John Vurro

THE POOL 

Six days after Les had peeled the elastic cover off of his in-ground pool, after he had checked the PH balance and scooped insects out with a pole-net, and just five-minutes after he had shimmied his bathing-suit onto his waist, his ten-year old son Jake slipped on the tiled border, knocked his head against the lip of the pool and drowned. Eleven weeks after the funeral, his wife Helen moved into an apartment. Eight months after that, Les walked into his living room and found the ghost of his son seated on his couch, watching reruns of SpongeBob.

Les rubbed his eyes. It was only one in the afternoon, but he was already drunk and wanted to be positive that his son’s appearance wasn’t the result of stale beer. His son held out the remote, the leather squeaking from his weight, and said, “You can change it,” as if that were the issue, “but this is my favorite episode.”

Jake’s ability to speak in a sentence, instead of a ghostly moan, seemed more impossible than seeing him seated on the couch. It was Jake. His face, paler than usual, but with the same flop of curls, deep set eyes that rarely seemed to blink. Les wasn’t afraid. This was his son. He felt more of a cold, dizzying shock. He called for his wife Helen, then remembered that she had abandoned him. He said, “I need to sit.”

His son tapped the cushion and Les swayed towards the couch and collapsed onto the seat. Jake pointed towards the television anchored to the wall. On the screen, the ghost of a pirate sailed through the window of SpongeBob’s pineapple home. Before Les had walked into the kitchen to get another beer, he had been watching the weather map channel. The clouds floating across his section of New Jersey to the backdrop of jazz lulled his sadness. Jake had switched stations. A trail of watery footprints traveled from the screen-door, which was now open, across the hardwood floor, and onto the ochre couch. He said, “How did you get here?”

Jake shrugged. “Wasn’t easy.” He glanced around the room. “Where’s Mom?”

“Upstairs, sleeping.” Les winced. Three minutes and he had already lied to his son’s ghost. Trying to change the subject, he said, “You’re wearing your bathing suit.”

“I was swimming.” He pointed towards the screen door. “Want to?”

A humid breeze blew through the open window and the curtains parted. The floodlights cut blades through the water, revealing the emerald sparkle of the pool. Late at night, he’d stumble drunk into the yard and stare at the arrow of bubbles shooting from the ports. The pool had shifted into a memorial, a marker for his negligence. Now, he waited for him to vanish.  When he didn’t Les said, “I gave up swimming.”

Jake shrugged, and said, “That’s too bad. I’m a fish.”

He watched his son. In this room with him. This gift. “What kind?”

“A tiger shark.” Jake flicked his hand and water sprayed the floor. “But a nice one.”  

When his son first tried to swim, he slapped the water and kicked from his knees. Then came the gradual process at the Y with the instructor, where Les finally witnessed the victory of his son swimming laps. His happiness shifted to the counterpoint memory of blood billowing to the surface as Jake sank to the bottom of the pool. He sipped his beer, then said, “Hungry?”

“I don’t eat. Except for KitKats. I’d devour those even if my skin was rotting off.”

Les imagined swaths of skull, flashes of bone. His penance. Then again, Jake spent hours watching horror movies like Frankenstein, The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The one with the radioactive ants that Les forgot the name. Still, this was his ghost. He could be telling the truth. Les swallowed hard, then said, “That’s not really going to happen, right?”

Jake wiped water off his nose. “Beat’s me. I just got here.”

Not knowing what to say, Les settle on, “Anyway, all I have is beer and potpies.”

“Trying to kill yourself?”

“Maybe.” Les flinched, catching himself. “I mean, of course not.”

Jake glided his palm along the cushion, leaving a wet streak. “’I’d bring you back. Easy.”

“Okay,” Les said. Was he really having this conversation? Les wanted to ask his son questions about how the accident actually happened. Deeper questions concerning ghosts, if that’s what he was, and the afterlife. But he was afraid if he probed too much he’d only prove this was some hallucination, a cruel joke. Jake’s hair was dry, though water leaked from his pores. He smelled like chlorine. Les reached out to touch his son’s head, but pulled back his hand, afraid of what he’d find. Les wanted this world, with his son, and not a reality where his wife slept in a condo and his son was buried in the ground. He seemed real enough.

Jake pointed at the TV. “Gary gets a girlfriend. He meows. Can we get a cat?”

“Son, we’ll buy three.”

