Just a short story.
"This is a contest entry. Only judges are asked to rate this story until after January 4th. Judges, please make Nick's job easier by remembering to leave a comment alongside your rating. Only rate a story and not individual chapters."
Dale closed the car door softly, quietly, and shouldered the black duffle bag. He parked two streets down and one up so he could make a quiet approach. He stepped over the snow pile at the side of the street, put there by the plough he could see a block up and working its way north along 110th, and onto the sidewalk.
Last night’s snowfall had played hell on his ’83 Tempo. He had gotten stuck four times today in the old sub-compact, speaking of which, he had forgotten to lock. He glanced back at it.
It sat on an angle, parked part-way onto the two-foot embankment, looking just ready to give up and fall into pieces. It certainly did not look like it contained anything good; locking was probably unnecessary. What a sad heap.
He’d bought the car last year. It was all he could afford at the time; she’d gotten the Acura. And everything else, he thought. It didn’t matter, anyway. That’s not why I’m here. Except that it really was. Part of it. He wouldn’t be here, parking two blocks away and then sneaking up to her house, if not for the bitter divorce. It still pained him to say that: her house. And Carl’s, too. Can’t forget Carl. Dale most certainly would not forget Carl.
Making his way north along the sidewalk, he was trying to look inconspicuous. Just walkin’ to the store, people, nothin’ to see here. Then again, did it really matter if he was seen? Probably not.
The temperature seemed to have dropped thirty degrees since 5 o’clock, at which time it had been warmer than seasonal. It certainly wasn’t now; his breath mushroomed out before him and seemed to hang in the air for minutes. His nostrils were freezing together and already his ears and fingers hurt, but what he was doing was important, and if it had been 80 below it wouldn’t have changed his mind any more than the significantly warmer 40 below of tonight.
Despite the stinging cold, the walk was going quickly. Already, he was approaching the snow plough, now parked at the side of the street. The driver inside reclined with his legs on the dash, reading a magazine. Dale watched the sidewalk as he passed. The hood of his coat was up and his face in shadow so the driver shouldn’t be able to see him, but, again, did it matter?
Turning his head slightly, he watched as he passed to see if the driver of the plough would look. The driver did, and tipped his yellow and black Caterpillar hat in a friendly gesture. Dale nodded under his hood and kept walking.
The only sounds on 110th street this night were the crunching of Dale’s footsteps and the quiet rumble of the plough’s hefty diesel engine. The snow absorbed everything else he would hear had it not been there: namely the traffic out on 114th. Dozens of people doing last minute errands before the big day. Some of them buying batteries--probably a lot of them buying batteries--and others, less prepared, trying to find anywhere to buy a gift.
It was 9 o’clock, the night before Christmas, and everything was right on track.
Steph should be asleep by now. Dale knew she always stayed up late on Christmas Eve, but her bed time was 8 and the extra hour ought to be enough. Almost certainly.
Carla and Carl--he wanted to puke every time he heard their names together; Carla and Dale sounded much less like a practical joke--would be enjoying a quiet night at home. Yes, sure, the home Dale bought, but Carl was welcome to it. Of course he was. Take the wife, the daughter, take the house--hell, if he could donate his lifetime’s supply of air to Carl, well, why not? The bastard had taken everything else. But no hard feelings there. No, none. Dale had a special gift for Carl.
It was 9:15 by the time he rounded the corner onto 56th avenue, 9:17 by the time he turned onto the alley that made its way behind the row of homes on 56th--one of which use to belong to him. 9:30 was when he planned on doing it, and he was running par for that. The time that it happened wasn’t crucial, anyway. As long as Steph was asleep; she’d be liable to hear him outside the house. The girl had incredible ears.
A moment later he was behind what used to be his home. He crunched up to the back gate beside the garage and opened it quietly, without any of the guilt or excitement associated with trespassing. Not at all; what he was doing felt right.
The sidewalk at the back of the house hadn’t been cleared so he trudged through the deep snow and made his own path. Wearing running shoes may have not been the best idea and his ears no longer hurt, which he knew was a bad thing, but none these discomforts mattered. Everything would be in his past, soon enough.
He let the duffle bag fall into the snow at his side and watched it nearly disappear there, and then placed his palms on the house below the kitchen window. He leaned against it and stood on the tips of his toes to peek inside.
Through a layer of frozen condensation, he watched Carla fixing two large glasses of eggnog and rum on the kitchen counter. She used to do that for him and her on Christmas Eve, and it was always followed by love-making. Seeing it from the outside angered him. Dale watched her carry the glasses slowly into the living room.
He nearly changed his mind, but quickly ushered the thought from his head. He’d gotten good at that in the week leading up to now. What helped the most was Stephanie, his daughter. He’d named her. When she smiled, her pretty little face became the only thing in the world. And Steph loved her mom, maybe as much as he loved Steph. And here it came: he loved Carla, too. Why pretend now? He did. Of course he did. Loved her vastly. She was no longer his, never again would be, but he knew he would always be hers, which was just too painful. No longer was he dwelling on how much of the divorce was his fault, whether or not he really did push her away and right into Carl’s lap. It was the past, and it was irrelevant. He had to make the pain stop and only knew of one way to do it.
Through the ice and the window he saw Carl entering the kitchen. It seems Carla hadn’t put enough liquor in his eggnog.
Steph loved Carl, too. Nice guy, surely.
Carl disappeared back into the living room.
Carl. The name repeated itself. Was it jealousy? What did Carl have on him? Not looks, not brains. Neither of those, that was for sure. He supposed the only thing that Carl had on him that really mattered was a wife named Carla and a step-daughter named Stephanie. The latter called Carl Dad now.
He’d heard Steph say it while he was talking to Carla a few weeks ago. Carla had covered the phone and whispered something to Steph, then came back on the line pretending nothing had happened. But Dale had heard it, and it had hurt more than any of the insults thrown between him and Carla, more than every possession he’d lost in the dirvorce, more than losing custody of Steph, more than anything. She called Carl Dad. He couldn't get past that.
He had been furious after the phone call ended, had trashed the sad little living room of his bachelor suite. His bedroom, too, since they were both part of the same room.
Behind his eyes his thoughts provoked a deep anger. Before his eyes he could see Carla’s bare feet, extending just beyond the partition separating the kitchen and living rooms. Toenails painted red. How pretty. Just under her feet were Carl’s own bare feet.
Dale looked away, whispered Showtime to himself, then reached down to unzip the duffle bag. It was now or never. Had to be. It was Christmas, and he’d come bearing gifts.
Thirty minutes later, Dale was again approaching his old rotten Tempo. Tears had collected and frozen in his beard, but there was no time to sit around and collect himself. He had a flight early in the morning, and he’d said his final goodbyes. In his own way.
For Steph: An Ipod Touch. Carla had told him how badly Steph wanted one, but the Christmas shopping was done in August and they hadn’t bought her one.
For Carla: A Rebecca Minkoff shoulder bag. It was what she had wanted for Christmas two years ago, when they were still married. It hadn’t been in the budget then.
For Carl: Three ziplock bags containing twenty thousand dollars--what was left after Dale had sold everything, bought his plane ticket, and put aside five-thousand for himself to get started with. The cash was enough to keep Carla and Carl from foreclosing.
All of this he left tied in a garbage bag outside the back door of what used to be his home. It was hard to do after all they’d done to him, but kindness had its way of impeding anger. When you did good, you felt good.
Dale started the Tempo and began the long drive to the poverty-stricken North side of the city, where he would spend one final night in his unkempt bachelor pad before starting anew in a city far away. It was all he could think of to be rid of the pain.