by Graham B.
Kate is having a bad day, but it gets worse as her past catches up with her.
A rotten day at work couldn’t prepare Kate for what she saw when she opened the door.
She had gone to work at the factory the same as any other day, preparing to give a few more hours of her life to the grind. She had arrived to find that OSHA had shut the factory down that day due to safety violations, violations which were somehow unknown to the management but common knowledge to the workers. Kate guessed that cost-cutting by Keith Hull, the plant manager, had finally caught up with him. There was no earning anything that day. And there would be no overtime this week.
On the way home, a blowout forced her white 1975 Dodge to the side of the road, where she tore her favorite jacket trying to lift the spare into place. The rain invaded through the tear and soaked her back before she finished making the car roadworthy again.
But she had no idea how much worse her day could get, until she stepped through her front door.
Sitting on her couch next to her daughter, Alya, was a youngish man who looked vaguely familiar. Alya had her head on the throw pillow, fast asleep, the side of her rib cage rising and falling almost imperceptibly. Her blond hair, an echo of her mother’s, spilled out over the dark red upholstery. The man smiled at her even as he produced a suppressed pistol from his jacket and pointed it at Kate.
“Good morning, Jocelyn. Have a seat.” The man’s voice sounded of the reunification of lost friends, but his eyes spoke a thin reed of violence like a rapier aimed at her throat. Kate slowly sat on the love seat next to the couch, her eyes on Alya, her heart beating very hard - triggered by the name from her distant past. She risked a look at the clock, knowing Brian wouldn’t be home for another seven hours.
“I took the liberty of taking Alya out of school today. They are remarkably easy to persuade. I hope you don’t mind. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you, Jocelyn,” the man said the name again. He smiled benignly as he ran his fingers through Alya’s hair.
Kate swallowed hard and spoke. “You know my name, so you know who I used to be. What do you want?”
“Not much, Jocelyn. Just tying up a few loose ends. You know what I’m talking about, don’t you?” The man leaned forward and placed the pistol on the couch next to his leg, but kept his hand on it. “1971, was it? I was only ten years old at the time, but that particular year made quite an impression on me.”
Kate had already begun thinking of that year, for what else could this visit from a stranger knowing her previous name be related to? A bomb, set by herself and others at the university’s chemistry lab. The next step in a never ending campaign against the war when nothing else seemed to be working. The death toll reported the next day: six, including three students, one teacher, one teaching assistant, and one janitor. How could she ever forget? How could she ever absolve herself of responsibility? Even the penance of being on the run from the FBI for years could not seem like enough punishment for her. To this day, she looked into mirrors with difficulty.
The man must have seen into her reverie. “Oh, make no mistake, I know what you did, and I know how much you are responsible for. Aren’t you interest in knowing why I’m here?”
He wasn’t a cop or FBI that was for sure. Why did he look familiar? Then the past unearthed itself a bit more, like an earthquake uprooting graves. She remembered the pictures of the victims in the papers; all six smiling in their photographs. Every face had seared itself into her memory. Her eyes went wide with recognition. The janitor, an immigrant from Laos or some other nearby nation, had had a son.
“You . . . you have to understand. I never meant to hurt anyone. We just wanted the lab destroyed. We . . .” Kate’s protests faltered.
The man shook his head almost sorrowfully. “I do understand, Jocelyn. Believe me, if I knew any less, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. I know you never intended for the bomb to go off when it did. But Hughs had other plans, didn’t he?”
Kate didn’t answer. She remembered setting the timer, remembered leaving the science building with Jason Hughs and Janet Kohl, remembered Hughs suddenly saying he had left something in the building then going back inside. Even then she knew, but for some reason she hadn’t stopped him. Jason Hughs had wanted to make an unforgettable statement.
“I know who’s responsible, Jocelyn. I need to find him.”
“Please, we haven’t spoken in years-”
The pistol came up, the muzzle of the suppressor now pressed against her daughter’s head. The man’s expression hadn’t changed a whit from its benign, even friendly set, but his eyes had a predatory gleam. Alya slept on, oblivious.
“I can tell you where I last saw him! It was in Toronto. Yes . . . Toronto, at the train station there. That’s where we parted ways! Please, it was seven years ago . . .”
The pistol lowered. “Are you sure? Where would he be going?”
“He…he had family in British Columbia, or so he said.”
“I don’t know!”
The pistol rose again. The ugly black metal now caressed Alya’s forehead.
“I swear! Please, don’t-” Kate’s voice choked off and tears rolled from her cheeks and dripped upon her blouse making dark wet spots along the front.
The man looked at her for one long pregnant moment and then the pistol lowered one last time.
“I believe you.”
Kate’s breath left in a noisy expulsion.
The man stood and tucked the pistol into the hidden holster beneath his coat. His face suddenly changed and became almost feral.
“I don’t think you would lie to me, would you?” He leaned in so close Kate could smell ginger and wasabi on his breath. His black eyes looked like stones between his pinched eyelids. She shook her head emphatically.
“No, you wouldn’t.” he stood up and took a last look at Alya. “I think I have what I need. You will never see me again. And you can’t exactly call the police on me, can you?”
Again Kate shook her head. The tears were flowing freely, but she made no sound but muffled choking noises.
The man grinned and then stepped to the door. “I mean it. You won’t see me again. Enjoy the rest of your life, Kate.”
The cool air brought the scent of rain inside as the man opened the door and left.
Kate rushed to Alya and gently shook her awake.
“Mommy, what happened? Where did that man go?” she asked, rubbing sleep from her eyes.
“He’s gone, honey. He’s gone. He won’t be coming back.”
Kate embraced Alya and held her close. She began thinking up a story to explain the encounter that Alya would undoubtedly recount to Kate’s husband. She had long practice in crafting such lies. But a small part of her ached for the man who would soon die to fulfill his debt to the stranger.
Alya’s muffled voice drifted from Kate’s chest. “Are you crying, Mommy?”
“Just a little, honey.”
A single tear for the father Alya would never know.