“I’m going to name them all Gary.”

Les laughed. “That’s a great idea.”

For a while they sat on the couch, Jake smiling at the cartoons and Les praying that he wouldn’t be ripped from this dream. He felt awake, but sleeping seemed like the better explanation. Jake shut the television. Drops of water ran down his chest. “Let’s swim.”

“Tomorrow,” Les said.

“You always say that.” It was the familiar disappointment in his son’s voice that made Les feel as though he was eating glass. Before Les could apologize, his son said, “I know. Let’s wake up Mom.” Jake hopped off the couch, leaving a wet imprint.

“Mom isn’t upstairs,” Les said. His son shrugged, confused. “Look, I lied. After the funeral. She wanted time.”

“It’s my fault?”

As Les stood, he avoided looking at Helen’s brush wedged underneath the radiator. He had grabbed her arm to beg her to stay and she had tugged free. The brush fell from the box she was holding. She turned to leave and booted it with her sandal. Lately, he fought the urge to hold the bristles up to his nose and smell her citrusy shampoo. Other times, he wanted to throw it into the garbage. Les said, “Of course not.” He almost said, it’s my fault, but stopped himself.

“I know. Tomorrow we’ll visit her. She’ll see me and we’ll be together again.”

“It’s not that easy.”

“Of course it is,” Jake said. 

Maybe it was that easy? After all, his son had materialized from the depths, why not his wife, who lived less than a mile away. He stared at the brush. He had nothing to lose. Les said, “Okay.” Jake fist-pumped and leapt. “Wait, another thing. People can’t see you.”

“What about Mike? We were playing a Magic marathon. I was finally beating him.” Les shook his head. “But he’s not people, he’s my best friend. He’d never say shit.”

Les said, “Hey, don’t curse.” Jake apologized. “It’s okay.” 

Mike, Jake’s best friend, had the biggest mouth Les had ever heard. Besides bragging about how he cheated on his math tests, or played ring-and-run, Les remembered the time that Mike came over and they started talking about sleeping, of all things. Mike confessed that his parents slept really weird. When Les asked how, Mike blurted that once when he felt sick he came into their bedroom and he saw his mother’s head sleeping between his father’s legs and his father’s head sleeping between his mother’s legs. Helen laughed so hard that she choked on her broccoli. Les said, “You can’t see him. Not right now. Until then, I’ll play with you.”

“Dad, we tried like a zillion times.”

The last time they had played, Les stared at the artwork and numbers on the cards as his son, yet again, explained the rules. By his third turn, Jake forfeited instead of struggling through the rest of the game. Back then, Les would’ve rather shot hoops than sit on Jake’s balding carpet and play some diet version of Dungeons and Dragons, a game he hated playing as a kid. But this was his chance to redeem himself for all of the naps or television or extra work, instead of being with his son. How could he care about marketing deadlines now? He’d tell Bryant that he was obliterated by the flu and cut the whole week. His boss had choked back sobs at his son’s wake. He wouldn’t question. From today on it was all about his son. Then, once Helen came back, his family. If Jake wanted, he’d watch paint dry on the fucking walls with him.

Les said, “I think you’re afraid you’ll lose.”

“Never.” Jake nodded, fighting back a smile, then said, Jake liked to know the exact limits for everything, cleaning his room, doing homework, so he could then adjust the request to his advantage. His son said, “So house. Like the yard?”  

Their yard was surrounded by a row of twelve-foot Leyland pines that Les had planted after Helen confessed that she wanted to tan topless. Maybe if his neighbor had seen Jake slip, they would’ve called 911. It didn’t matter. He was here now. “No yard, no swimming,” Les said. “Sorry. Tomorrow, I’ll buy you a cat, okay?”

Jake hugged Les and he flinched, surprised by the pressure, the reality of his son’s grip. When he stepped back, there was a wet line across Les’ shirt. His son was here. This was happening. “Three remember? You promised.”

Les said, “I sure did. Now go get those cards.”           

 ***

The next day Les brought Jake to the shelter and adopted cats, brothers who were eight-months old, chipped, neutered and all three orange. Les insisted that Jake travel with him, afraid that if he left Jake alone that he’d vanish for good, but he was also worried that someone would recognize him. Les asked Jake to wait in the car when he adopted the cats. After that, he drove to the supermarket and bought cat food, Becks, KitKats and superhero coloring books.

