Blue Cakes, Red Vinyl, Bleach
It would be a year tomorrow since his son had fallen into a neighbor’s pool and drowned. After the funeral, his nightmares grew in vividness and torment: his curly-haired baby boy fighting to find an escape to air, panicking, screaming the only words most two-year-olds knew — Daddy, help! — muffled under warm afternoon water. For weeks, a frenzy of blurred moments passed Daryl like a shotgun train in a darkened subway, threaded together in agony. He sobbed until his lungs emptied themselves of all air, then he sobbed some more. He refused to sleep any longer for fear of reliving the horror.
Daryl took caffeine pills first, then Modafinil, then Modafinil and caffeine pills, then caffeine pills and speed, then all three, then all three and anything else he could get his hands on.
Sleep dissipated but the nightmares ran in syndication. He lay awake as they played out for him on the ceiling, in the window, on the television he’d forgotten was even in the room, on the walls, the back of his eyelids. Joshua’s voice piercing him with every slow, painful cry.
Joshua’s weightless body floated, eyes frozen wide in fear. His skin still soft and smooth and pure, not even a freckle. His curls swayed back and forth with the water, even his long eyelashes. Fingers still covered in red and magenta from a painting he was making earlier that was mostly squiggles and sharp corners and circles. A tiny bubble of air stuck under his dirty Monsters, Inc. shirt exposing his belly full of the blueberry Pop Tarts and orange slices he had for lunch.
The clouds parted ways and the sun enveloped his beautiful capsule caught suspended in a horrific pocket of time. Particles of dirt levitated below the surface. A half-deflated beach ball sat atop the water. The sound of a nearby lawnmower filled the neighborhood. The teenage girl saw him in her pool and ran outside. She screamed for help, but Daryl was stuck at a mandatory training two states away, letting Joshua die. Daryl’s wife, Kathy, folded laundry while she left Joshua to watch talking puppets recite numbers and letters in the family room. He had figured out how to open the front door on his own without her knowing. Her knees struck the floor before the teenage girl ever rang the doorbell — a mother’s intuition.
Kathy fled two weeks after the funeral to live with her mother in Colorado. Daryl hadn’t heard from her since.
Every day, promptly at 5:15pm, Daryl walked through the barren garage into the hall with his grocery bags of cleaning supplies: bleach, toilet bowl cleanser, Windex, Brillo pads, carpet freshener, Pledge, dishwashing detergent, garbage bags, Swiffer cloths, etc. He worked first in the living room, dusting every crevice around the entertainment center, the lampstand, the windows and window sill, and the mantle with its only picture – Joshua at the kitchen table, smearing blue cake across Daryl’s face. He sprayed the glass with Windex and gently brushed it with a new paper towel once, twice, three times, ensuring no dust or residue remained, just the boy and his dad eternally happy.
More than any other room in the house, Daryl spent the majority of his time cleaning and re-cleaning Joshua’s; he sprayed and wiped the bedframe, digging his cloth into the holes where the nails were; dusted the dresser, removing each drawer, folding and refolding each article of clothing with detail and precision; slowly wiped down the baseboards and the blinds with a bucket of water and Lysol; Windexed the windows and mirrors, then opened the windows to let in fresh air; washed the bedsheets – these he washed separate from all the other bedsheets and towels of the house, put the bedsheets back on the bed; changed the lightbulbs in every fixture. Daryl made sure Joshua’s room remained the way he left it – the red crayon markings across the wall near his door, the unopened box of apple juice Joshua had no doubt taken from the fridge that morning, a torn-out page from his Transformers coloring book on the bookshelf – but it somehow never looked the same. It was empty.
There were days when Joshua’s toys were lined up according to which had been his favorite and others when they were hidden away in the closet. The latter usually happened when Daryl stared at the trucks and action figures and Disney characters and wondered if Joshua had these same toys wherever he was. Did heaven have Disney? Did they let him watch his favorite movies and sing along to all the songs with him? Did God or the angels or whatever sneak Joshua a double-stuffed Oreo when no one was looking just because they were his favorite and he always made sure to say fank you? Did they know that he didn’t like his sandwiches cut in halves but in quarters? Did they know that when he said I want ganket he was asking for his blanket? Not the camouflage one that was strewn on the floor with all the toys but the soft brown blanket they had bought at Costco when Kathy was pregnant. How could they know? They weren’t the ones who had been responsible for him. They didn’t repeat the lines in his favorite movies. They didn’t know the names of the characters from Trolls: Princess Poppy, Branch, Creek, etc. They didn’t wrestle with him or flip him on the bed over and over while he laughed, again, again! They weren’t there when Joshua had to get tubes in his ears and after the procedure when he only wanted to cuddle with Kathy and eat popsicles. What the fuck did God and the angels and the universe possibly know?
