Lee stared as he took his coat off. “You’re drenched! Christ alive, look at you!”
His pants were soaked through, his hair dripping. The drive home from the stranded man took less than fifteen minutes. The rain was coming down like Noah’s flood, and the house shook with the occasional flash of lightning.
“I suppose I missed the call,” he grumbled as another house-shaking boom of thunder faded away.
She hesitated, then nodded. She looked frightened.
“What did they say?”
“Nothing,” she replied hopelessly. “I tried telling them that you were out in the elements and fighting to get back, but they interrupted and hung up. I turned off the computer and started crying.”
Her face was still streaked and red.
“How long ago did they call?”
She shook her head. “Five? Ten minutes?”
“I’d hug you but I’m dripping.”
“I don’t really care right now,” she murmured. She walked into his chest and held him for a long time. He held her back.
“What do we do now?” she mumbled. “What do we do now, Ronan?”
“I don’t know. I’m sorry, baby. I ... I just don’t know.”
They hadn’t made love in almost four months. It wasn’t from anger, but fear. There was a point both of them reached at the same time later that night where the fear, peaking, worked back onto itself and consumed itself, and the floodgates opened, and he reached for her.
It was after 2 in the morning. She had been asleep for three hours; he for less than two. He reached for her, kissed the back of her neck, and pulled her closer. She turned over and their mouths met.
She held him in the dark afterward and cried, then fell back asleep. They exchanged no words.
He would have missed the call anyway.
She watched as he handed the plate with bacon, eggs, hash browns, and toast on it to her. He was starving for a proper fry-up, so rose an hour early to get it going.
“Thanks,” she smiled. She picked up a strip of bacon and took a bite. “What’s gotten into you this morning?”
He shrugged and sat with his own plate and dug in. “Don’t know. I just feel like today might be a good day.”
“You’ve had that feeling before,” she said. “Wasn’t the last time you had that feeling the day we got the first warning from the bank that they were going to foreclose on the house?”
“Yeah,” he said, continuing to eat, “pile it on.”
“I’m not trying to,” she said in that tone of voice that told him she wasn’t spoiling for a row. “I’m just saying that what you feel and what actually happens aren’t always in agreement.”
He shrugged again. “Or maybe they are and we just don’t know it yet.”
She took a sip of coffee. “Almost hits diabetic on the optimism scale. So how are you going to make today good?”
“Well,” he answered, sitting back and adjusting his tie, “I’m going to those mortgage fucks this morning and talk to them about extending us a little more time; and then I’m going to the government and finish applying for the Debt Management Program. I’ve got the files and receipts and all that crap already in the car. I was going to go yesterday, but ran really late.
His gaze intensified. “I’m a solid citizen. That’s how I’m going to have a good day. By knowing no matter what that I’m a solid goddamn citizen. So are you. I refuse to feel ashamed for our circumstances.”
He took several big gulps of coffee and wiped his mouth. “And how are you, love of my life, going to have a good day?”
She smiled. “By knowing I married the best bloke on this entire ruddy planet, that’s how.”
Her name was Mary McFilbrish, and couldn’t have been more than five years his senior, but insisted that he call her “Mrs. McFilbrish” after he called her Mary at their introduction in the office of GG Mortgage.
She looked like a female lawn gnome. She was dressed in a bright red business suit with white frilly blouse and hooker heels, which were black. Her pantyhose scraped like sandpaper when she walked. She stood maybe an inch or two over five feet, and looked like she was pushing to be about that wide.
Not a gnome, he thought, sitting. A soccer ball.
She scraped around him, his file ostensibly in hand, and sat across the large desk with her name in a prominent gold placard at the corner. Her desk was perfectly arranged. He noticed not a speck of dust on it, nor anything out of place.
She opened the file, adjusted her glasses, and read in silence for an uncomfortable minute.
“Six ... no seven ...” she murmured, her brow furrowing. She made a mark.
“It’s not clear here. Are you sixteen or seventeen payments behind on your mortgage?”
She peered over her glasses.
“Seventeen,” he said.
She set the file down. “Any luck finding employment?”
“Looking,” he said. He thought it might come out shamefully, but it didn’t. Because it was true. He was looking—every damn day.
She held her stare on him and made another mark while keeping her eyes fixed on him. “And your wife?”
“She’s looking too.”
“Mrs.” McFilbrish scowled. “That is a field with a fairly desperate need for staff. She can’t find a position here? That doesn’t seem likely.”
He could feel his temper slipping. He sat up and loosened his tie a little. “She recently suffered a health setback. She’s getting back on her feet.”
That was all he was willing to share, and he had shared it multiple times now. In truth, the “health setback” was she’d fallen off the wagon, got caught drunk at work, and was summarily fired. That was eighteen months ago.