Outside in the parking lot, Les twisted towards the backseat to watch his son. Jake placed the box onto his thighs and said, “The Garys don’t like me.”

“Of course they do.”

“I keep dripping on them. Not on purpose.” Jake shook his hand and beads of water dropped from his fingers, a leaky spigot. “See?” 

“Well, you’re like their water bowl,” Les said, trying to sound positive. 

“Yeah, that’ll be my job.” Before Les could tell his son that he’d raise his allowance, Jake lurched forward and pointed, flicking water onto the windshield. “Look there’s Mom.”

Les turned and saw Helen pushing a cart filled with bags down their lane. She was wearing purple sweat shorts and matching tank top. She was braless, thinner, looking more like a teenager than a woman in her mid-thirties, and nothing like his wife. Seeing her this way, fit and independent, felt scarier than seeing his son’s ghost. He felt jealous that she looked so good, then guilty about his reaction. She wiped her forehead.

Les slipped below the dashboard. He said, “Quick, hide.”

“Why?”

A few summers ago, Helen found a dead sparrow in their yard. When she tried to scoop the bird up with a trowel, the sparrow fluttered its wings against the grass until it flew into the hydrangea bushes. He thinks of her high pitched scream. How she paced the yard, her wrist pressed into her chest. This was how he pictured Helen’s reaction to their son’s ghost, which just can’t happen in a parking lot. He said, “She can’t see you yet.”

“Fine, Dad.” 

Les twisted to explain. The box of the mewing kittens sat alone on the backseat. “Son?” He pressed his head against the headrest and swiped blindly behind his seat, hoping his son was crouching in the foot-well. “Please don’t leave.”

I’m here. Les flinched, surprised by the volume of his son’s voice in his head. “How’d you disappear?” Easy. Now talk to Mom. He stared at cardboard’s wet, buckling corners. I’m fine, really. Go. “Okay, but stay, wherever.”

Les hopped out of his car and the summer heat encased him. The lot reeked of exhaust and roasting tar. Helen pushed her cart’s front wheel into a pothole. She tilted the cart and lifted it free. That was Helen, the highest-selling realty agent in her office, fighting past even the smallest of setbacks. Of course she’d hit the gym, find a condo, while he drank and stared at the weather channel for hours. Then again, he had let their son drown. She never blamed Les, but they both knew he was the one struggling to squeeze into his bathing-suit. He was the parent, the father, who could’ve saved their son.

He shut his door, checked the backseat, still just the Garys, then snuck up behind her and tapped her shoulder. She twisted around, said, “Jesus, what the fuck?”

Smart one Dad. “Sorry. Just wanted to say hey.”

“Then say hello.”

She stared at his stained shirt, unshaved face. Les crossed his arms, as though he could hide days of not showering, eating or sleeping right. He waited for a look of concern, soft and forgiving. She watched him, blankly, almost bored. Not knowing what to do, he said, “Sick day.”  

“You look sick.” She laughed, then touched his elbow, her palm sweaty from the heat. He hadn’t been touched by another person in months. “Sorry.”

“That’s okay. You look,” he stared at her breasts, “healthy.” He reached to touch her arm, but she stepped back. He wiped his thwarted hand on his thigh. They stood there, her staring at the trunk of her Corolla, and him trying to figure out what to do next. Sitting in his house alone, Les had rehearsed his monologue of promises, apologies, but now standing in front of her his mind was a static filled space. Dad say something. Les said, “My job is okay,” as if she had asked.

 “Helps to keep busy.” She sighed, then gave this half shrug, possibly trying to understand how she now lived in a world without her child. It happened to Les too. 

After they had returned home from their son’s funeral, she locked herself in the bathroom for hours. When Les leaned against the door, he heard the hiss of water from the faucet, as though she were rinsing away her grief.

A month later, she started going to therapy twice a week, then once a week she attended a church for grief counseling. Soon after, Helen confessed to him her need to separate. She hugged her cardboard box filled with photo albums of their son. She said, “All I see is Jake,” though Les heard, ‘your mistake.’ Then she promised she’d call. She never did. Alone in his house, he felt like he had lost his son twice, once in the actual losing, then again by witnessing the empty rooms, the pool. And now he was supposed to rescue their lives together, standing in a sweltering lot as his son’s ghost sat, or whatever, in the backseat. He felt overwhelmed. They watched a green station-wagon accelerate down the lane. He said, “Let me help with your bags.”