The fumes from all the cleaning supplies spread out and filled the house, Daryl breathed deeply from hard work or to self-medicate or both. He distributed the entire first container of carpet freshener and vacuumed until not a speck of the powder was visible. In the bathrooms, Daryl knelt over the toilet bowl and emptied the first gallon of bleach and scrubbed for the better part of an hour until his fingers itched from the microfiber pad. Lastly, he plugged the bathtub, filled it with the other three gallons of bleach and water as hot is it could get, stripped himself of all clothing, and lie in the tub while his skin felt it was being peeled from his body. He sat until the water turned cold, refusing to move. The searing heat was always painful to the point that his body would shake and writhe a bit. Never did he escape, though. For any reason. The water was his reminder. A different kind. He pissed and shit on himself when he had to go. The smell stuck to him like a scarlet letter. He would rescrub the bathtub if stained, but coerced himself to remain in his own filth for a time.
Somewhere between seven and eight o’clock, Daryl drank Seagram’s gin from a blue coffee mug while sitting on the bed in Joshua’s room. On Joshua’s second birthday, Daryl had bought a copy of Where the Wild Things Are and placed it on Joshua’s bed. Sipping from his mug, he read it aloud, recalling Joshua’s reaction to the pictures and voices Daryl would make. “You had such a good laugh,” he smiled through wet eyes.
Daryl’s sister had been begging him to go to a therapist, to get counseling, but he would deal with it in his own way, he said. She was worried about him and didn’t think whatever he was doing was healthy. He politely directed her to mind her own fucking business, then unplugged all the phones and blocked her on his cell.
It was especially hot this year, punishing anyone within the sun’s reach. Most summers started to subside at the beginning of August, but this one lasted longer. It was October and still over ninety degrees late into the evening. Watching the sun go down, Daryl walked a few hefty bags to the trash can by the garage and stood in the driveway while he finished his third or fourth or fifth mug of Seagram’s. A breeze came through the trees and snuck up on him. He closed his eyes and felt the wind against his still red skin. Dogs barked in the background as the coyotes started to come down from the foot of the mountain and hunt the backyards of the neighborhood. Music pulsated from a few houses down, and the smell of barbeque filled his nostrils. The concrete turned cold and the chill crept up his feet, then his legs, back, arms, and neck. The earth was spinning comfortably and delicately like two people dancing a waltz.
Daryl lie in bed listening to coyotes howling close by and the neighborhood dogs barking frantically. They had probably killed a small rabbit or a cat and were celebrating as they feasted, he thought. The music from a few doors down had gone silent. The aroma of sheets was fresh from the day’s wash. The breeze blew through the window, causing a tap, tap, tap as the blinds hit the corner of the window sill. Daryl closed his eyes and welcomed the nightmares.
“You’re not dreaming tonight, Daryl,” a woman’s voice said.
His eyelids rose in slow motion, he sat up, and saw her sitting in a red chair he didn’t recognize at his bedside. He took the woman in: straight, shoulder-length platinum blonde hair, pale skin, blue eyes, and wearing a navy suit and tie. No more than twenty-five years old. She was beautiful and terrifying, but either the drugs or something holy about her put him at ease. His bed wrapped him more comfortably than it did most nights, and he couldn’t help but find himself admiring her chair. It had a nostalgic look about it, as though he could find it in a diner circa 1950. The chrome waterfall piping frame gleamed despite a lack of any light whatsoever shining on it. The vinyl was bright and vibrant, as if it had just been assembled. It was a wonderful piece of décor.
“I can’t tell you until you ask me,” she said.
Daryl watched the woman place an unlit cigarette between her lips and suck back as the cherry flared into a bright orange like the dying evening sun. She blew the smoke into Daryl’s face, it circled around his head then rose into the air and it rested right above them. She turned the cigarette to Daryl, filter-first, inviting him to partake. He obliged. As he blew the smoke into her face, her pale skin warped grey, her eyes sunk into her head until there remained only blackness, and her mouth drooped like someone who had suffered a serious stroke. The smoke hung there until he handed her back the cigarette, then ascended to join the rest of the white vapors above as her face shifted to its previous beauty.
Music rose softly from somewhere beyond the bedroom. Fingers walked slowly upon the melancholy piano keys. A trumpet rang out, echoing an E-flat minor, followed by the rat-a-tat of a snare and high hat. Thelonious Monk’s ‘Round Midnight'.
“Ask you what?”
She smiled and took another drag.
“I don’t know what to ask you,” he confessed.
From the other side of his bed, an older, bald man in a silver sequined dress walked over to the woman and leaned down, whispering something in her ear. Both of their eyes were locked on Daryl.
“No, but have it ready,” she said to the man as he continued whispering into her ear.
The bald man finished speaking to the woman and stood upright. He had grown over seven feet tall. C'est un pont, pas un mur, he said to Daryl, turning and disappearing.
