“I just, I just don’t see why you gotta be like that, is all.”
Janice twitched constantly and sniffed, as if getting over a cold. She frowned over at the mirror behind Ben’s back. Ben thought it a cruel touch, it just served to remind families of what they’d lost.
Janice had lost color, her red hair dulling into a shade of liver, her skin turning parchment beige. You could see her teeth when she talked. The gums had retreated, giving the optical illusion that the canines had lengthened.
“I want my babies,” Janice said.
Ben sighed. “I know. I know you do.”
“Not like that.”
“Of course,” Ben said.
“Don’t you ‘of course‘ me, gettin’ all high and mighty,” Janice sneered.
Dandridge, the lawyer, roosted in the corner, pretending to be engaged on the phone. Ben knew better. Burke&Slaw had made their name through cases like Janice, they called it charity work.
Ben wished they would go back to getting domestic abusers off on technicality.
Janice flicked her hair aside and glanced at the mirror again. Her gaze never stopped moving, she herself was always twitching in some remote corner of her body.
“I’m the one who pushed them out,” Janice prodded.
No, you’re not, Ben had to bite his tongue to keep from saying. Because she hadn’t. This wasn’t the same woman who had cried and sweated through hours of labor, it wasn’t the mother who taught Brittany the chicken dance or even the lover who had taught him to flip eggs.
Ben patiently laid out the various bylaws that had been put in place specifically to prevent her seeing her children. Rote repetition had been a good fallback defense, he found. Dandridge was good at arguing around convictions, rationalizing feelings into mist. But he could not step around the law without risking his position.
Janice clamped her teeth, working her jaw like a junkie. Dandridge dismissed the phantom client and oozed his way over.
“It’s like this,” he said warmly to Ben, “either you give us partial custody now, or we take full custody later.”
Ben said, “no jury in the world is going to agree to that.”
Dandridge tilted his head and smiled. Every face he made was like a toothpaste commercial.
“The US is making great strides in post-mortem rights,” he said.
“You’re right,” Ben said, “it is. They’re not all put to the torch the moment they pop out of the ground now.”
It was an awful thing and he regretted saying it. But he always had to say some variation of it, just to see the reaction.
Janice hunched her shoulders. Her face showed feral irritation, rage, and guilt. They had been thinking the same thing, he knew.
Ben left his seat. Behind him, the mirror showed Ben, prematurely graying and tired, and the lawyer. Nothing more.
“You can put it off all you want Mr. Brock,” the lawyer called after him, “we will get it.”
Brittany was balancing along the divider in the waiting room, arms airplaning out for balance. Pascal broke into a big grin when he saw Ben.
“Dahee!” he called. “pay fo’ guy! Pay fo’ guy!”
Ben picked him up, puzzledly kissing his brow. Brittany, having reached the limit of the retaining wall, did a supermodel turn and came back toward her father. Her little cowgirl boots made hollow clicking noises.
“Get down,” Ben said by way of greeting. “what’s he saying?”
Brittany rolled her eyes as if it should be obvious. “Penny for the guy, daddy.” She did a neat little pirouette when she jumped off, just to show him that she didn’t need to listen completely. The feeling of relief that had been flooding back at the sight of the kids ebbed a bit. He frowned.
“Mrs. Abaroa was teaching it to him with the other kids. She thinks it’s fun.”
Though it was clear by her tone how noncommittal she felt, Brittany could not stop her forehead from quirking a bit. Ben caught it. He kissed away the wrinkle.
He fanned her hair. “Get your bear, we’re going.”
“Ah, Mr. Brock?” Dandridge was jogging to catch up with them, one finger out. Ben tried to repress the rise in his hackles.
“What is it?” he said without breaking his stride.
“I wanted to discuss with you some conditions,” Dandridge said with an air of confidentiality.
Ben spoke while keeping his back to the lawyer. “There’s no conditions because there are no visits.” He buckled Brittany into her booster seat and handed her his phone.
“Ah, of course, but…” the lawyer let the sentence dangle, juicy and obvious bait.
Pascal poured lumpily into his seat. Trying to fit his arms into the straps was like juggling gelatin.
“There’s something I didn’t want to discuss in front of the…” Dandridge mouthed the word ‘children‘ as if just saying it would ignite their presence. Ben gave up on Pascal’s left arm and turned around, briskly confronting the other man.
“Look,” he said, “better lawyers than you have tread these waters before. You know, the last guy wouldn’t have even thought to make me bring the kids. He knew how to pick his battles.”
The lawyer seemed unflapped by this. “Please, Mr. Brock. It will only be a moment.”
Ben looked back at the car. Pascal sprawled like a lump in his seat. Brittany was busy in whatever brightly-colored candy land she had summoned up.
“Thirty seconds,” he said, auto-locking the doors, “no more.”
They walked to the lee of the building. Dandridge’s boyish combover was flapping in the breeze. Ben wished he smoked, if only for the excuse to blow something foul in the man’s face.
“Alright,” he said, “what else you got?”
“As you know, ah, Mrs. Brock–”
“Janice,” Ben said tonelessly, closing his eyes. “If you must call her something, call her that.”
“Of course,” Dandridge smiled without apologizing. “Janice is wondering after the state of her children’s schooling–”
“No she isn’t,” Ben interrupted, “you and I both know that.”
“Whether you were still planning to take the catholic route—”
“She was episcopalian, jackass.” Ben could no longer help himself. “and her thought on the schools was, and I quote, ‘the only thing those places are good for is churning out politicians with a wide piss stance.’ At least do some goddamn research before you put words in her mouth.”
