The first time they fought over the child, the man was eating cobbler. She’d baked it that day with fresh cherries from the market. He thought he’d never tasted anything so sweet until she informed him that she was four months pregnant. He couldn’t finish his slice. It was like the cherries rotted in his mouth.
It was all-out war for hours. The man didn’t want any children. He thought he’d made that clear.
They had the baby because there was no other option. They named him Philip after her grandfather but he couldn’t care less what they named him. He was busy plotting his path to glory. Once he got there, he’d be happy to share his success with the family, but for now he needed time to himself. He built an office in the garage. It consisted of a small fold-out table, a metal chair and a lamp with a broken green shade. After the work day, he’d come home and sit in his office staring at a piece of paper, waiting for inspiration. He thought he’d revolutionize the business world or design a product that changed the way they lived. Maybe he’d write the Great American Novel. Months later the paper was blank except for a doodle that looked like a tornado with arms and hands in the bottom right-hand corner.
He got bored in his office. One night he opened the garage door and stepped outside. He gazed at the sky looking for the constellations he’d learned as a boy. Thick clouds kept him from seeing anything. He closed the garage door and started walking down the street. At some point he started running. He ended up at a tavern a couple miles away, drenched with sweat. His blue jeans stuck to him like a second skin. He ordered whiskey after whiskey and stared at a napkin hoping that something would come. That he’d have a eureka moment.
He went home the way he’d come. He ran, which he thought would clear his head, but it only alerted a couple of policemen passing by. First he protested the very idea of stopping a citizen who was merely out on a late-night run. Once in the back of the squad car, he objected on the grounds that he was a very important person. Well, he would be in time.
Meanwhile, Philip was growing up and growing strange. As soon as he could walk, the boy started crashing into walls like a kamikaze pilot. His forehead was always bruised, which kept them from taking him outdoors. They didn’t want anyone thinking they were abusive parents.
When the boy was five he started terrorizing the pets. He chased the dog through the house and around the backyard, grabbing fistfuls of tail and ear. They owned a gray and yellow cockatiel that liked to sing until Philip started rattling its cage. The bird shrieked every time the boy walked by.
Discipline didn’t work with the boy. It didn’t matter if they spanked him or sent him to his room. He did what he liked. He took the physical pain. He took their disapproval.
Philip hated school. His grades were poor and he constantly feigned illness. The boy’s mother played the role of enabler. Since the man left early for work, he wasn’t around to call the boy’s bluff.
One day the man came home for lunch. His wife had left Philip in bed while she went on an errand. In his car, the man turned the corner and an inferno landed on his eyes. Their house was engulfed in flames. His ten-year old son stood in the driveway in his pajamas, his face inscrutable, in the background a wall of fire. If he’d harbored any doubt that the boy was the devil’s spawn, it was erased in that moment.
The man fought incessantly with his wife who protected Philip throughout his teenage years. The boy bounced from one calamity to the next. It was no surprise when Philip took up drugs and alcohol. It was expected when he got arrested for DUI. Expulsion from school fit within the natural order of things.
Something broke inside him. For years the man had felt like that mythic character who rolls a stone up a hill only to watch it roll down again. One day he stood at the bottom of the hill, looked at the stone and walked away.
In a different state, he made a new life for himself. He even found someone who cared about him in spite of his reticence. Years passed in the tranquil fashion he’d often dreamed about when he was busy putting out fires, so to speak.
With the TV on one night, he heard the name of the city where he used to live. It was a city that no one gave a damn about, he’d often thought, tucked away in a marginal state. But here it was on the national stage because of a string of murders that the police thought were related. It was believed that the city might have its very own serial killer.
Right away he thought of his son. In his mind’s eye, Philip wore a butcher’s apron streaked with red. All grown up now, he carried a cleaver in one hand, a knife in the other.
The man pictured himself on camera answering questions about the boy he’d fathered. He remembered that night long ago when he’d told the police that he was soon to be a very important person. This was an opportunity, was it not? He’d always wanted a platform. He’d always thought he was worth listening to.
But then he thought of the questions that might come up. They were good at digging up the past, weren’t they? It was their job.
The man switched off the TV and thought that in this world it was a shame that people had to die.
Motivation: I was taking a flash fiction course. I'd never written flash before. I was thinking about a man of mediocre talents who nonetheless yearned for a kind of celebrity and importance. That was the genesis of the story.
Bio:I am a recent graduate of the creative writing Master's program at Loyola Marymount University.
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