“Who are you?”
“I’m Jesus Christ,” she smiled. “And I love you.”
“No, you're not,” he said, unsure.
“Well, you don’t believe in that sort of thing anyway, do you? So, who gives a shit if I am or not? It doesn’t matter.” The woman flicked her ash onto the carpet and looked at the ceiling, saying something only she could hear. She leaned forward, closer to Daryl’s face, “What do you need, sir?”
Though it left his mouth, it filled the room in someone else’s voice: Joshua.
She sat back, pleased. “Ask me.”
“I want him back.” His voice broke.
“That’s not a question. But if it were, I’d say no. Try again.”
The cigarette smoke that was floating above them started settling around Daryl, obstructing his view of the woman in the red chair. He swatted at it, but it wouldn’t budge.
“I’m not staying here all night, sir. Please, try to focus. If it helps…”
The smoke circled once more around Daryl’s head and gathered to the wall where it spread out and transformed into a large white screen. The woman held up her finger and thumb and aimed at the screen. Pew-Pew.
Joshua’s wide-eyed, lifeless face stared at Daryl from the pool water. Daryl sank back into that familiar eternal grief which he had grown accustomed to. A hand plunged into the water and retracted little Joshua up into a sunlit room where he lay on blue carpet. Joshua opened his eyes as though someone was calling out to him to wake up from his nap. He sat up, looked around, and began to cry. Daddy? Mommy? Daddy!? Joshua screamed in a babbling language with only every other word being discernable, still mostly crying out for his mother and father. Tears gushed down his face and snot from his nose. His face turned red and his eyes darted quick and frightened around the empty space.
Daryl pounced on the wall, frantic and skittish. He screamed Joshua’s name, begged his son to hear him, swore, clawed at the smoke screen, hyperventilated, screamed his name louder, then turned to the woman for help. She sat watching him, expressionless. As he turned back to the nightmare projected in front of him, Joshua was looking up and giggling at an unseen figure off-camera. A long, translucent arm reached out. “What are you doing,” Daryl shouted at the screen, “Where are you taking him? WHERE THE FUCK ARE YOU TAKING MY BOY!?” Joshua reached out his arm and took the translucent figure’s hand. He arose and stared directly at Daryl, finally acknowledging his father’s presence, and spoke. This is not a wall, it is a bridge. Hand in hand with the figure, Joshua tip-toed out of sight. With a poof the screen returned to smoke, and curled back to hang above the woman in the red chair’s head.
Daryl staggered to the woman and collapsed to his knees beside her. He cried violently and his head throbbed and his body felt like fire. “Did he…is that what happened?”
The woman lowered her head to meet Daryl directly at his eye line. “Ask me,” she demanded.
“I can’t. I don’t know. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry, son! I couldn’t. I wasn’t there. Fuck! I wasn’t there! I should have been there, Josh. I’m sorry I wasn’t there. I wasn’t there! I should have been there! I should have taken you to the park. I should have taken you when you asked to go! I didn’t play with you enough and read with you enough and give you enough to eat and laugh with you enough. I should have been home to watch over you while you fell asleep at night and smiled and talked while you dreamed. I’m so sorry I didn’t. I’m so sorry! He didn’t deserve to be alone like that. He was so beautiful and perfect and sweet and…he needed me. He needed me, oh God! He…oh, my God! Fuck! Goddamn you! Goddamn you! I’M SO SORRY, JOSHUA!” His body slumped to the ground. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t use a single one of his senses properly. He was dying, he was sure. He was melting into blackness. He deserved it. He cried Joshua’s name again and again until he hated himself. He hated himself. He welcomed death. He wanted to kill himself. He was so angry. He was so angry. So. Angry.
Daryl opened his bloodshot eyes. The woman was smiling down on him.
“Ask me,” she repeated.
In a hoarse whisper, Daryl asked, “Is he angry with me?”
The woman’s blue, glowing eyes welled with tears, and she gently stroked his cheek. “He was, but he isn’t anymore.” Sitting in her red vinyl chair, the smoke above her swirled rapidly. The jazz music beyond the bedroom reverberated loudly. Her body stretched and slithered, floating into the whirlwind of grey cloud above her. A flash of electricity, and it was all gone. Daryl remain on the floor, looking to the bare ceiling.
The parking lot of the grocery store was almost empty. Daryl eventually found his way to the bakery after being stopped by a young clerk handing out coupons for Buy 3 Get 1 Free on select brands of cleaning supplies. He paid, drove home in silence, and sat at the kitchen table. The baker had used the last of the blue icing for the cake, the letters were barely legible: I miss you. Be happy. With three fingers, Daryl swiped the side of the cake and smeared the icing on his right cheek. He carried himself to Joshua’s room, lay on his son’s pillow, and descended into his distant sleep.