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The wrinkled black and white photograph gave off a dull shine in the dim barroom lights. A large, callused hand gripped it tightly, while its partner grabbed a tall, frothy beer from the counter, bringing it to the lips of its master. Jim Fletcher was faithfully following his daily ritual of crying and drinking. He stared into the picture intently, focusing with such concentration that his eyesight became evermore blurred.
“I could’ve been a better dad…” he whispered, his mumblings choked with sobs, “I could’ve gone to that damned recital… I could’ve been there for you!” His voice grew uproariously loud and he began to weep hysterically, occasionally gasping for air as he drowned in an ocean of his own misery. The other attendants of the bar looked on without surprise—only the expressions of unpleasant familiarity dared to cross their drunken faces. Trying his hardest to maintain his balance, Jim lurched off of the filthy barstool and out of the front door, clutching the photograph to his pounding heart.
He fumbled with the car keys at the door of his unstylish minivan.
“God,” he whispered hoarsely, his eyes filling rapidly with water, the dams holding them off about to burst, “God! Jimmy loved this stupid car! This stupid, stupid car! He used to beg me to sit in the front seat, like a… like a…” Go on, a faint voice, calling from a deep crevice in his mind, coaxed, Go on, now, say it, say it!
“…Like a… growed-up…” He pressed his lips tightly together and released a few muffled moans from his throat, rivers streaming down his cheeks. A memory buried deep in his mind was suddenly exhumed and played through his head: the man and the boy standing before the doors of the van.
Daddy? asks the child, Can I sit up front with you like a growed-up? The man smiles at his beautiful son.
It’s grown-up, son, the man says with a light, airy chuckle, Grown-up. He pats the boy’s head. The child giggles and nods his head.
Growen—Growm—Grow… the son attempts to speak the correct words while his father laughs, Gr—Growed-up! The boy proclaims this triumphantly, sending his father into an uproarious fit of laughter. This memory played through Jim’s head, a small taste of the coveted, faraway life behind his eyelids. Wanting to escape the tactful claws of remembrance, Jim forced his eyes open. He whipped his head back and tilted it towards the sky.
“Like a growed-up!” he cried, fighting his tears, “Like a GROWED-UP! You hear that, God? A growed-up! Something my little boy will never become! Why did you take him away from me, you lousy b*****d? WHY?” He fell to his knees, convulsing with sobs, screaming over and over the great question, “Why?”
As if God himself could hear and sympathized with the poor, groveling mortal beneath him, Jim was suddenly filled with an odd sense of calm—enough of a deep tranquility to collect himself and drag his sore body to the van. He inserted his keys, content at hearing the comforting roar of the motor, and was able to drive to his apartment building before depression struck him again at the door.
He stumbled up to his apartment, neglecting the elevator despite the fact that his cramped dwelling was on the seventeenth floor. A fine stream continued to flow down his face, and liberated drops splattered to the floor, wetting the ugly, brown railing of the filthy concrete staircase and contributing to the warping of its nearly ancient wood. After staggering down the hallway, he flung open the door and threw himself inside, landing with a painful thud onto the roach-infested floor. The insects scuttled away from writhing figure, but he hardly cared.
“My son… my SON!” he screamed, tearing at his hair and flailing his feet, “My own CHILD! Why, God, WHY? WHY HIM?” He lifted his arm to his mouth and sank his teeth into his vulnerable flesh.
“This is pain!” he wailed, his tongue invaded by the bitter flavor of his own blood. It tasted like a mouthful of liquid copper.
“This is pain!” he reiterated, “It makes sense! You killed my son! My one, my only SON! AND I’M IN PAIN! THIS DOESN’T MAKE SENSE! HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO ME?” He was screeching at the ceiling now.
“If only I could’ve been better! If only I hadn’t been such a dead-beat… if only Mary hadn’t wanted us to separate… I tried, God, I tried so hard… and then little Jimmy… oh, J****… all he asked me to do was come to his stupid piano recital… but NO! I had to go and get WASTED with my buddies for the billionth time! NO, I told him, NO! What I would give to go back to him! What I would do to hear that sweet, little voice again!” He sank his teeth deeper into his wrist, gnawing at the flesh like a scraggly stray chewing a bone.
“Daddy?” he said suddenly, a certain sweetness ringing clear in his tone, “Daddy? Wanna come see me, Daddy? I know growed-ups are awful busy, but… you just gotta come, Daddy! I’ll be onstage, Daddy! I can’t wait, Daddy! Oh, please come, Daddy! …Daddy!” He kicked his feet even harder, sending his shoes crashing into the walls.
“But Daddy didn’t go! Why didn’t I go? Why couldn’t I leave the bar for one damned night! To see my little boy! To see him for the last time!” He felt for the photograph and snatched it from the floor, pressing his lips against it repeatedly as he wept.
“I loved you, little man…” he whispered, staring at the picture. It was of a happy, little boy, wearing a baseball cap and a large, toothy smile, standing in front of a stadium with his… Daddy.
“I loved you more than anything in the world… and I’d do anything to be with you again… anything…” The flame of inspiration flickered in his eyes and an idea crept into Jim’s mind.
“Of course…” he whispered, slightly startled with what he was considering, “Of course!” He hopped to his feet and ran to the drawer at the side of his bed. He opened it, rifled through it, and found what he was looking for—a Colt 45 Pistol. Grinning like a madman, he brought it up to his head and pressed it against the side of his skull. His finger was tightly locked on the trigger, ready to shoot when signaled to. Jim almost squeezed it… but stopped, lowered the gun to his side and stared blankly at one of the grimy walls of his abode.
“What if…” he started, pausing to consume a large gulp of oxygen. He glanced hastily around the room.
“What if…” he began again, “What if… I’m… supposed to… live. To live for…” he searched for the photograph and retrieved it from the floor. “…him.” Jim felt a wave of serenity wash over him, extinguishing his suicidal cravings. He plopped down onto his bed, unconsciously using the weapon to relieve an itch on his forehead. Gazing fixedly at his wall, occasionally shifting his gaze to the barrel of the pistol, Jim sat, too tired to act yet clear-headed enough to think. Something caught his eye. A red light blinked in his peripheral vision. He had a message. Gun still hanging by his side, he dashed over and pressed the “Play Message” button. The device buzzed for a moment, and then a small, sweet voice floated through the room, like the tiniest, delicate scent of rose wafting in the breeze, from the cheap machine.
“Hi, Daddy!” the voice said, “It’s Jimmy!” Jim grew pale.
“I know you can’t come to my recital, and that’s okay… but, Daddy? I wanted to play you my song! I wrote it myself! It’s about me and you… Ready?” A bouncy, jolly tune erupted from the speakers. Jim raised the gun and gently cradled it in his arms.
The song ended.
“I hope you liked it, Daddy!”
“I loved it, little man,” Jim muttered under his breath. Slowly he lifted the gun and placed the barrel against his cranium.
“Well, I’ll see you this weekend, Daddy,” the voice said. Jim held the gun tightly in his sweaty hand.
“Okay… I love you, Daddy.”
Jim pulled the trigger.