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Chapter Two: Sad Ben

I keyed into the dark house. Friday night, a gloomy fall evening. I should have been on a date, but instead, I was planning an evening of video games in my mother’s basement. Nerd heaven, right? One problem: my mother was dead.

 Her cat, Tana, wound around my legs, meowing. “Hang on, hang on,” I muttered, chucking my keys and wallet on the sideboard next to the door. I fed Tana, and she ate greedily. I was free to set up Geek Paradise. 

The game was Baldur’s Gate, an ages-old RPG. You could play online, but you could LAN with your friends if you were in the same room. I didn’t want anyone in the room with me today. I settled in front of my computer, the three monitors surrounding me with the fantasy world. The graphics were creaky, pixelated, but that was part of the fun. It took me back to a simpler time. 

I lost myself in the fantasy world of Faerun. Until my phone buzzed. I ran a hand over my face, blinking hard. My eyes were dry. A text from my buddy, Preston: How was the date? 

I guffawed, out loud, to no one. Why don’t you get online, I typed. 

I logged into Discord. If I was going to have to interact with people, I was going to do it while continuing to play. As I tabbed out to Windows, I noted the time: 9:38pm. The night was young, although it was deep outside the glassblock windows. I was thoroughly and totally alone. 

There was no date. 

Preston typed an ellipsis. Nerd-speak for “go on.” 

Tana climbed in my lap and started nuzzling my head. I resisted the urge to cry. Because dudes don’t cry, no matter where they are or what they’re doing. I mean, no one would know that I was crying, unless there were secret cameras in here, and that seemed unlikely. But I had shed enough tears at my mom’s funeral, just three weeks ago, and that was embarrassing enough. My buddies had actually seen that. I didn’t need any more shame. 

How to tell Preston that I had opened up to a woman, that I had poured my heart out to her in an e-mail, and she ghosted me? Her name was Amanda. I met her online. A beautiful physical therapist with glossy red hair - at least, that was her picture. Maybe she looked different in real life. I mean, who am I to judge - I’m a skinny, goofy-looking, pale guy. And I actually do get outside from time to time, since I’m a runner, so I can’t completely blame my skin tone on lack of sunlight - but then, I do live in Northeast Ohio, so there’s that.  

So anyway, this woman and I were e-mailing each other when my mom died. Hit by a car on the devil’s strip - that’s a tree lawn for non-Akronites. She was on her nightly walk - my mom, I mean. I wasn’t there to see what happened, didn’t see the swirling lights. I got home to find an officer standing on my porch. 

 The funeral happened, and I got busy. Amanda asked me if we were ever going out. We set up a date. More chatting online, more flirting. And then, one weepy night, I told her about my mom. I typed as much to Preston, leaving out the gory details. How I let my feelings eat me for dinner as I lay on my futon, unable to sleep. How I tried to ignore the empty house, pretend the rooms upstairs weren’t empty. 

She wasn’t worth it, then, he wrote. Are you doing okay? 

I hesitated. I lived with my mom. I didn’t need to - I had a great job as a computer programmer, and I made more than enough money to live on my own. But I didn’t want to move out, and she didn’t want me to either. My dad had been out of the picture for as long as I could remember, and we were a team. I was sure that if I ever did meet a woman I wanted to spend my life with, I would move out. I had never thought of this possibility, inheriting the lonely house, inhabiting it with only the cat for company. 

Fine, I wrote. What are we doing here? Want to pick up a quest? 

Let’s do it. 

It wasn’t long before Preston had to sign off. I wasn’t surprised - he had a wife and three kids, and plenty of demands on his time. I hadn’t even realized that my stomach was making noises. I didn’t feel like eating much lately, and besides, my mother did the cooking. My abilities were limited to sandwiches and instant macaroni. 

I slapped together a PB&J and shambled back downstairs. The house was getting cold. I probably should have put on the heat, but I enjoyed punishing myself. My eyes hurt, and I was tired of the computer. I wrapped myself in an old Browns blanket and curled up on my futon. Tana crawled onto my lap and settled against my legs. I watched whatever movie was on Comedy Central. Mean Girls, it looked like. Yeah, Lindsey Lohan always seemed to be on TV when I was in my darkest places. 

I threw my arm back over my head and watched teenagers from 2004 do trust falls into the waiting arms of their classmates. What would I do now? I’d have to start dealing with the probate on Monday. I couldn’t put that off much longer, especially if I was going to stay here. I was Mom’s only heir, so I assumed the entirety of her estate went to me, but there had to be taxes and all that red tape stuff. Or, maybe her sisters would try to claim a part of it. I didn’t want to deal with my aunts, but I would if I had to. 

