John sighed as he eased up on the gas pedal, his foot hovering over the brakes as the black Mustang aggressively merged in front of him. The bass in his music helped calm him after his frustrating day at work. The average twelve-hour shift felt three times longer due to lack of work. He was still considered an “essential employee” despite having nothing to do, so the day had amounted to idly twiddling thumbs while impatiently awaiting the sweet release of freedom that came at six.
This also came with the hour-long drive and the crazy people trying to get an extra foot ahead of the next guy in the several miles of congested traffic, but that was ordinary. All he could do was sit there and relax to the near eardrum shattering music without really caring about how long the drive took.
Working sixty hours a week left little time to make plans with Elaine or Lily.
He took out his phone and looked through the calendar and calculated how much PTO he’d accrued while not moving a single foot in the traffic. “I’ve been killing myself with work. I need to make plans.”
Time passed as he started scheduling time off with work, booking plane tickets, and making lists of things they would need to pack for their trip to Canada. He heard that it was nice this time of year.
By seven, he pulled into his driveway and looked at his two-story home. They had bought it shortly after being married nearly twelve years ago. The brick was beginning to fade, but their lovely garden made up for it. One of Lily’s favorite hobbies was to pick weeds and maintain the plants, always coming home with various fauna that she “just couldn’t resist”.
John had a green thumb as well, though he’d never admit it to Lily. It was a game they played.
A couple steps later, he pushed open the front door and took in the comforting baby blue walls, the marble countertops, and the beautiful redwood dining table with the maroon placemats. He smiled as a small body came flying into his arms. “Daddy! How was work? Did miss Sharell like my card?”
John’s pride and joy, Elaine, hugs him tightly and began rapid firing questions without giving him a chance to respond. He waited for her to finish and just pat her head, sitting her down at the table for dinner. He kissed her forehead, fixed her hair, and then turned to face his lovely wife who stood by the stove mixing a pot of something heavenly, the scent permeating the air in the kitchen.
He could tell she was focusing and turned back to Elaine. “Baby girl, she absolutely loved it. She wanted me to tell you that she appreciated it and that she can’t wait for the next ‘Bring Your Child To Work’ day. She says she’ll have chocolate cookies for you if you come.” He poked her nose and walked back to the office by the front door. “Bless All Those Who Enter” was painted quite beautifully on the hall towards the front door.
The office was large. It contained several bookshelves overflowing with all kinds of books and various texts, a desk with several filing cabinets with several organized manilla folders, a treadmill, and random things that Lily would throw in the room. The room ranged from organized chaos to a natural disaster. He flicked off the light and shut the door, walking up behind Lily to give her a big hug. He kissed her neck softly and rested his chin in the crook of her shoulder and neck.
“I love you. Also, dinner smells nice.” She wore a fuzzy jalapeno onesie and leaned her head on him
“I love you, too. Did anything interesting happen at work today?” she asked as she started ladeling servings of spicy gumbo onto two large plates and one smaller plate. John kissed her neck once more before taking the plates over to the table and setting them down on the table mats. She brought over the silverware and sat across from him. There were flowers in the center of the table from the garden as well as several floral paintings strewn about. Lily hung them up willy nilly, not caring too much about how well they matched or if they were in a good spot.
“I wish. It reminded me of when I was younger. ‘Hurry up and wait’. They want me there, overpaying me all the while, just in case something happens, but it’s not likely to happen. All those machines have been tested more than a hundred times in the last month, down to the absolute minutia, but you know how upper management is.”
He took a bite of the gumbo and the flavor exploded in his mouth. It was spicy with a hint of sweet lemon.
“Enough about work. I’ve missed my two favorite girls in the whole, wide world,” he said as he pinched Elaine’s cheeks playfully with a smile. “How’d things go with the Newbauers?”
She paused and thought for a moment. “They settled at a quarter for the house down on Mulberry. I’d say I’m envious of them, but that’s just too much space. It wouldn’t make much sense for us, but their family is growing relentlessly. Did you know that Mrs. Newbauer is pregnant again? I figured four kids by the time you’re thirty would be enough, but they wanted a fifth. Lord have mercy on them.”
He nearly choked on the mouthful of gumbo. “A quarter of a million? Isn’t that property worth double that? And a fifth kid?”
“Yeah, not sure how they managed that.” Lily looked over at Elaine who quietly played with her food, eating a couple bird-sized bites here and there. “Five kids… Is that so bad for them? They have the space, and they definitely have the money to provide for a family that big. Do you ever wish…?”
“I’m happy with what we have, love. I’m happy with our family as we are. You can’t help what happened, so put the thought out of your head. Okay?” John reached over and placed his hand against Lily’s, watching as the moment of sadness faded.
“John, I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
“I’m not going anywhere, love.” He looked over at Elaine. “If you make a happy plate, you can have a little bit of ice cream after dinner.”
Elaine squealed in delight and started scarfing down her food in eight-year-old sized bites. She made funny faces all the while, but eventually finished it and showed John her squeaky clean plate.
“I did it Daddy! Can we have ice cream now?” she asked excitedly while bouncing in her chair.
“Absolutely, honey.” He stood up and went over to the fridge, “Lily?”
He took out two tubs of ice cream and grabbed bowls from the cabinet. He wet the ice cream scoop and quickly filled all three bowls. He set them down on the mats and took a bite, remembering that Elaine had gymnastics today.
“How was gymnastics? I’ve heard a lot from Mr. Johnson. He says you’re one of the best students he’s had in a few years.” He turned to watch Elaine. She squirmed in her seat and blushed at the praise.