She faced the disciplinary board, got the threatened mark into her “permanent record,” and was suspended from the profession until she demonstrated a documented effort to clean up.
It was a very tough time for both of them. On more than one occasion he was certain they were through, and even moved out once. But she seemed committed to facing her illness, and so, two months later, he moved back in. He went with her to AA meetings, met with her family’s priest regularly, and kept in touch with her mother, whom he disliked intensely, but who seemed genuinely interested in helping her daughter back to sobriety.
“Mrs.” McFilbrish, writing in his file, said, “Oh, I do hope she’s feeling better ...”
It wasn’t offered with any feeling, merely instead what bureaucrats say because they were trained to say it.
He loosened his tie a little more and glanced at the appropriate corporate art on her walls.
Silence. McFilbrish finished making marks, then began tapping on her computer. She stopped and gazed at him.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Sutton, but when a mortgage goes past eight unpaid payments, the company is very clear on what happens next. We make that clear from the off, as you well know. We do bend as much as we can, but in this case we can bend no further, I’m afraid. We will need the balance of the seventeen payments plus seven hundred eighteen pounds fifty-six for overdue charges as soon as possible, or I’m afraid we will have to formally foreclose on your mortgage.”
Before he could say anything in protest, or try to negotiate with her, “Mrs.” McFilbrish rose. “I’m sorry we can’t do more for you today,” she offered with a smile trained to appear sympathetic. “Thank you for dropping by.”
He stood, gave her a nod, and left.
Familiar. Very fucking familiar.
He turned up the volume on the stereo as he drove towards the government building.
Let the rain kiss you
Wash away my pain
A minute to keep silence
Time to think and time to weep
It's the only thing I share with you tonight
Irish rain lullaby
Before he met Lee, he had no taste for metal. Now he couldn’t get enough of it, particularly Leaves’ Eyes.
Though singing the song, he still couldn’t stop the thought from repeating:
Familiar. Very fucking familiar.
That stranded bloke yesterday! Why do I keep thinking of him? Where have I seen him before? I know I have!
He pulled into the government building’s parking lot and slowed to a stop. The rain had let up a little, but still came down in big drops that now had ice in it. Snow laced between them, and the road had become slushy.
The government building was as ugly as it was gray. As far as he knew, it didn’t even have a proper name. It was known simply as “the government building.” The somberness of the day did nothing to help its appearance.
He sat for a moment and gathered his wits.
This was probably the first place he should’ve come. He’d already spoken to the debt folks inside, and they were much more receptive to helping him than that stiff bitch soccer ball at GG Mortgage. He and Lee had already filled out most of the paperwork.
The mortgage fucks would be forced to back off, though it was very unlikely that he and Lee would get to keep the house. It would require other sacrifices as well; and it would require that he find a job immediately. The program would last five years ... but at this point he was ready to start working fast food again, as he had when he was a teenager. It didn’t matter now what he did, as long as he was pulling in a paycheck, any paycheck, of any size.
As for Lee ... it was unlikely that she’d get hired back anywhere near here. Not as a nurse, anyway. At one time she was making almost a thousand pounds a year more than he had been as the manager at Carlingford’s finest hotel. Her firing was catastrophic.
He hurried out of the car into the building, files clutched protectively under his coat.
There were lines at at least three different desks. A ticker above the main one read 89. He pulled a tab and glanced at it. 13. He sighed and plopped down in the nearest chair, setting the files down on the chair next to him.
Familiar. Very fucking familiar ...
Karl, he reminded himself. That’s right. Karl. Karl with the sharp eyes.
He tried filling in details with ones he knew.
Sharp eyes, and a handsome but serious face. Good, solid chin, well-shaven. Ears that weren’t obtrusive but probably heard everything around him.
An intelligent man, but not pedantic, not overbearing. He knew the limits of intelligence in dealing with people. People were all emotions. He knew that.
So ... who the fucking hell was he?
He glanced up at the ticker. It had gone past 99 and was now at 06. He looked at his watch and was mildly shocked. He’d been sitting here twenty-eight minutes!
The remaining six people ahead of him were served quickly. Forty minutes after he walked in, he heard: “Thirteen? Thirteen?”
He stood and went to the woman behind the door. She recognized him, which showed in her comfortable smile.
“Hello, Mr. Sutton. Staying dry?”
He chuckled. “How are you?”
She looked him over. “Dry. Come on through.”
She opened the gate and he walked through. She came around her desk and sat.
“You have paperwork for me today?”
“It’s like the rain,” he murmured, handing it over. “Bloody endless, it is.”
She gave him a sympathetic smile that actually appeared genuine, and opened the file.
