His Town

July 19, 2017
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He doesn’t know what made him want to come back—all he knows is that he did. The exact details are a bit foggy, but at least he remembers the car ride on the way there. Led Zeppelin ringing in his ear, reminiscing over lost Pink Floyd CDs, singing along to Rolling Stones. It was his childhood all over again. He drove 200 miles to an abandoned town. Not any other run-of-the-mill abandoned town, no, his abandoned town. Was it a feeling of remorse? A pang of regret? The street, eerie and silent, and everything has changed.
         He remembers what happened now. The alarm shook him awake, and he saw his wife still in bed, sound asleep. She usually didn’t hear the alarm, but she heard everything else, so he made sure to be extra quiet. He crept into his daughter’s room and watched her sleep for a little while. She looked so peaceful, her arm dangling off the side of the bed. He gently kissed her on the cheek and shut the bedroom door, making his way to the kitchen. Staring out the window, he drank a bottle of beer—or two—and waited for the sun to fully rise. Once it did, he got his keys and left. No good-bye, no farewell. Nothing. He just fished his keys out of his pocket, snuck out through the back door, still in pajamas, and drove away.
Opening the car door, he catches a whiff of the lonely town. Once he’s satisfied, he pulls out his gun from one of the compartments, just in case, and shoves it into his pocket. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees rats climb out of the sewers. As he walks down the littered road, his foot slips into a rut. He curses potholes and turns onto another street.
In front of him is his mom’s old coffee shop. Brushing his fingers against the decaying wood, he remembers when it was full of people. Everybody in town knew about Hannah’s Coffee Shop. He worked there part-time with his mom when he was in high school. She always paid him well too. When his mom died, the shop slowly died too. The last time he’d been in this town was at the funeral. After high school, he packed his things and never looked back.
Even though he’s alone, he’s scared to cry. Crying means tears, and tears mean weakness. He is not weak. He was never weak. Not when his father left, nor when his mother died. Not when he was living off of expired yogurt and bagels and toiled for four years to earn a degree that meant nothing. Not when his girlfriend got pregnant, and he wasn’t prepared but proposed anyways. He doesn’t cry, because one tear will open the gates and release them all.
Walking, walking, walking. The lifeless ice cream store drifts by. Once full of screaming kids and the sun, is now empty, blinds closed. The playground is haunted by the past. The swings sway, pushed by the wind, but everything else withers away.  He remembers sliding down the slides, probably chasing some girl, but now he chases something he can never catch. He reaches for monkey bars that don’t exist.
Suddenly, his phone starts vibrating. It’s his wife. Quickly, he checks his watch and sighs. Four hours have passed since he’s left, but for some reason, it seems as if no time has passed at all.
         “Lunch is ready. When will you be home?”
Home, a word that’s supposed to evoke a sense of comfort within him, means nothing anymore.
         “I’ll be back by dinner.”
         “Dinner? You’re not working today.”
         “Yes, I know.”
         “So, where are you?”
         “At my colleague's house. His father passed.”
         “Is it Tim?”
         “No, he’s new. You don’t know him.”
         “Oh. Well, wish him my condolences.”
         “Will do. Bye.”
         As soon as he hangs up, he exhales a sigh of relief. He passes the bike store, the church, and the park and circles around to the school. The building is as old and terrible as he remembers it. He wants to go inside, but all the doors are locked. For some reason, he feels as if he already knows what’s in there: empty classrooms, dusty floors, the same old musty smell. It’s probably just as it was when he was in high school ten years ago.
The scent of salt immediately crawls up his nose, while the wind combs through his unkempt hair. He follows the aroma all the way to the beach. As the waves crash against the smooth, yellow sand, more memories flood back to him. He remembers tackling his brother by the rocks, building sandcastles, and shell-hunting. His brother once threw his volleyball into the ocean, and he had to swim far out in order to retrieve it. When he came back to the shore, his mom, face-red, glared at him for a minute before proceeding to reprimand him.
