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Because of Cathy
It was a clear Friday night, almost exactly eight-thirty, in late May. The sun was just beginning to get darker, even though it still hadn't slipped below the horizon. Orange light lit the bland white walls of the kitchen and made time stand still. It was the perfect time to sit and watch the pinkish-orange sunset disappear into bluish-purple -- or look at my test grades, as my father preferred.
He walked in, carrying two steaming mugs -- his coffee, black as always, no sugar, no milk, and my hot chocolate. He placed the cocoa on my side of the glass table, picked up the paper, and began to read, all without looking. It was routine.
I watched the marshmallows swirl around lazily in the dark brown stew. My glasses fogged. In a feeble attempt at reproducing my Mom’s famous cocoa recipe, he’d half-melted the marshmallows. But I was used to it; I hadn’t had Mom’s in two years.
Clearing his throat -- and because it was already perfectly clear -- Dad started coughing. He wheezed a bit, took a swig of coffee, and his body straightened instantly. Face red, brow furrowed, and eyes bulging slightly, he picked up the test again.
He coughed a lot nowadays, and then as I thought about it, I realized he always coughed more than other people. When I was a little kid I’d once asked him why. He had just smiled and said he was an old man. What then, I thought, is he now?
I studied his face as I took my first sip of hot chocolate. It burned as it shot down my throat, so hot I could even feel it in my stomach.
“Jayden,” he said suddenly.
“When did you take this test?”
He nodded slowly, a judge deciding on my sentence. Turning the page, he saw something he didn’t like. He exhaled sharply.
“How many times have I told you to double-check your answers?” he demanded.
Damn it. He'd noticed.
“How many times?” he shouted louder -- and louder.
“Dad -- ”
Now he was standing and exploding. “You keep on with this, and you just see what happens! I’ve had it with your stupid mistakes! Not just this, everything!”
Screaming. Full out.
“You think you’re helping yourself, saving yourself time? You’re not! It’s stupid! You’re stupid!”
Stopped now, breathing. I could feel the tears coming, dammed only by my own anger. But I still didn’t have the audacity to yell back. I sat there dumbly, forcing myself to look him in the eye.
He quieted down, but the fierceness of his voice was the same. “I’m telling you, you’re so lucky. A house, a school,” yelling again, “a father who tries to help you!”
Help me? I couldn’t hold back now. As my eyes got blurry, I opened my mouth to scream at him, but nothing came out. Instead, my legs moved with a mind of their own, dashing me out of the dining room and up to my room, slamming the door shut and locking it.
I listened at the door a while, and after a few minutes finally heard him go back to his office and turn on his computer. I dropped on my bed, facedown, and screamed into my pillow.
Breathe, just breathe. I looked at my cell phone; it’d fallen on the ground. Thought about calling someone. No. This was my problem, and I’d deal with it myself. I always managed to make it out of Dad’s rampages alive, after all. But this one was different: I’d fought back. And the only time that that had happened and I’d survived was with Mom on my side. She'd never be on my side again. With that thought, I suddenly felt cold. I pulled the covers over me and closed my eyes for just a second.
Then I was crying -- I didn’t know why. I heard sirens and… school bus radios? No, I recognized the man talking into the radio, he wasn’t a bus driver… Ah, it was Officer Grant -- the policeman who’d given me a piece of gum so minty I had to spit it out. I heard Dad saying, “No, no, no,” dropping to his knees and wailing, then he was yelling at me, “I’ve had it with your stupid mistakes!” Mom was pouring hot chocolate with marshmallows and whipped cream, but it blew up, burned away and there was the car, engulfed in flames, and the sirens and the body being carried away, away into the ambulance and then driving into the darkness, I was running away but I couldn’t move…
The sound of the snorting garbage truck startled me, and I opened my eyes. The inside of my mouth felt dry against my tongue and had a funny taste. I hadn’t brushed my teeth, I thought matter-of-factly.
I went through my morning routine flawlessly until my phone rang. I saw it still laying on the ground.
There was silence on the other side and I was just about to curse loudly at the caller when he spoke.
“Jayden,” he said weakly.
“Hello, who is this?” I asked sleepily.
That’s when everything came back faster than light and sound working together, and words collided in my mind, fighting to all get through the doorway at once.
“Look,” he said, trying to think of something more original. His voice cracked as he gave up and said, “I’m sorry.”
I didn’t reply, and for a second all I could hear was the sound of machines whirring on Dad’s side.
“I shouldn’t have yelled at you,” he began. “I was just mad because -- ” he paused, listening for me. “Jayden?”
He dry-coughed, which turned into a fit of coughing and wheezing.
“Are you okay?”
He stopped coughing, and I heard sniffling.
“Do you know what yesterday was?” he asked quietly.
“Uh...” I had no clue. “Was it -- ”
“Yesterday was Friday,” he paused, I heard scraping sounds, “May 23.”
Then I understood. How could I have forgotten? Time of death: Wednesday, May 23, approximately 11:23 P.M. The day my life was punched in the stomach. But even more so, the day Michael Hart’s life was smashed into a million pieces.
“Catherine,” now he was using her name, “said that everyone had their own talents. But she was always -- so smart.”
“Dad, I -- ”
Not knowing what to say, I waited for him to continue, but he was done. I pressed the off button to end the call. There was no more to say now -- only to do. I got up, strode purposefully to the closet where we kept all the old photographs, the kind that you actually had to send to the store to get printed. I ripped open the first cardboard box and there was Mom, gazing back at me from when she must have been about my age.
I stared at it a while. She was beautiful even in sepia, with a smile that warmed the room. I felt wetness and wiped my eye. Then I took one of the empty photograph albums and wrote in black sharpie, “Cathy”. It was because of her that I finally understood my father.