“It was really fun, Daddy. I hope you can come some time.” She jumped down from her chair to do a little cartwheel in the empty space in the kitchen. “Mr. Johnson is really nice, but I just have fun when I go.”
She climbed back into her chair and scarfed down her ice cream like her life depended on it. It didn’t take long for her to finish. She set her bowel on the counter instead of throwing it into the sink and ran to the backdoor to let in our other child, Dexter.
Dexter was an Argentenian Mastiff. John always found it funny when he took Dexter for walks. People would be terrified of how big he was, but he was the most kind animal John had ever seen.
John got walked into the living room as Dexter came rushing toward him, tongue flopping from side to side, and nearly ran John over. Dexter easily weighed over a hundred and sixty pounds. He stood on his two rear legs and propped his front legs on John’s chest, standing as tall as John. Without a trace of elegance, Dexter licked anything he could get his slobbery tongue on.
Needless to say, John needed to change by the time he finally calmed Dexter down and got the dog off him. John pet Dexter’s back until Dexter rolled over to show off his belly, begging for tummy scratches. John looked over at Lily who still sat at the table giggling at John.
“I missed you too, Dexter. How could I forget my baby boy,” John crooned to him like he talked to a baby. John played with Dexter for a few more minutes before collecting both his and Lily’s bowels and rinsing them out, making sure to place them in the dishwasher before settling down to read the mail.
Most of them were letters from different insurance agencies, phone companies, and other such things, but one of them gave John a bad feeling. A feeling that made him feel sick to his stomach. A feeling that made him feel absolute dread.
It was simply a blank envelope.
“Love, have you seen this?” he asked as he gestured Lily over. “It’s completely blank and isn’t addressed to anybody.”
“I saw it, but I’m not sure what it is. I left it for you,” she says with a smile.
He looked at her and then back at the envelope. She seemed fine with it, but when he looked at it, he got tunnel vision and felt incredibly lightheaded.
He felt on edge as he looked at the letter. When he looked at Lily again, it felt as though an enormous pressure was taken off of his shoulders.
“What the…?” he muttered to himself as he felt the pressure return when he looked at the envelope again.
“Is everything okay?” Lily asked with a hint of concern in her voice, her brows furrowing as John started to sweat.
“Y-yeah. It’s nothing. I guess I’m just more tired than I thought,” he lied. He didn’t know how else to explain the feeling. It sounded crazy in his head, so he could only imagine how crazy it sounded to someone else.
This truly freaked him out. He tossed it in a drawer and left it as a concern for later, collecting the spam mail and dropping it into the recycling bin. The bin had “Go Green, Save Our Planet” in a large white font on the side next to a picture of an animated sun that smiled up at John.
He looked around their house and felt complete bliss. His home was his safe haven. The only place he didn’t have to wear a metaphorical mask and pretend to care about the people outside.
The letter felt invasive. Unnerving even. This was his safe space and the way it made him feel uncomfortable felt like an intrusion into his safe space.
He glanced at the drawer with the letter and felt a sense of dread. He always trusted his gut and it screamed danger.
“I’m getting rid of it tonight. To the trash with all that extra stress,” he muttered to himself.
They spent some family time where he nearly dozed off watching shows on Kid’s Network. Before long, it was nine and he was putting Elaine to bed. He sat on the ground next to her bed and read her several books. “Green Eggs and Ham” was still one of her favorites, even though he’d read it to her nearly a million times.
Once he finished a third book, he tucked her in and gave her a kiss on the forehead. “I love you, honey.”
“I love you too, Daddy!” she responded happily. “Can you leave the night-night light on? I’ve been having bad dreams.”
He flicked the switch on the night light and pulled the cord to kill the ceiling fan’s light, “What kind of dreams, honey?”
“Scary ones. Like, monsters and magic, and spaceships, and all kinds of weird things. You were there too, Daddy! They were hurting you, but you got away.” She sat up as she started recalling her dream. “It was really, really real. Like, really, really, real, Daddy. You had this gross thingy inside you that was hurting you, but you got it out. You killed the bad guys and came home! You’ll always come home, right? No matter what happens?”
“Honey, honey. It’s okay. It was just a dream. I’m not going anywhere. Actually, next month we’re all going on vacation, but don’t tell momma. It’s our little secret. Pinkie promise?” He held out his pinky finger and raised his eyebrows in expectation. He smiled when she looped her finger in his.
“Alright. Time for sleep.” He gave her one last hug before walking out of the room and leaving the door slightly cracked.
He walked down the stairs and went to the drawer, trying to decode whatever Elaine’s dream meant. He went over to the drawer and pulled out the letter, setting it on the counter and bracing himself. The dread only got more intense.
He could hear the shower running from his room and knew Lily was in the shower. He picked up the letter and walked over to the trash, stepping on the pedal that flipped the lid open. However, when he went to drop the letter into the trash, he felt an overwhelming terror that sucked away his breath and brought him down to his knees.
It felt as though the entire world screamed at him. He felt as though by dropping the letter in the trash, he’d be doing something he’d regret.
It took some time to get back onto his feet and recover from the absolute terror he felt. His body was covered in layers of sweat and he had to stop himself from shaking.
There was no getting around it. He opened the envelope’s flap and it immediately caught on fire. He quickly threw it down onto the ground and started stamping out the fire. He looked down at the envelope that had been on fire to see that only a letter remained. There was no hint of the fire and no trace of any ash. There was no smell either, as though it had never happened.