“Kaiden, no, no, no,” I sob as I rock my son’s lifeless body. “No.” The final whisper escaping my lips before I can’t form anything other than tears.
I flip the thinly shaved meat before cutting it into fine pieces, moving the strip-loin to a cooler part of the grill and topping the ingredients with a few cold pads of garlic-rosemary butter and a couple of slices of provolone. It’ll give the meat a rich, delicious flavor by complementing the cheese without making it overly greasy. Dousing the hottest part of the grill with a herb-and-pepper-infused oil, I throw a handful of sliced mushrooms, peppers, and onions on the cooktop to sizzle and caramelize.
It is currently eight in the morning, but someone wanted my popular Philly Cheesesteak instead of a normal breakfast of eggs and toast. I thought it strange, but to each his own. As long as no one bothered me they could do whatever they liked. The snow and wind was howling outside, propelling our small, northeastern town’s mild winter into something bordering on arctic, so I was surprised anyone even came in for a meal. My sandwich was known for its peppery kick, so maybe the patron needed something to warm him up, but it’s still loony for anyone to be here. Of course, I’m here, but I braved the storm so I didn’t have to sit at home alone with unwanted thoughts.
I flip the veggies a few times, my turner spatula scraping the good bits into the food. Once everything is ready, I brush the inside of a hoagie roll with a generous coat of warm alfredo sauce. I’m fond of saying this is my ‘secret sauce’ to the perfect sandwich, when, in reality, it takes several layers of flavors to give it its signature, artful kick. I love taking ingredients and puzzling through different combinations to see what works—especially sandwiches. I despise sammies where everything oozes out of the sides and covers your hands more than your tongue. That is no way to eat food. My technique is a compromise to the traditional Philly Cheesesteak. The customers of Gio’s get all the flavor and all of the ingredients into their mouth. A total win.
I slide the plate onto the warming counter and ding the bell. “Order up!” My boss, Gio, tries to catch my eye as he snatches the plate, but I refuse to look at him. I don’t want to see the pity loitering around his attempts at conversation.
I’ve been at Gio’s for nine years, and many in town would consider us friends. We are friends, but after my son died a year ago our relationship changed. He could never truly understand the heartache of that loss, despite loving my kid like a favorite nephew. What he never grasps is that I will figure out how to handle life without Kaiden on my own—like I do everything else.
It’s been a year since I found my son drowned by the river flowing behind my house. The coroner’s report said Kaiden’s body had seized from the cold, preventing him from swimming. The police think he slipped on a patch of ice, plunging him into the current, and pulled along under a mostly iced-over surface, he didn’t have a chance to breathe. Damage done, the cruel waters released his body nearly six miles downstream from where he had started. The details mean little to me. It shouldn’t have happened. Kaiden was eight and knew plenty well that he wasn’t allowed to be by the river alone. I wish I could know what prompted him to go to the river, but more than anything I just want my son back.
Turning my back on Gio, I step deeper into the kitchen. I don’t want to hear any of his positivity and advice on how to handle my tragedy, not today. What I need is a little relief from my memories. To combat them, I pop a couple pills to help with the anxiety welling in my chest. It’s the second time today I’ve downed the drugs, but it’s the only thing that seems to help. Being awake is miserable, and this is the only way I can cope.
“Jeremy! Hey, Jeremy!” Gio hollers from the front of the house.
I scrub my hands across my eyes before answering, “Yea?” I jump as a hand lands on my shoulder. How did he get to me so fast? I’m lucky Gio didn’t see me take the pills, he’d have my head.
“Hey, man. How you doin’?”
I turn to face my boss. “Not the best. I just need something to keep my mind off today.”
“Hey, Jeremy, it’ll get better man. You’re always going to miss Kaiden, but one day the pain won’t be so bad.”
I narrow my eyes at him. “I don’t need a pep talk, Gio.”
He holds his hands up in surrender, “I wasn’t trying to give you a pep talk, Jer. I miss the kid, too.”
I shove past him. “Just leave me alone.”
“Maybe I could understand better if you would open up to me,” he says, following.
I whirl on him. “I said leave me alone!”
He steps back and I can see the hurt in his eyes. Gio’s my best friend, but there’s no mistaking the look of confused betrayal.
He turns his interest to something else, anything besides me, and says, “Go home, Jer. I’m shuttin’ it down for today.”
I grit my teeth for a few seconds, unwilling to comply to the dismissal. I shouldn’t be sent home for being a little angry. My arguments are on the verge of an avalanche, yet when he steps out of my path and glances to the front, I deflate a little. I see it in his face. His comment is not about me but about the raging snowstorm outside. “Yea, okay.”
