By Russell Southard
The sun was starting to go down. It was a summer night in Queens, New York. The days were longer, so the sun going down generally meant it was around 8:30 at night. May - the woman, not the month - was sitting on the couch catching up on shows on her DVR. She was so happy to have this magical box at her disposal. She was no longer a slave to the whims of the channels or whatever was being broadcast that night. Peter said she would like it, and he was right.
He was usually right. Not always right, by any means. He did things that she didn’t approve of in his life. He was always working late, studying too hard, worrying too much about her, and, worst of all, risking his life trying to take pictures of that... Thing.
Still, the DVR was great. The world was such a horrible place and there were reminders of the precarious balance that the world was currently in everywhere she seemed to look. Before the DVR, things would happen and she just wouldn’t be able to escape them. She was confronted by them everywhere she turned and it was scary. The fragility of humanity wasn’t lost on her – she didn’t need outside reminders of that. It had been years since Ben had died tragically and every day she felt a little better - thought about him a little less - but she hated herself for that. She almost felt like she was betraying him by forgetting more and more about him.
She couldn’t forget him entirely, though. There were pictures on all the walls and sometimes they were the things that meant the most to her. In her heart, in a place deep in her heart where all confessions would go unspoken or denied if they surfaced, she had a feeling that without those pictures, small things would have disappeared - the jut of his jaw, the curve of his nose, the exact shade of blue in his eyes. They would go away one by one until Ben was nothing more than an idea of a memory. Not a real person, not flesh and blood that was always there to comfort her, or make her squeal in the night, to be her partner in crime and just her best friend, but merely an idea that maybe, at one time, there was somebody like that. Somebody she can’t quite remember the details about, but somebody that just had to be real for all the stories about him that she still remembers.
He was gunned down.
In the streets.
Like a dog.
She couldn’t stop thinking about it when it first happened. She would sink her fingernails into her pillows and bury her face in the downy contents and let loose howls of misery, anger, and frustration. He said he would always be there for her, well what about then - when her tears would have wreaked havoc on her makeup if she could even pull herself out of bed long enough to put some on? He wasn’t there. She was so infuriated at his broken promise and at him in general.
This family is a stubborn bunch, and Ben was no exception. Stubbornness may very well be the thing that the Parker family will be remembered for forever. They all seemed hellbent on their own ideas about how they were going to live their life, every one of them never shaking from their idea of their own codes of their life’s conduct. It was the stubbornness that pulled her out of the bed eventually. Stubbornness that made her face every day and choke down all that anguish until she safe in her own room where she could once again grab his pillow and scream until it hurt. Scream at him, scream at his killer, scream at everyone and no one. It was stubbornness that made her put on a happy, understanding face for Peter until the darkness surrounded her and she was alone again.
She seemed destined be alone. Peter still lived with her, but he would eventually wise up to that neighbor girl and ask her out and then how long it would it be before they were planning on getting a small place to test the waters of their relationship? How long before they were married, with kids on the way, and full-time jobs tying them down and securing them to their own busy world where May didn’t play a huge part?
She knew it was coming. She loved Peter, loved him like he was the last person she could love because honestly, he was.
That’s why it was so damn frustrating when he wasn’t home when he said he would be. She stopped leaving out plates of food, gone cold and untouched, in his spot at the table - a passive-aggressive reminder of promises broken (again) - but just because he didn’t see them whenever he got home, that didn’t mean that she didn’t set them out when they were hot. It didn’t mean that she wouldn’t sit down across from an empty chair and slowly work through her own plate.
Before the DVR, she would have probably had the TV playing in the living room, always keeping an ear out for some reporter with a ridiculous name that was undoubtedly blown-out by the white in the powerful lights reporting live from the scene of whatever earth-threatening tragedy was going on at that moment. She would think that Peter was there because he usually was. He was usually there with his camera, trying to get pictures of the event so that he could sell them for chump change to that asshole of a boss of his, Jameson.
It seemed like almost every night she would watch, sitting on the edge of her seat, one hand grasping the locket that Ben had given her that was empty on the inside - another promise broken - knowing that she should really close her eyes if she was going to pray for her nephew’s life but physically unable to tear her eyes away from the television.
Now she could watch all the TV she wants that was recorded the day before, so there were no breaking stories to remind her of her perilous position where she could very well lose the only person on this plane that she loved. If the world ended when it was being threatened, then she would be taken along with it and would do so oblivious. One minute she would be watching the Wheel, the next, she would be in Heaven. Or nowhere. Who knew, really?
She didn’t like watching soap operas. They stung too much with all the characters drifting in and out of love with each other. She didn’t like to watch the new dramas because they all seemed to be taking a ridiculous supernatural spin to them and, frankly, she had had enough of that in her life so far.