“You never helped me with the bags.”

“Sure I did.” She complained about it all the time. Les pictured Jake lugging in too many bags at once, the cans rolling across the floor as he watched the Mets. He wasn’t being mean, just lazy. Besides, things were different now. He said, “I didn’t. But we can help each other now.”

“You want to help? Give me the photos of Jake that are on your computer. I have everything else except when he was born.”

“Come over and print them.” Good move.

“I’d rather if you’d forward them to me,” she said.  Then barely audible over the traffic. “I can’t be in that house.”

She ran her thumb along the handle of the shopping cart. She hadn’t overcome anything. She just hadn’t surrendered to it like he did. He rubbed her arm, sorry that he had accused her of such things. She nodded, then stepped back.

He said, “Give me your address and I’ll drop the computer off.”

“I’ll text you my address when I get home.”

“Just do it now.”

“I left my phone in the car. Besides, I want to get out of this heat.” She took a small bottled water from her cart and pressed it against her forehead, dramatizing her point.

That’s okay, he was pretending too. Les already knew where she lived. Sometimes at night he’d drive past her complex, hoping he’d spot her walking, unable to sleep because she missed him. She had to miss him. They had been married for eleven years. When Les thought of his wife, it was of them ice-skating, her cold fingers clutching his hand; how she’d pinch her earlobe as she read novels. Taking their infant son to the park. He whispered, “We were happy.” You guys fought a lot. Les said,  “Never.” Okay, how about the time in the Oak Diner? That trucker guy smiled at Mom and you spit on his cheeseburger. Jake couldn’t have remembered what Helen later deemed as the ‘Burger Incident.’ He was only three-years old. He guessed at which version of his memories were correct. Anyway couples fought, and once she saw their son, none of this would matter.

Les said, “So you’ll text me later?”

“Yes.”

 “Promise?” Dad she said she would, relax. 

She watched traffic. “Okay, I promise.”

He wanted to believe her, but she had promised the last time too. They watched a white SUV splash through a puddle, leaving a rainbow colored streak on the pavement. This quiet moment felt better than talking. That’s what he wanted, to be reassembled by her company.  He said, “I’ll have that computer for you. See you tonight.”

“Okay.” She pushed the cart down the lane, then stopped. “Your car?”

The driver-side, back-door was open. He waited to see Jake’s head pop up and stare out the rear-view window. He’d be angry, but at least he’d be glad to see him. Appear, or reappear. He wasn’t quite sure what word to use. Les whispered, “I told you to stay put.” Dad you opened the door and checked the backseat for me. “No I didn’t.” Uh, yes you did. Les remembers the Garys. Jake disappearing. Shutting his door. Forgetting was a gentler explanation than the other possibility: he was a lunatic. But if his son’s appearance was a delusion that still wouldn’t explain the water. The switched television station. “Where are you?” With you. Jake’s voice was so perfectly his that any doubts Les had about his son’s presence disappeared. Mom is still there. Les turned. “I guess I left it open.”

She watched him. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

Les waved. “Just the heat. Anyway, text me.”

“Right.” Helen rushed towards her car. As she got closer, the trunk popped open. She tossed fistfuls of bags into her trunk with a flustered energy.

“She thinks I’m a weirdo.” Let’s go home and swim. It’ll help you. Les doubted it.

***

Gary Three was dead. Heatstroke. His kitten body lay fetal on the dining-room table. The dark wood reminded Les of a casket, his son’s casket. In the hot parking-lot, he was so occupied with Jake’s disappearance and his wife that he forgot about the sweltering car and the Garys.

When he came home he dropped the cardboard box onto the table, whistled the last bars of the SpongeBob theme, and then jogged upstairs to the bathroom. He showered, shaved, dabbed himself with spicy-scented aftershave. For the first time in months, his life had possibilities. He’d give Helen the computer. Then after she accepted his apology, he’d reveal their son. But then he found Jake staring at the lifeless body of Gary Three. 

Les placed his cellphone onto the table, making sure he’d see her text. He said, “I’m sorry.”

“It’s my fault. I should’ve watered them.” Jake nudged the cat with his finger, leaving a wet spot on its fur. Next to Gary Three, Gary One and Two were eating from cans of cat food, a fish hybrid that Jake had given them. Jake said, “Gary One is really hungry. I forgot what food tastes like. Not that I want cat food.”

