away. Finally. At least that’s what she thought.
The house’s silent moan filled her ears with a faint whisper of nothingness, a ballooning deafness rich with a peace-like moment, a rarity…soon replaced with the noiselessness of guilt until the water gushed in the washing machine and a crash reverberated against the walls.
She rushed toward the sound, stumbling over the laundry basket, in search of the cause. What was Paul doing? Had he fallen? With those baggy sweatpants and untied sneakers, she imagined he’d stumbled and injured himself. God only knew what disaster awaited her.
She chased the echo, entering the family room, the TV with one channel – ESPN. No Paul in sight.
She stopped, examined the room. Everything remained in its proper place. Then she heard it again. Closer this time, coming from the kitchen.
“Paul? Is that you?”
Good God, what was Paul doing with her appliances, her cookware, her dishes? He never touched her kitchen. He hated cooking. Wouldn’t even own an outdoor grill.
She flew through the door, disbelieving her eyes. In the middle of her spotless tile floor, Paul stood over a spattering of broken glass and what looked like picture frames, a bat in his hands, and two more frames face down on the granite counter behind him.
“What in hell are you doing?” Her heart drove a truckload of flutters up her throat, almost turning her mute. She charged at him to wrestle the bat from his reddened fists. She didn’t have to look at the photos to know what they were. But why? Why would he raise a bat in a violent attack? “Stop it! Stop!”
He shoved Dana aside as if she were a plastic grocery bag flying in the wind. He wrenched another photo from the counter. She lunged at him, snatching one end of the frame in a tug of war. She couldn’t bear the anger, the insanity, the symbolic attack against her. That’s what this was really about. She’d rather he bashed her, not the pictures.
“He’s gone. He’s fucking gone. Get that through your thick head.” He spat at the top of his lungs, flinging insanity with his words.
Dana tried to breathe, to stand, to imagine this wasn’t happening. She’d made it all up in her head. She had to wake up. The cruelness crushed every memory, every minute of joy, every day of regret, every thread of hope. His foolish actions tortured her with more damage than the sharp shards littering the floor.
He raised the bat, ignoring her plea. She raised her hands to her mouth, crying and begging him to put the bat down. Did he really think he would erase their son’s existence? Or was he acting out in a fitful rage to cleanse his own soul? Had the emotional turmoil he’d shoved aside surfaced on this date for a reason? Or would it have happened regardless?
How would she know? They’d tiptoed around the loss, never speaking directly to each other about it, afraid to stir up the pain, easier to pretend their son was still alive somewhere, that he’d walk through the garage door as if time had never advanced, carrying his golf clubs and whistling his familiar tune, having never disappeared, that bright, playful face and contagious exuberance emanating throughout the room.
They wallowed in full-blown denial.
Giving up, she collapsed against the counter, wailing as she did when the police had visited them one final time with the message no parent wanted to hear: the case had gone cold. It remained cold for three years and counting.
Their son, gone. They’d exhausted themselves, turning over every rock, searching, looking, praying, waiting, watching, sobbing, and ultimately avoiding. Yet, an ambitious undercurrent pushed uphill through a slow-moving stream with the knowledge some parents were lucky, even years later.
Maybe that’s the way all parents with missing children fooled themselves. It didn’t matter whether a child was age one or seventeen. Evan would be twenty now. Her hands and body shook more from missing three years of her son’s life than from Paul’s tantrum. Where might Evan have been right now? A golf star on a prestigious university campus? Dating a sweet, adorable girl? Still brightening their lives? He’d checked all the boxes any parent could use for bragging rights.
Paul decimated the last photo while Dana stood, unable to stop him. Sweat dampened his face and neck, moist bubbles catching in the stubbles of his unshaven face. She had other photos. He had not won. He had not solved anything.
One thing she knew, she’d had enough. She could no longer tolerate the insanity. Supporting each other through the most devastating ordeal anyone could suffer had been more of an effort than a help.
“Do you feel better now?” Her words escaped as snarky, no concern or sympathy left.
Bending down, she retrieved the photographs, a bit torn and dented. She smoothed them out on the cabinet face down, afraid to look at Evan’s image, those eyes that melted everyone’s heart, the smile not even Mona Lisa could mimic. Her heart had no space left for more pain. She’d exceeded that capacity long ago.
Slowly, she trudged away, careful of the glass. She went to Paul’s bedroom closet, pulled out the large suitcase, filled it with clean clothes kept neatly hung and folded. Next, she took the toiletries he might need from his connecting bathroom and arranged them inside an overnight bag.
In similar speed, she methodically rolled the luggage toward the garage door, gathered his keys from the wire rack, and entered the family room where he lounged in his recliner in front of a golf game. She slowly lifted the remote from his side table, pressed the power button, and handed him the car keys.
“I want a divorce. You can stay somewhere else. I don’t care where.”
He looked at her with more than a ghost-like whiteness, almost a transparency, reflecting a truth both had ignored for much longer than three years. Strangely, a throbbing silence intersected the moment. Unable to recall the last time she’d experienced such an overwhelming relief, she let it wash over her with a disguised sigh.
He knew not to question her or fight back. He’d lose.
At the window, she watched his car roll down the driveway, his eyes directly staring her way. She closed the blind, pivoted, and walked back down the hall.
Carefully, she peeled the tape holding the Do-Not-Enter sign in place. Paul and she had raised a magnificent young man, an undeniable truth. Or maybe they’d gifted Evan with the right genetics. No matter, she drew a deep breath and counted to three.
Before she changed her mind, she gripped the doorknob, the chill gone, and twisted it with a jerk to throw the door open.
Crossing the threshold engulfed her in surrealism. The bedroom hadn’t changed since the day Evan had gone for his daily jog. She knew as soon as she emptied and reorganized the room and her life, he’d come home. That’s the way it always worked. If only she’d done it sooner.