No, May liked reality shows. The reality shows that penetrated people’s lives and made normal people out to be villains or heroes, even though the determining factor of what one person was would be left up the guy in the editing booth. She loved the ridiculousness of it. There were people who cooked were obsessed with cooking to a degree that was staggering, engineers that wanted to be the next Steve Jobs (whoever that was), and there was even a reality show about making reality shows where only one person wasn’t an actor. That one had really made May laugh, even if it was incredibly dirty at times.
Yes, sir, the DVR was a good purchase. No more news, no more terror, no more threats, no more “live.” Even commercials had been taken care of with the fast forward button.
Of course, some things still couldn’t be escaped. There was always talk on the radio during drives - debates about freaks, or megalomaniacs that were trying to take over the world, or the masked vigilantes who seemed to populate the metropolitan New York area like it’s the only place in the world where they could live. She couldn’t ignore that there were people in this world that were... gifted in ways that she couldn’t understand, but she just pretended that she was listening to an odd radio show like she had been raised on as a child.
She looked at the TV. The end of show notice was on the screen, an hour passed in her life and she hadn’t paid attention to the show at all. She was too preoccupied, she guessed. It happened some nights.
Oh well! That was another beauty of the DVR. She clicked “save,” knowing that now she had something to watch tomorrow morning, and she turned off the TV. Suburban darkness filled the room - not really dark because of the street lights and neighbors’ motion detectors, but certainly darker than the room had been with the TV on. She had lived in this house for almost forty years now though, so nothing scared her in it.
She climbed the steps of the two-story house and was halfway up when she heard a creak that wasn’t natural. It seemed deliberately quiet - like you would expect a sound made by a thief to be. She moved the edge of the staircase closest to the wall so the wood under her feet would creak less.
The upstairs was darker than the downstairs on account of two-thirds of the doors being closed - Peter’s and the office that Ben used to sit in and listen to music. He didn’t do it all the time, but when things got tough for the two of them, he would retreat in there and put on his headphones and put a 45 on the turntable and sit in a chair, head back with his eyes closed, and just listen to his music. She hadn’t opened the door since she found out about his death gunned down like you hear drug dealers are over turf wars. Gunned down like he was no better than them.
He was though. He was so much better.
Tears came to her eyes unexpectedly. Sometimes that happened. She was nervous, her body tense, but seeing the closed door brought it all back. Her Ben.
Gathering her senses, she listened to the night around her.
She breathed a sigh. She was probably just overreacting. Maybe something subliminal was in the TV show that was on while she was thinking.
She went to her room and sat on the edge of the bed. She would normally be changing into her pajamas, but she just didn’t feel like it. Stubborn as she was, she needed a hug. A hug not in the cards what with Peter out and about, she decided she would go into his room and just sit in there for a little bit. She didn’t do it often - she prided herself on giving her nephew privacy - but sometimes she wanted to be taken out of her world and put somewhere else and his room was always filled with the most interesting things. Posters she would have never picked, a mess she would have never made (well, maybe as a young adult like Peter), his smell lingering in the room. When you couldn’t get a hug, it was the next best thing.
She opened the door and jumped, shocked. Peter was in his bed and she scolded herself for not hearing him come in. Had she been so involved with herself? The streetlight flooded the room making everything just a little too bright and it took her eyes some time to adjust, but she waited for it to occur so she could look at him. Her Peter. The only man she’ll ever love again.
When her eyes did adjust though, she was horrified. Peter had bandages wrapped around parts of his body - some with blood saturating the cloths - and bruises riddled his body. His eye was black, the side of his face swollen, and his lip busted and fat. Her breath caught. More tears welled up. She took a quick step forward to his bed to wake him up - to ask him what the hell happened tonight - when her foot caught on a shirt on his floor. Kids and their messes. She kicked her foot to make the shirt move and it was heavier than she expected. It was that shocking resistance that made her look at it. It felt like she had kicked something the weight of an outfit, not one part or another, but the whole thing. She couldn’t see it because of the brightness of the street light, so she pulled it up to her.
Torn and frayed, with holes here, and cuts there, the fabric was stretchy in her grasp. It didn’t feel like cotton to her. She pulled it up to the light and saw red and black. No. Blue. Red and blue. With a black design going throughout it.
When it dawned on her, she didn’t believe it. Surely there was an explanation out there that could sum all of this up. Maybe Peter was mugged by... Him and he...
She was drawing a blank. She couldn’t think of one situation where this outfit in this room, with this battered boy would make sense. Even what most people would consider to be obvious didn’t make sense to her. Her Peter. The boy who loved science, and wanted to take pictures of other people doing things, always content to be on the sidelines. The boy who had a crush on a girl who obviously had a crush on him but who lacked the confidence to see the truth enough to ask her out. The boy who swore he would always be there for her just as Ben had sworn.