Les said, “Nobody wants that.”

“True.” He ran his thumb along Gary Three’s tail. “I ate a KitKat. Tasted like pool-water.”

Les tried to think of a reason for his son, something positive, reassuring. He settled on, “They were stale.” Jake agreed, though Les knew they both didn’t believe it. Les took a towel off the chair and tucked it underneath the cat’s body, then folded it over. Jake slid the wrapped Gary Three in front of him. “Can’t keep a dead kitten, right?”

Water ran down Jake’s chin and pooled onto the table. Jake said, “You’re keeping me.”

“That’s different. I mean, you’re not dead.”

“What am I?” Jake pinched his arm. “I don’t feel alive.”

“You’re here. I’ll buy you another Gary Three” Jake shrugged. “Want to play Magic?”

“Not the same without Mike. Besides, I’ll just soak the cards.”

It was true. Wet footprints trailed the rooms of the house. The couch already smelled of mildew. He had broken the remote from his watery grip. Jake’s appearance had seemed to change as well. The tips of his fingers were now shriveled, his lips had the slightest tint of blue, though more like being cold then asphyxiation. Les stared at the puddle on the table. Our bodies were mostly water. He believed that sadness was a liquid. He didn’t want to think about what it all meant. He didn’t care. “If you do I’ll buy you more.”

Jake shrugged. “I wonder what Mike’s doing now.”

“He’s probably doing what we’re doing.”

Jake pointed at the lump of dead cat. “I really doubt that, Dad.”

“I mean hanging around,” Les said, though he wasn’t sure what he meant. Helen was the one who always cheered him up. When Jake fell off his bike or was cut from soccer tryouts, she’d make him a bowl of ice cream, or buy him comics. Even if Les tried that now, his son couldn’t do either of those things. Another reason why she needed to be here. “Guess I’ll bury Gary Three.”

“Wait.” Jake said, “How about trick? Close your eyes, what do you see?”

“Nothing, black I guess.”

“When I close my eyes I see green. Then I feel hands pushing me upwards.”

Les flinched and opened his eyes. He pictured the pool crowded with the ghosts of other drowned children, waiting just below the surface, helping Jake plan his escape. But that was ridiculous. They had the pool installed. Helen, who was superstitious, demanded to know if any tragedy, say an unexplained death, a murder, had occurred. She was a realtor and knew how easily tragedy creeps through the rooms. The house was spotless. Well, until they moved in.

Les said, “What do you mean?”

“Nothing.” Jake smiled, “C’mon do it.”

Les closed his eyes and heard Jake’s chair slide back. He wanted to escape, then felt ridiculous. This was his son. Les said, “Where are you going?”

 “No peeking.”  

Les placed his palms on the tabletop, which felt cold, soothing. The screen-door slid open. He wanted to look, make sure this wasn’t a trick so that Jake could swim, but then he heard squishy footsteps coming towards him. “Hello?” He felt someone standing next to him. Water dripped onto his foot, soaked into his sock. Les said, “You okay?”

“Hold out your hands. Palms up.”

He stretched out his arms, then pulled away. “What are you going to do?”

“Don’t you trust me?”  

“Of course,” he said, though given the situation he didn’t. But he needed to prove to Jake that he trusted him, or maybe prove to himself. He held out his arms and something wet dropped into his hands. Les opened his eyes. He was holding Gary Three. He raised the cat towards the bell-shaped lights of the ceiling fan. Gary Three let out a mew, exactly like the cries Les had heard in the car. He placed him onto the table. Gary Three walked toward his brothers, leaving a trail of wet paw prints. The cat sniffed at the food, then moved away from the cans.

Jake smiled. “Ta-da!”   

Gary Three sat on the table, his eyes half-open with a bored disdain that only felines possessed. Les’ chest tightened. He said, “How did you? You know.”

His son pointed towards the pool. “I dunked him like a donut.” He walked towards the couch. Les followed and sat next to him. The cushion felt wet. Jake said, “SpongeBob’s on.” He jabbed the control toward the television, then flicked it onto the couch. “Forgot it’s broke.”