I crawl home in my 2005 red Chevy Silverado. It takes me forty-five minutes to make the six-mile trek—the storm is that bad. I’ve not seen a white-out like this in four or five years. Gio is lucky he lives directly above the diner; he just has to walk up a flight of stairs.
My home phone is screaming as I open the door from the garage. I have a cellphone too, but you can’t always rely on towers in this area. I let it go to voicemail as I unwrap. Not thirty seconds later, the phone screams again, and I’m tempted to ignore it, but if it’s my mother she’ll never stop until I answer.
“Hello?” I say, a little grudgingly.
“Oh, thank God, Jeremy! I was so worried about you. I’ve been trying to call all morning,” my mother says.
“I was at the diner, Ma.”
“You went out in this storm? Are you insane? Do you want to get yourself killed?”
Her needless panic sets me on edge and darkens my mood, especially her last question. I don’t want to be reminded of death in any form on today of all days. “I have to work, Ma. Gotta pay a mortgage somehow. I’m home now, so you can stop worrying.”
“I’ll always worry about you, Jeremy. You’re my son.”
I don’t respond.
She could never stand silence, so she adds, “How are you doing today?”
“I’m fine,” I reply. Logically, my brain tells me I’m not fine, but I have no desire to talk about any of the things that are making me not fine, things I just want to process alone. Right now, I want to take some sleeping pills and go to bed. It’s the most efficient way to sail through today since I don’t have the diner to distract me.
Her voice is soft as she says, “Honey, I miss Kaiden too. Time will—”
“Ma, I’m not really in the mood to talk about this,” I cut her off before she, too, can lament the loss of my son. I don’t think she gets a right to speak since she’s never had to bury any of her kids.
“Jeremy, you need to talk to someone about this, holding it in will only make it worse,” she says quietly. “Maybe someone at ch—”
It wasn’t the nicest thing for me to do, but I really didn’t want to hear it. I don’t need advice on how to get through my problems. I’ll figure it out for myself, I always have, always will.
Alone, finally, I look around at my sparse home. Last year the place was decked out with all kinds of Christmas stuff. Kaiden celebrated this time of year with gusto. He always begged me to start putting things up at the beginning of November and wouldn’t let me take anything down until the end of January, at which point I had to force his cooperation on the matter. This year, I couldn’t muster the excitement to decorate for the holidays, not even in memory of my son. The dim emptiness is a glaring reminder of what I don’t have. Life.
The thought sends a pang through my chest. This is why I went to work this morning, so I didn’t have to look at this all day. I stand frozen in the middle of my living room, staring at the ashy fireplace. I should start a fire, but the idea only perpetuates the ache in my chest because Kaiden loved having a fire. He would sit in front of the warmth for hours reading, drawing, or playing with his toys, all while sipping ‘Dad’s Special Hot Chocolate’. I just added cinnamon and nutmeg, but for Kaiden no one made hot chocolate like I did. I pull in a staccato breath as the thought rolls through my brain. I really don’t want to be here.
I spin and stride back toward my keys, yanking on my coat. I know that leaving is the stupidest thing I could do right now, but I don’t care. I just want to be anywhere but in this house.
I crawl again through the streets of town and make my way past the last barely-visible stop light. The road, at least what I think is the road, is nothing but a fluffy white blanket, yet I don’t turn around and I don’t take my foot off the gas. I make it for thirty minutes at this snail’s pace before I hear a loud *Ka-chunk* and my truck stops moving. I give it a little gas but my tires just spin and I see extra white fluff poof up for a second around my windows.
I was only planning on going for a short ride, just to get out for a bit, and of course, this happens. I pound the steering wheel in my frustration. I’m an idiot for not adding chains to my tires. Knowing I’m stuck, I shut off the engine. I need to save gas so I can heat the cab at regular intervals to keep from freezing. I consider grabbing a road flare before hunkering down, but no one will be driving by in this mess, and I’d rather save a lifeline for when it doesn’t have the potential to get buried under snow. Instead, I grab the heavy wool blanket I always keep in the back for the ‘just in case’ moments, and settle into a comfortable position. I pop a couple more anxiety pills and a few pills to help me sleep before shutting my eyes.
tap, tap, tap I groan at the sound. tap, tap, tap I sit up, groggy, and turn my stiff neck toward the driver side window. tap, tap, tap
“Hey! I know you’re in there! I can see your outline! You okay?” A faint female voice filters through the still howling wind.
Confused, I just stare at the window.
“Hey! If you wanna be left here, fine by me, but can you at least let me know you’re okay?” The woman shouts again.
I fumble for the door handle. I have to see who the other insane person is besides me that would come out in this weather, plus I would actually like to be rescued. I open the door, and I can’t tell who it is. This woman is wrapped head to toe to protect her skin from the cold. I blink stupidly at her for a moment before saying, “Can you give me a ride back to town?”
