A Happy Family

The way John figured it, the ocean was a literary cliché because it was so perfect. The view was perfect, endlessly ongoing and changing with the moon's arc. The taste was perfect, like the salt of a lover's back. The touch always constant, the smell pleasant and welcoming, and the sound of the crashing waves going and going--all so perfect and delicious and succulent.

But high-quality popular fiction was not about capturing perfection, nor was it about capturing perfect emotion. Popular fiction was about pushing entertaining books and making money, and lots of it.

So what kind of writer did John want to be?

Certainly he could write another best selling thriller--his protagonist always an enthusiastic but ultimately ordinary person who, by the end, gets the girl and triumphs over insurmountable odds. John knew how to pace these books. He knew how to make readers sit on edge. He had his ways of convincing readers to stay up late with their midnight lamps, anxiously anticipating the next scenes, the resolution.

But John was forty now. He had written too many books to remember, and of all sizes and lengths. The time called for something fresh, for something new. The winds wisped for change. So sitting in front of his laptop, his gloved hands beginning to clasp his warm cup of coffee on this cold winter night, he decided then and there that he would start his next novel with an ocean--this grand ocean--because damn it, he was a writer.

Ten pages and three cups of coffee later, he shut down for the night and crawled silently into bed, ruffling the sheets like disturbed clouds. He took a moment to breathe in Lynda's fading scent, then glanced at his alarm clock.

The good days are when you look up and it's just way later than you thought it could be, and there is this weird tired that is a really good sort of tired, and the room just sort of stays there silently, and you feel totally calm and relaxed with all the complicated and intricate but subtle relationships between the time, the tired, and the room. This, he decided, made a good day, and this had been a good day. A very good day indeed.


John woke to the blasting beep of an alarm clock that seemed to pound his forehead with every subsequent beating pulse thereafter. He violently slammed the snooze button and drifted back to sleep.

When he woke again, Rachel and Tyler were bouncing on his bed, joyously trying to get his attention. The thuds of the bed against his back hurt, for he was no longer a young man, but there were smiles on their little faces, and like an infection, a smile began to grow on John's face as well. The thought occurred to him then that he could live in pain if it meant keeping his children happy: it was only a week ago he'd thought the kids had become an unfortunate burden he'd rather be without, though he supposed everyone had evil thoughts in passing.

"Alright kids, off the bed," he said, and the little monsters scurried quickly out of the room like pixies who'd gotten caught. In retrospect, he would replay this moment over and over, because you never quite remember the Incident itself: it is always what happens before that shines most brightly.

A minute later, Rachel came back in with a plate of eggs, sunny side up. Tyler followed soon after with the entire coffee pot, and they placed the food on a little bed tray they set up in front of him.

John smiled and wondered if they'd cooked the eggs properly. Doesn't matter, he thought.

"Well, aren't you going to eat it?" Rachel asked, her inflection going up with each word as if helium balloons were pulling at her larynx.

Tyler was running around the room in circles, over-hyper as always.

"Well sure I am," John said, picking up the fork and the coffee pot. He took a sip and winced. "Hey champ, how about warming this up a bit for me?"

Tyler ran toward him, making a zoom sound like an airplane. He stretched his wings, grabbed the pot, and flew out the room at a blink of an eye.

John laughed. "What will we ever do with your little brother? He's going to hurt himself one of these days, I know it." He stabbed his eggs, and took a bite. Not cooked properly as he'd expected, but that didn't matter. "Hey, why'd you two go through all this trouble anyway? I'm impressed, I am, but you really didn't have to--"

"But it's your birthday! Don't you remember?" Rachel interjected. "And we know you've been sort of sad since mommy went on her 'long-term business trip.'" She said that last part while making imaginary quotes in the air with her tiny, little fingers. Rachel was eight, but she was a precocious child, and she knew when something was up.

John hated the term, personally. Long-term business trip. It sounded so removed and forgettable, which he supposed was the point. He had made up the term quickly and without much thought. Like so many of his novels, but that was okay. He took a moment to assure himself that he was a changed writer now, a changed man even.

Rachel must have noticed her father drifting off in thought. She said, "You start writing again? I woke up to go to the bathroom and I heard the clicking of your keyboard. I love the sound of the clicking." She giggled. "So you started writing again? It's been some time."

John turned and looked at a picture resting on the nightstand next to the bed. It was a picture of him and Lynda in Hawaii celebrating their honeymoon, out and surrounded by the ocean's cool, vast breeze--his stomach began to turn.

Rachel giggled again. "You're awful quiet today dad! Regretful, almost guilty-looking."

"I'm sorry about that." A quiver in his voice.

Rachel went into another room and came back with a tissue. She wiped her dad's eyes. "It's okay dad. I'm sure she'll be back soon enough. At the blink of an eye! Just like you said."

At this, John burst. There were heaving sobs now, and had Rachel been a few years older and a lot more cynical, she would have noticed that his tears were adding salt to the uncooked bullshity eggs that were in front of him. The eggs were on a bullshity plate in his bullshity room with his bullshity laptop which among his other dabbles contained his bullshity first chapter. He was no literary author. He was a pop artist, and nothing more than that. He would always be one. Hollow and empty, just like his characters.

John hugged his daughter with the warmest of embraces. "I'll figure it out," he managed, forcing a smile because it seemed fitting for the situation he'd gotten himself into. "I've got an old draft that I've been working on for a long time. It's eighty percent done. It's about a man who gets mistaken for a terrorist by the CIA. It's going to be a huge seller, just like all of daddy's other stories. I just know it's going to be huge."

And then the Incident happened.

Tyler came back in the room, still zooming like an airplane. This time, however, his foot got caught on a loose floorboard. A sudden jolt forward then a crash landing. And Rachel would, although John couldn't, remember the coffee pot flying in a perfect arc in the air.

In Rachel's memory, it would fly in slow-motion. It would turn two and a half times. Then it would crash hard on daddy's laptop like a bomb, exploding on impact. Rachel would not remember what happened after that.


Tyler brought his knees closer into his chest and continued rocking back-and-forth and shivering in the safety of his corner of the room, in the corner furthest away from John. In a later conversation with Dr. Fansler, Tyler would come to realize that maybe only five minutes had passed at this point since he'd tripped and fallen. Of course, he would never be certain, what with John's insistent slurping of the bled-out eggs and the rhythmic pacing of Rachel's frantic running away outside: the sounds were welcomed distractions from what stood in the center of the room, where a single floorboard stood erect, its underside fully exposed, where, below that, a pair of eyes stared out like spotlights and converged on what seemed to Tyler to be Tyler. Two eyes attached to a gray, rotting corpse. Two eyes attached to the novelist formerly known as mommy.

Still shivering, still rocking back-and-forth, Tyler turned his attention to his father, who had since finished slurping up the egg-gook and was now setting aside his plate. Tyler noticed then just how long daddy's stubble had grown and figured that daddy mustn't have shaved in a long while. The facial hair made daddy seem more serious somehow, and as the sun rose higher and began to creep slowly through the bedroom's sole window, blanketing everything in the room with a soft glaze, Tyler thought of his sister, for, small though he was, he had vague though confident impressions of what it meant to be a man. He figured he should run after her, catch up to her, somehow, to save her, because, and if for no other reason, he needed to get out of the room. The room seemed unbreathable, and now daddy, too, was staring at him, making now for two sets of eyes, four spotlights in total, and those porcupine-like stubbles so viscous.

John cleared his throat before Tyler could move. "I just wanted a happy family."