“That was not safe, Johnathon! What if you had drifted too far into the sea? Tell me, who would have caught you? No one. Once you’re too far out there, no one will ever be able to see you. There’s no coming back.”
Towering in front of him is the abandoned lighthouse, its beam of light still cascading into the sea. He had his first kiss all the way at the top. She was a year junior to him and just as nervous as he was. He worried that his hands were too sweaty, but then the murmurs of the sea pulled him into a trance. The sunset dripped onto the endless expanse of shimmering blueness, and when he leaned in, everything was perfect.
He walks past the lighthouse and into his old neighborhood. At the end of his street is his house, or whatever is left of it. It looks more like a dilapidated shack than a house. Part of the porch is gone, and the front door has been torn off. Time is a bully in more ways than one. A tear falls down his cheek, so he curses.
He senses the gates opening, an imminent deluge.
Smelling the aroma of his mom’s old garden and hearing his neighbors yelling at him to get off their lawn, he remembers his childhood. He pictures his daughter riding her bike without training wheels for the first time in the driveway and playing hopscotch by the sidewalk.
He hears the gates screeching, prying themselves open.
He will never be able to give her that. Not in the pitiful apartment they live in. Not with his pathetic job. Not with the heaps of bills dispersed throughout various drawers and cabinets.
And the gates open. At first, nothing, but then, everything.
He falls to the ground, his body sprawled across the pavement. He feels like a failure because he is a failure, and there is nothing he can do except cry. Tears seep through his red eyes and stream down his flushed cheeks. Forcing himself up, he frantically looks around and starts running. Where is the escape? He flies by the school, the park, the church, and the bike store. Perhaps he thinks he’s still chasing that girl from the playground…
Then, his phone rings. His wife calls again, her shrill voice jolting him back to reality.
         “Where are you?”
         “Told you, at my pal’s house.”
         “Tim just called for the paperwork. I said you’re at the new guy’s house, but he said there isn’t a new guy.”
         A moment of hesitation.
         “Really? You actually lied.”
         “No. Well, yes, I can explain.”
         “Then where the heck are you, John?  I can’t believe this. You’re with another woman. We have a kid.”
         “I’m not with another woman.”
         “Then, what?”
         A longer moment of hesitation.
         “I’m in my town. The one where I grew up.”
She doesn’t say anything for a couple of seconds, but he can hear her breathing heavily through the phone. His heart is palpitating.
The inevitable question.
“I don’t know.”
“Why didn’t you just tell me the truth?”
“I’m sorry.”
She hangs up the phone. He thinks about calling her back, but it’s too late. She’s just going to ask more questions, and he’s not going to have any answers. Deadlock.
The rumble of thunder startles him, and he pulls out his gun, suddenly wary. Looking down at his reflection in the puddle by his feet, he sees someone he doesn’t recognize—his face puffy and distorted. But beneath that, he sees a monster. He sees someone who has ruined his own life, someone who has no chance, someone who will never be able to escape.
He blinks his eyes and rubs them with his sleeve, anything to make the terrible image go away. When he looks back, he sees his daughter.
“Do it,” she calls to him, “you ruined my life.”
She looks older now, like her mom, her hair blowing in the wind. A cigarette dangles off her lips, and she wears short ripped jeans and a crop-top. A tear slips off the side of his face and lands in the puddle, sending ripples across her skin.
“Daddy, do it.”
He brings the gun up to side of his head and closes his eyes.
“You’re weak.”
His body begins to sweat uncontrollably, and he can’t stop his fingers from trembling.
“I  hate you..”
Stop it, he screams in his mind, but she won’t stop. She will never stop. His heart beats faster and faster. He feels like he can’t breathe.
“It’s your fault.”
And then he presses the trigger, the gunshot echoing into the distance. Blood splatters onto the ground. The gates in the sky begin to open, and drops of rain poke at his dead body, sending blood into the gutters. It’s nature’s turn to cry.

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