“Sure thing, bub, my trucks over here,” she shouts back, thumbing in the direction of her rumbling diesel.
I’m still groggy from the sleeping pills, so I fumble my way out of my truck and over to hers. Once safely hidden behind doors again, she unwraps her head covering. Curly auburn locks spring free from the containment. I can’t help it; I gape at her.
“Would you shut your trap, you look ridiculous,” Laina Morello says to me with her well-known sarcasm.
I do as she demands, and then say, “I’m sorry. The town mechanic is the last person I expected to see out here.”
“And I didn’t expect to find a red pick-up in a snow ditch with an idiot inside either,” she replies.
I glance over at Laina, but she’s concentrating on the road too much to pay attention to me. We’re silent for a while, and the tension is killing me, yet I don’t want to speak first. I don’t know Laina well enough to venture into small-talk.
“So what were you doing out here, Jeremy?” Laina asks. There’s a slight hint of an accent, though I’ve never been able to pinpoint the region from the few brief conversations we've exchanged.
The skepticism in her voice grates at my ears and picks at my heart. I wish I could put my finger on why it does but I can’t.
“I just needed to get away,” I say. It’s a completely truthful answer, and a safe one.
She snorts. “And you thought comin’ out here was the best place to do it? Go to your neighbor’s house if you need a change a scenery, but you shouldn’t have been driving.”
“And what’s your excuse? You shouldn’t be out here either,” I bite back. I don’t like when people point out my carelessness.
“You’re right, I shouldn’t be out here,” she shrugs.
“That’s not an answer, Laina.”
She lets out a heaving sigh. “I needed to run to the next town over for a spare part.”
I scoff. “And today was the day to go pick it up?”
She twists her hand tighter around that wheel. “Well, they wouldn’t hold it for me for an extra day.” Then she mumbles, “Jerks.”
“Okay, but is it worth risking your truck and your life for it?” I ask. I have to know why she deemed it so important to leave the sanctuary of her shop. I can feel the curiosity stamping around in my stomach like a kid splashing through puddles.
“I have a reputation to maintain, Jeremy. If I don’t get this car fixed by tomorrow, then my customer is not going to be happy, and unhappy customers don’t come back for repeat business,” she says.
The pieces click into place. Laina Morello was a transplant from a big city. Hidden beneath her heavy winter clothes, she’s got tattoos all up and down both arms, and it’s anyone’s guess as to where else she might be hiding more. She’s also got a don’t-mess-with-me attitude, so with those two things combined, the residents of this town only tolerate her because she’s a fantastic mechanic. I swear she looks at a vehicle and it’ll start working again. Everyone would give an ear to know more about her history, instead they just gossip about her. I hear more than my fair share of ill-conceived ideas at the diner about Laina, and I’ll admit that even I’ve avoided her unless I needed something for my truck. It was stupid of her to come out in this storm, but I get why she did it.
“So why did you want to get away?” She asks, cutting through my thoughts.
Is she serious? The whole town knows what happened to my son. Laina showed up here a few years after I did.
“You really expect me to answer that?” I growl.
“Yes, I do, because wallowing in memories won’t bring him back. I get that losing Kaiden hurts, but you can’t let it consume you.” Quietly, she adds, “It’s not worth it.”
“And what would you know?” I spit. “You can’t begin to imagine what I’m feeling, today of all days.”
She takes her eyes off the road for a split second to give me a hard stare before returning her attention to the hazy white of the snowstorm. It takes several moments, but finally she says, “I lost my father, my brother, my sister, and my mother to a drive-by shooting four years ago.”
That’s around the same time she showed up here. I gape for a split second. Could anyone blame me? That’s a heck of a story.
Continuing, Laina says, “The gang members were pissed that my father wouldn’t work on their cars any longer because he left that life. I was inside the house getting a drink at the time... making me the lucky survivor.” Tears color her last statement and there is a really long pause as she gathers herself. “So, don’t tell me that I don’t know the pain you’re feeling. I lost my family just like you did. You shouldn’t assume things about people, Jeremy.” Quietly, she adds, “At least you still have people around that love you.”
Around the lump in my throat I say, “Is that why you came here? To start over?”
“Yes,” Laina says.
“I’m sorry,” I say after a few seconds of nothing but the howling wind eating at our tension.
“I don’t want your sympathy.”
“I meant sorry for assuming you wouldn’t understand.”
Laina just nods. I finally see the first set of street lights come into view, and a tightness grips my chest. There’s probably still another thirty minutes before we get to my house at the speed she’s driving, but it’s nice to be around someone who’s experienced loss on the same level I have. I don’t feel so alone, and honestly, I’m tired of feeling alone. That’s mostly why I take the pills. If I spend my days in a fog, I don’t have to confront the fact that my house is quiet.