Les stared at a picture on the television stand. Helen, her face puffy, sweaty, tired, as she cradled Jake, swaddled in a striped hospital blanket. Les took the picture the night their son was born. After the accident, he’d find Helen staring at the photo. She seemed to have wanted the pictures, enough to have asked him. She should’ve called by now. He watched his phone as though he could force it to ring. Jake said, “Think Mom’s mad at me?”

“For what?”

“Dying.”

“Of course not.”

Jake picked at the remote buttons. Water dripped from his chin. He said, “I saw the belt in your closet.”

“I have lots of belts in my closet,” Les said. 

“I mean the cracked, brown leather belt Mom bought for your twenty-sixth birthday. The one buckled onto the pole.” Les had tied the belt two days after Helen left. He stared at the makeshift noose, then fled the spare bedroom and shut the door. He had forgotten to take it down. Until his son appeared, he had no reason.

Before he could answer, Jake said, “I’m here for you, Dad. It wasn’t your fault.” He pointed towards the pool. “Besides, if you went through with it, we wouldn’t be here now, right?”

A chlorine-scented breeze rustled the curtains. “How do you know all this?”

Jake bit his lip and frowned, the face when solving his math homework, his serious face. “If I told you, I’d have to steal your soul.” Les gripped the phone. One of the Gary’s meowed. Jake said, “Just kidding!” He laughed, slapped the cushion. “Man, I got you good.”

Les said, “Jesus, don’t do that again.”

“Sorry, Dad. Just a joke.”

“Okay.” Les rocked off the couch. “Well, I’m going to see Mom now.”

 “Let’s wait. There’s always the pool.”

Before Les could tell Jake to forget about swimming, his phone buzzed. The message read: Sorry. Maybe tomorrow. “I knew she’d bail.” He flicked the phone onto the cushion.

Gary Three walked into the living-room and hopped onto Jake’s lap. His son leaned forward and read the message. “So, one more day.”

He pictured them together tonight, not tomorrow or six weeks from now. His family driving home. He said, “You’ll be here, right?” then immediately wanted to take it back. Jake shrugged. Les wasn’t sure if Jake didn’t know, or refused to say. Or maybe his son knew this visit was only temporary and didn’t want to ruin it. Like how Les counted the days left when he was on vacation. If this was temporary, which he didn’t believe, why take the trouble in appearing only to disappear again. Jake wouldn’t do that. Surely he must’ve seen how horrible Les had felt the first time. Why would he come back. He realized his hands were shaking. “It’ll be fine. I’ll explain everything and bring her back here.”

“Dad you go there without me she’ll think you’re looney.”

The cat’s wet paw prints ran alongside his son’s footprints. Explaining this to Helen without their son would be impossible. He barely understood and he had witnessed this all from the beginning. Jake scratched Gary Three’s head. The cat, or whatever, batted its eyes, mocking his confusion. How he let Helen leave, Jake drown. Watching Gary Three purr, he realized that he didn’t even like cats. He said, “Okay. But wait in the car.”

***

Les pulled along the curb and stopped in front of his wife’s driveway. Helen’s brick-faced duplex was a corner unit, surrounded by hedges and miniature lamps that cast halos onto the lawn. The complex was surrounded by an iron-post fence so Les waited until another car was buzzed into the property and then zipped his Cruz inside before the gate shut. He rolled down his window and heat pushed into the car.

“Nice place,” Jake said. “Bet they have a giant pool. Diving-board, even a slide.”

“Maybe later, she’ll let you go.”

“I don’t know, Dad. Let’s just leave.”

“No way.” He tapped the computer placed on the front passenger seat. Before they left, Les dusted the tower, shook crumbs loose from the keyboard. Looped the cables together with garbage ties. This was his reward, being placed on hold. “Don’t you want to see Mom?”

 “More than anything.”

“Okay, then.” Les glanced in the rear-view mirror. Water trickled down his son’s forehead. Jake snatched a drop with his tongue, then smiled at him. “Look, don’t do anything too wacky.” Jake covered his mouth and Les heard, You mean like this?  “Exactly. Can you do that?”

Jake said, “Sure can you.” He shifted in the backseat and the wet leather squeaked. “You don’t think she’ll be freaked, with you know?”

“You’re her son.”

Les got out of the car and walked around the passenger side. He opened the door and lifted the computer out of the front seat, then swung the door shut with his foot. He followed the stone pathway toward the condo and up the three steps. He placed the computer down, then rang the bell, a series of chimes. Helen peeked from the upstairs curtains and vanished.  He said, “You’ll be happy. Trust me.”