Ben’s outburst hadn’t even dinged Dandridge’s confidence. Ben had to wonder about the man.
“Janice would also like to know if you are respecting her gluten-free dietary regimen. She would like to set up meetings wherein she can determine their health and safety.” Dandridge finished, smug.
Ben got close, got in his face.
“We both know that will never happen,” he said, “because she will never be alone with those kids. Not ever. I’m glad she didn’t get torched when she came back, I am. But it’s not Janice. It’s not. It’s just–it’s empty and hunger and anger, can you fucking see that? Can you—”
Dandridge’s gaze darted, just once, behind Ben. Ben turned and saw the back passenger door of the car hanging open. He bellowed and took off, leaving the lawyer to stumble along in his slipstream.
He didn’t slow down in time and hipchecked the side of the car. It stung.
Brittany sat small in the passenger seat, phone forgotten by her feet. She wasn’t crying, but her bottom lip stuck out and her eyes were big. The car seat was empty, straps hanging limp. Ben gasped. He hadn’t even been running long and already felt like he couldn’t breathe enough. He slammed the door shut again.
“I’ll be back,” he promised.
Ben scanned the area. The center was in a small dip between hills. There was the road out, with nothing but scrub all around. Too low for cover. That had been intentional.
The center backed up against the car in one direction, in the other was—
“A stream!” he gasped. He knuckle-punched the door and ran towards it.
He couldn’t hear anything as he came closer to the gurgling brook. Just the thrash of weeds dying beneath his boots and the delicate susurrus of fall insects. He forced himself to slow, to be methodical, to take breaths.
The bank was too spotty, disappearing completely at some points, to follow consistently. Ben tried the higher ground, away from the center, praying that it was the right direction.
There, on a knoll, was a glimpse of red hair and blue overcoat. Ben took a few breaths before approaching, praying.
“Janice,” he said like a plea.
Pascal cried out. Janice leapt to her feet, too late to disguise her actions
Janice had a nail dragging open her breast, letting out the blood that lay black and ichorous in branches beneath the surface to ooze velvety red from the wound. Her face showed shock, anger, and thwarted lust. No regret. None at all.
“Janice,” Ben whispered, reaching into his right pocket, “oh Janice…”
Janice hissed before he’d even taken the crucifix from his pocket, looping the chain around his hand. She dropped Pascal to the ground, holding barbed hands before her face.
With his free hand, Ben scooped up Pascal, who was now bawling his eyes out. Once the boy was in his grasp, Ben made the hand with the crucifix go limp, letting it slide back into his pocket. He turned away from his wife.
Janice hurled herself at his shoulder, swearing. She had wild-animal strength now. She tore at the back of his clothes and trumpeted out horrible pig noises that made Pascal force his head deeper and deeper into Ben’s sweater. Dandridge caught up with them, looking affronted and just a little bit scared.
“I must protest—” he began, and Ben closed his mouth with a right hook. The lawyer’s head snapped back and he wound up on his back in the dirt. Ben hoped he was already formulating a wrongful assault charge. He’d jumped the gun, been too eager. His betters at the law offices would make an example out of him.
Janice had fled, probably for the woods. It didn’t matter. She couldn’t cross the stream. They would get her within hours.
Brittany looked at him with too-grown eyes when he opened the car door and eased a terrified Pascal into his seat.
“Hot chocolate?” he asked.
Back home, Ben made a quick phone call and got the kids situated, heating up milk in a saucepan.
Pascal giggled and gurgled in front of the TV, his terror forgotten. Brittany appeared suddenly at Ben’s elbow, silent and serious. She held a piece of paper out for him to inspect.
It was an art assignment. With peach and pink crayons, she had drawn her family. Balloon-headed stick figures were christened ‘daddy’ ‘little brother’ and ‘me’. On the far side of the page, almost an afterthought, was a flat gray rectangle with a curved top and a little black cross on its surface, labeled ‘mom’.
Ben lowered the picture and petted her hair. “It’s great, sport.”
That evening he heated up a can of soup and made grilled cheese. The kids absolutely refused anything extra in their sandwiches, so he loaded his up with mortadella and tomatoes and mushrooms until it was more pie than sandwich. It made the kids laugh to see him eat it with a knife and fork, and it did him good to hear them laugh.
After dinner he turned on the TV to an old black-and-white movie, because they always made Pascal drop off. He was finally starting to forget the day with the sleepy bulk of his son tucked in one arm when Brittany called from the window.
Without getting up, Ben called. “it’s just a bonfire sweetie. Come back here.”
Without moving Brittany asked, “daddy, what’s a guy?”
Ben swallowed down a lump with more chocolate. “Well, sweetie, it comes from England. They had a holiday they’d celebrate with bonfires and they’d dress up these old dummies in rags and ask for money with them.”
“Then they’d drop the dummies on the fire and let them all burn up.”
Brittany remained at the window, hands cupped around her face. Ben rested back, listening.
Then Brittany called out again: “look, blue!”
“So blue! Why would anyone put something so pretty on an old dummy?”
Ben swallowed dryly. Pascal was a dead wight on his left side.
“That’s enough sweetie,” he said, “come watch Sesame Street.”
Brittany finally turned from the window. “Eff that, I wanna watch Monkeypie.”
“Language, young lady,” Ben said, gathering her to him. He sat up long after they had gone to sleep. Not until the orange glow faded from the window did he dare get up.