It’s interesting to me that she doesn’t seem deeply affected by what happened, or maybe she’s just really good at covering it up. Either way, I want to know if she ever ‘moved on’ as everyone in my life keeps telling me.
“How did you get over losing your family like that?” I ask.
She huffs. “You don’t just get over something like that.” She uses a couple fingers to emphasize the words ‘get over’. “I still miss them more than words can express. Nothing will erase the bloody scene from my mind, but truthfully”—she pauses to study me for a second—“I have hope that I’ll see them again.”
“How?” I choke. “They’re gone, just like my son.” Those last words are so painful to speak.
She works her lips for a few moments, like she’s testing how far she can push the subject. “I’m a believer, Jeremy. I have hope that I’ll see them again in heaven, and it’s thanks to my Papi that I have such a hope,” she says.
My gut reaction is brush off her words, but the conviction in her voice is real enough. I grew up in church, but stopped going once I left this tiny town for school. Ma has been begging me to go back, especially since I lost Kaiden, but I could never see how going into a building would help. The act would give me nothing but ‘Poor, Jeremy’ looks from people who don’t really know me and no real answers. The conviction in Laina’s voice, however, tells me that I shouldn’t brush away the idea. Is it worth going back to my childhood roots?
It's not an idea I’m willing to gravitate towards easily. There’re a lot of questions without answers from my church days. What I know for certain is being around Laina, having a piece of her story, doesn’t make me feel so bitter. I’ll take her no-nonsense attitude over syrupy sympathy and overly cautious words every day of the week.
“Do you mind if I just go back to your shop with you, so I don’t have to go home?” I ask quietly, hurriedly I add, “I won’t get in your way.” I bite the inside of my lip, hoping she’ll take my request seriously.
Laina raises a brow at me. As the brow lowers, she gives me the briefest of smirks. “Sure, whatever floats your boat, but I’m gonna put you to work. You don’t get to sleep on my couch for free.”
I laugh. I never knew how snarky she could be. I don’t think I’ve done that in a long time, laughed. It releases a pressure from me that’s been hovering all day.
“Was that an actual laugh?” She asks with mock surprise. “Word is you don’t laugh anymore.”
I sober quickly. “I don’t.”
The silence compounds inside the cab as I stare out the window.
“Hey,” she says. “Kaiden would want you to laugh.”
I huff in disagreement.
She sighs, but says, “I used to think the same way, even with the hope that I would see my family again. With them gone, their exuberance snuffed out, what reason did I have to smile, to laugh, to be happy? How could I be happy when they had all suffered?”
She’s silent. I don’t know if she wants me to engage in the conversation or if she’s doing it for dramatic affect. Finally, I can’t resist, so I say, “And...?”
“And the truth is, that’s a difficult question to answer. In fact, I don’t think there is an answer.”
“That’s...helpful,” I say, rolling my eyes even though she can’t see them.
“Before I moved out here, someone told me that my family would want me to keep living. If my Papi was still around, what would he want to see? A smile, even if it’s a small one? A laugh, even it’s nothing more than a short chuckle? Me happy, even if it’s a small measure? The answer to those questions every single time is, yes, because my Papi loved me and wanted the best for me.”
I grunt. “Kaiden was a kid. He didn’t understand the concept of what was best for someone.”
“That’s the biggest lie I think I’ve ever heard,” she says, with a tone that makes it feel like I’m getting my ears boxed. “He may not have been able to put the concept into words, but don’t sit there and tell me that Kaiden didn’t understand emotions. He would want you to be happy, Jeremy. To feel love.”
I want to deny her words. Picturing my son’s smiling, laughing face feels like an elephant is parading on my chest. Yet, she has a point. Several memories flash in my vision, each one of them showing Kaiden doing his best to make sure I’m smiling, showing me in some way that he loved me. I remember those feelings, and Laina is right, Kaiden would want that, because he was the greatest kid in the world and wanted everyone around him to be happy. It’s easier to hold on to the comfort of pain, but I can’t deny what Laina said—my son would want the best for me. A couple tears trickle down my cheeks. I don’t bother to wipe them.
She pulls into the parking lot of her shop and starts to bundle up to face the cold. I stop her with a touch to her arm. “Thanks, Laina.”
She gives me a sincere smile, and says, “No problem, Jeremy.” She starts bundling again, and her next statement is muffled by the chunky scarf. “Now, you get to be my tool tray while I put this car back together, and tomorrow morning we’ll go tow your truck outta that ditch.”
I smile, briefly watching her before moving to follow. Today will likely always be a bitter day for me, but I’m grateful to Laina. I finally feel the first breaths of untainted air hit my lungs, and the hurt is just a little less.