He didn’t want to return home right away, so he went for a drive. He ended up at his and Lee’s favorite place to park when they were dating. It overlooked the town and had a nice view of the sea—when it wasn’t pouring like it was right now.
It was a beautiful little town, Carlingford. Quaint was the proper word—but in the kind sense of it. Lovely, Quiet. Small.
But quaint these days, if it meant anything, meant too fucking expensive to live in or around.
They would have to move into a flat—but not here. In
Or Belfast. And
not a nice flat. A dump with all the amenities would do: cockroaches, stained and
thin walls, the odd hypodermic needle in the corner, rats.
And that was assuming he could find a job in fast food or at a petrol station.
He thought of that face again. He thought of his mother, then of money.
It always came down to money. Every time. Without exception.
He had taken two degrees at university: one in botany; the second in divinity. He had paid for both from the inheritance he received when his mother passed shortly after he turned sixteen. She had pressed him to get good grades, and he did, which allowed him into
in Dublin. He
received almost perfect marks, graduating with distinction both times. Things
were looking very bright.
He met Lee a year later. She was a sophomore in nursing at Trinity. She came from a strict Catholic family, and so they didn’t fall into bed until they got married three years later—his “Blue Period,” as he liked to call it. But she was the prettiest girl he had ever seen, and easily the sweetest, so he rationalized the wait was worth it.
He didn’t find out about her drinking problem until a year after they began dating. He didn’t think anything about it initially. So she enjoyed her drink! So did he! Who the fuck in
She hid it from him very well. Much later she confessed that most of the time that they were dating she was either drunk or close to it. He had never smelled alcohol on her breath, which was astonishing, because he lived half the time in her mouth. They may not have had intercourse, but everything else was game, and the game was always on, it seemed.
She was drunk as she walked up the aisle at their wedding.
On the wagon, then off again, then on again. Promises and tears. Tears and promises. New resolutions which survived sometimes a month, maybe two. But most didn’t get to a week; some didn’t get to a day. And those were the ones he knew about.
Alcoholic Anonymous. The Big Book. Even praying at the bedside together. The shadows were strong and rank with stale liquor. But there was light too, occasionally brilliant and warm. When he could, he’d point to it, even if it was weak and dying.
Fights. Raging fights. Words exchanged neither meant but were hurled to harm and push away. Threats to divorce. Threats of suicide. Broken dishes; a broken couch and living room window. Sleepless nights uncountable. Several visits by police over disturbing the peace, and inquiries over possible domestic abuse. Quiet mornings following where an unspoken and fragile détente had been declared.
Lee was a devout Catholic. Looking back, her devotion was perhaps the only thing at points that had kept him from leaving and never looking back. For when things got really desperate, she would cling to her faith, weak as an infant, and he couldn’t help but feel deeply inspired.
She was recklessly beautiful to him, an angel-faced imp with dark hazel eyes and daring smile who held him fast. Even today, nine years later, her beauty entranced him.
Most times it felt distinctly like a curse. It had kept him helpless in its grip when he wanted to be free of her. There was beauty even in her helpless rage, even as she screamed curses at him, even when, barely conscious from drink, she’d start vomiting.
He had felt an undertow of hope grab him this morning, and had gone with it. What else was there to do?
It was time to return home to inform his angel that it was time to pack up and move into a one-bedroom dump in the middle of a city—it didn’t matter which one—that she despised nearly as much as he did.
He started the car and drove down from the lookout for the home that was no longer theirs.
She leaned against him as they watched television. She hadn’t made fun of his morning optimism, or even brought it up.
“Are you scared?”
He shook his head before kissing the top of hers. “Not scared. Depressed. I like this little abode.”
“So do I,” she murmured.
He yawned. “I think I’ll make an early night of it.”
He went to stand, but stopped. That face ... the old man’s face ... the stranded driver’s face ... was on the telly!
“Turn it up!” he said. “Quick! That’s the guy I helped yesterday! That’s him! Son of a bitch! Now I know who it is! I’ll be a son of a bitch!”
Lee, fumbling for the remote, found it and quickly turned up the volume.
“ ... and finally, in financial news, trillionaire Karl Watson has sold his stake in Amazon and The Washington Post to undisclosed buyers here in Ireland, citing personal reasons. Speculation continues to swirl over Watson’s mental health. Watson, increasingly reclusive, declined all requests for an interview.”
Watson hurried into a waiting limo under a crush of black umbrellas, journalists, and flashing cameras. Bodyguards kept anyone from getting too close. The skyline was very familiar ...
“Jesus Christ alive,” whispered Ronan. “That’s
He’s in Dublin!
That was Karl Watson I helped
yesterday! Karl fucking Watson! I helped the wealthiest man on Earth—the
world’s first trillionaire! I did!”