This story is by April R. Russell and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Philip flexed his stiff fingers against the worn leather steering wheel as he drove through the gray November morning. The heater in his station wagon was out again.
The repairs would cost more than the beat-up Buick was worth, too much for his public school teacher’s salary.
“I ought to call Lisa,” he told the icy windshield. “Make her pay.”
She’d hated that car since the day she saw it pull up to her dorm 35 years ago for their first date.
“You borrowing your parents’s car?” she’d asked as she slipped into the passenger’s seat.
He thought then she was teasing him, flirting, but now he knew better.
“No,” he’d laughed. “It’s mine. Bought it last week.”
After the wedding, it sat in the garage, displaced by the Datsun they’d bought together. When Lisa gifted herself a red two-door Mazda for making junior partner, she insisted he sell the station wagon to make room.
He’d wanted the kids to have it. Lisa ignored him and bought them each BMW’s on their 16th birthdays, white for Anna and silver for Peter.
Lisa took everything in the divorce—the house, his dignity, their kids. Peter hadn’t spoken to Philip since he and Lisa told both kids they were splitting up six months ago. At least Anna had come around, after a while.
The station wagon was all he had left, and now he was freezing his ass off in traffic while Lisa sunbathed in Cancun with Steve.
He hated Steve. Steve, the rich fiancé. Steve, with his perfect teeth and pastel golf shirts. Steve, who stole his wife from under his nose while Philip graded terrible research papers from trust-funded teenagers. Steve, who was probably in bed with his wife right now.
“Ex-wife,” he corrected himself as he parked in the employee lot at the high school.
In the teachers’ lounge, three women huddled around Cynthia, the AP English teacher.
“You’ve got to see this new private school transfer. He’s gorgeous,” Cynthia muttered. “I just want a handful of his ass.”
The other teachers giggled like schoolgirls.
Philip rolled his eyes and poured thin coffee into a styrofoam cup.
A slap on the shoulder made him jump. He winced as coffee splashed onto his shirt.
“Phil! Hey, man!”
He turned to see Mark, the U.S. History teacher.
“How’s it going, Phil?” Mark blinked and grinned at Philip.
Philip glanced at the miniature bicycles on Mark’s tie.
“Its Philip,” he said, and brushed past Mark into the hallway.
He flipped on the classroom lights and sat at his desk. He checked the time on his phone. Thirty minutes until first bell. Then another day reciting the laws of physics to disinterested kids who could Google the vocabulary lists faster than he could spell them.
He dialed Peter’s number. “Hey, it’s Pete. Leave me a message.”
“Pete, it’s Dad. Again,” Philip ran his fingers through his thinning hair. “How are you? How’s Kate? I was thinking about you. I just—I wanted to talk.” Laughter interrupted him as students streamed into the classroom. “Just call me back. Today. Please. Bye, Peter.”
He set the phone on his desk, pressed his knuckles against his eyes and watched a universe appear on the backs of his eyelids as conversation buzzed around his ears.
During sixth period, Philip’s erasable marker squeaked across the whiteboard as he wrote out the vocabulary words: “Acceleration—friction—inertia—resistance—”
A giggle from behind halted him.
“Care to share the joke?” He capped the marker and stared at the four senior girls huddled in a back corner of the room. One shoved a phone into a red leather purse.
“No, thanks,” smirked a doe-eyed brunette. Philip twisted the marker in his hand.
“No phones in class,” he said. “I’d hate to have to notify your parents, again.”
“Yes, Mr. Dillon,” the girls intoned through stifled laughs.
After final bell, Philip graded homework in the empty classroom as a floor-buffer whirred down the hallway. The industrial clock over the whiteboard clicked out the seconds. He looked at his phone. Nothing.
He walked through cold rain to his car. Water dripped from his clothes as he waited for the station wagon to warm. Then he remembered the heater and pressed his forehead against the steering wheel with a groan.
Rain drummed against the windshield. He dialed Peter. Straight to voicemail.
Then he saw the text from Lisa: “Phil, back from Mex. Had a great time. Thought you’d like to see.” The picture showed Lisa on the sand in a red bikini, a glittering ocean behind her, Steve’s shiny, bronze arms wrapped around her waist.
He tossed the phone to the floor and closed his eyes.
Philip felt the scream erupt from his lungs before he heard it, felt it before he connected it to his own body— a coarse roar that poured out like molten lead onto the steering wheel.
He drove through the rain for hours. He thought he might call Lisa, tell her to jump off a cliff with Steve. He thought about Peter but called Anna instead.
“Hey, Dad,” her soft voice answered.
“Anna. Do you remember when you and Peter were kids and Mom and I drove you to Chinconteague to see the ponies?”
“Um, yes? I remember. Why?”
“You were so excited. You were obsessed with horses. You’d read that book about Chinconteague…”
“Misty of Chinconteague. It’s by Marguerite Henry. I remember. Is that why you called?”
“It was raining when we got there. Storming. It rained the entire three days and we didn’t see a single pony. You were so upset you hid under the bed when it was time to leave. Mom and I searched for 2 hours before we found you. You were crying so hard your face was red and swollen. I told you we could come back. I promised.”
“I didn’t though.”
“Didn’t what? Dad, what are you—“
“I didn’t take you back. I didn’t keep my promise. I’m sorry, Anna.”
Anna laughed. “Dad, it’s fine. I was ten. I don’t even remember you saying that.”
“But it’s not fine,” Philip said and swallowed the knot in his throat. “It’s not fine. I broke my promise.”
“Dad, can we talk about this in the morning? I’ve got to finish this paper for American Lit.”
“Sure, Anna. Tomorrow.”
Philip pulled into a small dirt parking lot at the bottom of a hill. In daylight hours, the lot was crowded with joggers. Now, near midnight, his was the only car. A sign read “Closed between 10 PM and 6 AM,” but it didn’t matter. This wouldn’t take long.
The rain had stopped but the air was icy. Philip shivered in his damp clothes as he followed the sidewalk up the hill. The bridge was empty and silent, though it was packed with commuters on their way home from the city a few hours before. All Philip heard now was the swollen river raging below.
He gripped the guardrail and peered over. The icy metal stung his bare hands. He could not see the water in the clouded, moonless night, but he could hear it roaring up through the void, violent and alive.
The water would be frigid this time of year. He would go into shock before he drowned. It wouldn’t take long.
He stepped onto the bottom rung of the railing and pressed his hips agains the cold, rigid top bar. He closed his eyes and willed himself to lean forward, to fall into the blackness and let it swallow him whole. He filled his lungs with the sharp night air and opened his eyes.
Something buzzed against his leg. His saw the shape of his phone glowing through his pants. He stepped down to the concrete and pulled the phone from his pocket. “Peter,” he read in a broken whisper.
The phone cast a whitish glow, like moonlight, onto Philip’s face as it vibrated in his hand. Then it stilled and Philip stared at the screen as it pulsed once more for the voicemail alert. He put it to his ear and listened:
“Dad, hey. Um, I know it’s late. You’re probably asleep. I hope I didn’t wake you. I just wanted to tell you I got your message. We’re good. Kate’s good. We’re coming to D.C. next week for Mom’s birthday. I thought we could, um, come down and see you, too. If that’s okay. Call me in the morning, okay? I, uh, I think you’re right, we should talk.”
Philip slipped the phone into his pocket. He looked at his hands, grey and indistinct against the darkness, like shadows in reverse. They trembled as the river thundered below. He saw his wedding ring like a bruise around his finger. He pulled it off and twirled it between his fingers. Then he hurled it into the void and walked down the hill to the waiting station wagon.