I picked up my phone and began idly scrolling through possible date matches. I wasn’t sure that I could go on to the next person so soon. There was too much going on in my head. I was restless and yet it seemed impossible to move forward on anything. 

My lids had begun to flutter when I heard a soft, siren voice from the TV. “Are you struggling?” it said. I blinked and sat up. The sweet narrative continued as images of sad people flashed on the screen. “Maybe you’re depressed, or grieving. Take heart. There’s an answer for you. At MindTech, we use the power of your own thoughts to help you through your darkest times. Call us today for a better life.” As she transitioned to the positive message, the sad people started to smile. 

I looked at the TV through my hungover haze and felt sick to my stomach. Whatever that was about - it was probably something weird like those animal ads with the sad Sarah McLachlan music playing in the background - I was sure it couldn’t help me. 

**

The next morning, I went for a walk. It was one of those late-fall gift days, where the sun comes up early and the leaves are bathed in light. The kind of day little kids get excited about. I wasn’t excited, but if I didn’t get out of the house, I might have stayed inside all day.

We lived in a development. My mom was a science teacher, and we’d never had a ton of money. But she’d made a smart investment as a young college student taking a business class about the stock market. As she told it, she picked a stock that would go on to dominate, and rather than wait till her retirement to cash out, she sold. She did it for me, for us, she said. I probably could have lived anywhere as long as it was with her (God, that may be the lamest thing I’ve ever said). 

In fact, when we moved in, I was not happy about it, because I had to mow the yard and trim the hedges in line with the crazy rules of the property board. I’ve been doing that now for fifteen years. Our house is nice, the neighborhood cozy. It used to be a nice place to walk. But as I wandered the familiar winding sidewalks, I felt as if I were confronting my own pain in the worst way possible. 

 Well, if I was going to deal with my pain, might as well drive the knife in further. I headed in the direction of the spot where she died, in the road in front of the Abrahams’ house. As I approached the devil’s strip, I wished I had brought some flowers or a sign or something to memorialize her. The morning sun shone in stark contrast to my memories of that black night, those lights imprinted on the inside of my eyelids. 

It felt like a dream, or like I had seen it on a TV show a long time ago. Yet there were those concrete details, the ones a TV show could never make up. Like the police officer’s smell, of sweat and manly deodorant. His voice, strangely higher-pitched than I expected it to be. The fact that I was noticing those details even as he said those awful words. 

The Abrahams were decent people, with a well-tended flower bed in front of their door. I supposed they wouldn’t mind if I took a bud or two. 

I bounded across their green lawn and snatched a blossom, pulling the flower by the end of its stem. The garden looked untouched even as I moved away. Too late I realized that 1. I was in plain sight and 2. The Abrahams would see their flower lying on the devil’s strip. 

Feeling stupid, I clutched the bloom to my chest. Maybe I’d just take it home and pretend I was never here. 

Nope. Too late. Mr. Abraham was out the front door. “Ben Baker,” he bellowed. “What the hell are you doing?” Mr. Abraham was one of those quintessential old men, the type who have little to do but shout at the TV and sit around being crotchety. He wasn’t as frail as most of those in his cohort, though. He was big and barrel-chested, his white hair stiff like a toothbrush, ear hair spurting several inches above me. 

“Nothing,” I stammered. Shit, why didn’t I just go to Giant Eagle to buy flowers? It wasn’t like I had anything else to do today. 

Abraham flailed at the prize in my hands. “Do I have to go tell my wife you’ve been messing around in her garden? Don’t you have something better to do?” 

No. I hung my head and let stupid shame wash over me. 

“Don’t you have a job, Baker? You’re still living with your mother, aren’t you?” 

I paused. Frowned up at him. “No,” I began. I couldn’t remember if the Abrahams had been home that night. But even if they hadn’t, wouldn’t they have read about it in the paper? “She died, Mr. Abraham. Right outside your house. Don’t you remember?” 

The big man stopped. I held the limp flower out. He shook his head, scratched it. “I’m sorry, kid. I didn’t remember that.” 

Mrs. Abraham came out from behind him. She put her hand on her husband’s waist, a small familiar gesture that must have manifested after so many repetitions over the years. “Are you okay, Ben? What’s going on?” 

“Nothing.” I dropped the flower. “I picked this from your garden. I’m sorry.” I felt like a penitent child. Before I could embarrass myself further, I headed back home. I was definitely going to have to find something more productive to do. 

I counted the cracks in the sidewalk on the way. Step on one, break your mother’s back.