The door swung open and Helen stepped outside wearing a terrycloth robe. He inched towards her. Her hair was wet and smelled of citrusy shampoo. If he had only forced Jake to stay inside, not trying to squeeze into his bathing-suit from two years ago, his family would be home now, playing a board-game, watching a movie. He knew that this wasn’t the time to abuse himself. This was his chance, probably his only chance, to reconcile everything. He wished himself luck, then said, “Here’s the computer.”

“Did you get my text? I was sleeping.”

Dad she’s tired let’s try tomorrow. Les shushed his son’s voice that seemed to seize his thoughts, then pointed towards the computer. “I cleaned it. Works fine.”

“I thought you needed my address?” She held the lapels of her robe closed. “How’d you even get in here?”

He took a deep breath, as though ready to submerge. “I’m sorry. I should’ve waited, but I need to show you something. In the car.”

She said, “Just get it.”

“It’s better if you see him for yourself.”

“Him?”

He reached out his hand to touch her, convince her of the impossible, this gift, but she stepped back into the door. She leaned into the wood, a disappointed look as though she wanted to step as far as possible. He felt punched. He said, “Please, look,” his voice soft, hopefully non-threatening. 

“Okay, but then you have to go.”

“Fine.” Helen walked past him, toward his car. She peeked inside of the rear window, then stumbled back, swinging her fist, as though fighting something off, and rushed onto the lawn. She pressed her wrist against her chest and yelled, “Are you crazy?”  

At first Les thought it was her reaction to their son, but as he jogged closer he realized the car was empty. He wanted to cry, scream, their old lives so close, only to have this happen. Les rushed past Helen and slapped the glass. “Show yourself.” Look at how freaked she is already. “Do it. Now.” Les swung open the back-door and saw the body of Gary Three curled on the seat.

He leaned into the car and poked the cat’s wet fur. Nothing happened. He said, his voice barely audible, “You’re ruining it for me.” Don’t you mean us?  “Of course. Please.”

Les stared into the backseat as though it would shift into something easier for him to understand. Having no choice, Les faced his wife. “Jake opened the door today.” This again. He inhaled deeply. “The car smells like chlorine. Stand here. You’ll smell it too.” He waited, hoping Jake would appear. When he didn’t, Les said, “Our son came back.”

She charged and punched him in the chest. “This is what you do to me?”

His chest stung, but he stuck his hands inside his pockets.“You don’t understand.”

“It’s pretty obvious. You’re a fucking maniac.” She jogged the pathway toward the condo. When she walked up the steps, she yelled, “I’m calling the police,” and disappeared inside.

Leave Dad. He hurried around the hood and slid into the car. His son materialized in the backseat. “Told you. Bad idea.”

Les twisted towards him. His first impulse was to yell, but he was afraid Jake would be upset and disappear. He closed his eyes and concentrated on his tone. He said, “Why the would you disappear? You ruined everything.”

“I’m sorry.” The leather creaked as he shifted in his seat. Jake shrugged, “I called Mike.”

“What? I told you not see him.”

“I didn’t see him.” Jake flicked water off his shoulder. “You were upstairs cleaning the computer. So I called. Mike picked up the phone and I said, I’m back. Not like spooky or anything, but. He started crying. His mom grabbed the phone, cursing.” He shrugged. “I hung up. Then Mom got mad. It felt the same. I was nervous.”

Les pressed his wrist into his forehead, trying to concentrate. “So you’re afraid of Mom, sad about Mike, but you re-kill the cat and take him with us?”

“Dad, you strangled him, not me.”

He watched the body of Gary Three, still lifeless on the seat. “I can’t believe I’d do that.”

Jake said, “Don’t worry, I’ll bring him back. Easy.”

He watched the angles of the homes, blocks of lawn. If he peeked behind the hedges, he was sure he’d find cardboard cutouts, a camera, a set. He gripped the steering wheel, surprised by its reality. No, this was happening. Jake was here.

The shades opened. Helen stood in front of the bay window, the phone pressed to her ear. “I guess it’s just us now,” Jake said. “Stuck together,” exactly what Les was thinking.

He glanced in the rear-view mirror. Jake wiped his face. At first, Les thought he was crying, but water had dripped into his eyes. His son said, “So. How about that swim?”