“When will you admit it?” The boy cocked his head questioningly.
Taken aback, Warren took an involuntary step backwards off his porch and into his foyer. “Excuse me?” He should’ve known that a visitor at 5 A.M. on a Monday morning would be trouble. In fact, when he and his wife had been woken by the sound a few minutes prior, sitting up bleary-eyed and exhausted, it had been Warren who had suggested they let it ring. After all, it was pouring out there- what business would a respectable person have out in such weather? But Edith had mandated they went to the source of the sound and hushed its wild ringing before their children woke- it was important that Lana, Oliver, Hannah, and Barry got enough sleep.
And of course, “them” had meant Warren. Because in this household, all the heavy lifting had to be done by Warren. The roof had to be fixed? It was up to Warren. Parent-teacher conferences? Warren could take a day off from work. A spider in Hannah’s room? Warren would find himself committing murder on a very small scale. But Warren knew he shouldn’t complain- his life was very good, especially considering how it had started. It seemed like just yesterday he’d been miserable, living in a disgusting apartment in New York City, crying his eyes out over the unexpected death of the love of his life. But now Warren had a great life in California- under the blazing skies and by the beautiful beaches with his amazing wife, and five beautiful children. His life would not get any better.
“Well,” Warren murmured to himself, remembering his predicament as he faced the strange young boy on the front steps of his house. “I suppose it could get a little better.”
The boy stared urgently at Warren, his dark, tousled black hair matted with sweat against his pale forehead in the hot, dry weather. He had intense brown eyes which made his sudden appearance on this fine morning even more unsettling to Warren, who had managed to regain his composure after his momentary shock.
“Erm, hello kid, can I help you?” The words sounded lame on Warren’s tongue. Wincing, he ran a rough hand through his graying hair.
“No.” The boy told Warren seriously. “I can help you. I know your secret.”
“My-” Warren began to scoff at the boy’s strange words, before stopping short, a cold feeling of horror running through his veins. Warren wasn’t sure how the boy had known about his secret- he himself had pushed it to the back of his mind for as long as he could remember. In fact, he had pushed it back so far, he couldn’t quite remember what the secret was. But he did know that if revealed, the secret would destroy everything he had ever loved.
“Son, do yourself a favor- and stay far away from me and my family.” Warren snapped, pushing him away and walking back to his front door. Before this horrid boy could say anything else, he marched into his living room and slammed the door shut. Edith was waiting to him on one of the mismatched chairs, her blonde hair fully done up in a beautiful braid- just the way it had been the day he’d fallen in love with her all those years ago in New York City. She smiled at him as he came to join her on the couch.
For a blissful moment, Warren and Edith shared a kiss. As they parted, Edith gave Warren a sweet smile. “All the kids have been picked up by their bus. Well, all of them but poor little Oliver. He missed his bus.”
This did not surprise Warren, who gave a sharp nod and stood up. He walked over through the doorway into his garage, where Oliver was waiting anxiously for him in the passenger seat of his blue Honda Odyssey. Warren took a moment to pat the red hair of his youngest child affectionately. Oliver grinned up at him. “Hi, Daddy!”
“Good morning, slugger.” The proud father smiled at his son and started the car. Throughout the whole ride, Warren and Oliver discussed Oliver’s crush on a young boy in his class. In what seemed like no time, Warren was pulling up at Oliver’s school, stepping around to the back of the car to open Oliver’s door. A quick hug and Oliver was gone, and Warren was on his way to work.
However, when he arrived at the skyscraper that housed his office, he was met with a surprise. His coworkers were having a barbecue in the empty parking lot. Frowning, Warren climbed out of his car, and made his way over to them. His boss, a young girl named Jenny who seemed to have no defining features, greeted him, waving. “Hi, Warren! I wasn’t aware you were joining us today.”
“Why wouldn’t I be?” This was the second thing today to confuse Warren, which was further confusing to him because a part of him felt he should’ve already been confused. Warren blinked. His thoughts were making less and less sense. How confusing.
“It’s a holiday, silly!” A coworker laughed from the pool. A wave of shame washed over Warren- how could he forget something like this? It must’ve been that secret. This was a very important holiday- he figured better go pick up his family from school! Waving goodbye to his coworkers, he urgently hopped back into his car.
Warren watched the scenery zip by, nondescript and monotonous. He felt like this was odd, like maybe he should look a little closer, but he was afraid he’d get in an accident if he kept his eyes off the road for too long.
As he pulled up at the high school, he heard the cheering, and immediately remembered the football game. “God,” Warren murmured to himself. “I am off today.” As he made his way to the crowded stadium from his red sports car, he became aware of somebody following him- the boy from earlier today. Irritated, Warren quickened his pace, but the boy was soon walking alongside of him.
“What do you want from me now, boy?” Warren growled. “I have a football game to attend.”
“You realize that makes no sense, right? Like every other part of your day.” The boy told him.
“Don’t be ridiculous!” From afar, Warren could see Edith, Amanda, and Oliver, sitting in the bleachers of the stadium. His family. His whole world. “Look.” Grabbing the boy’s arm, the frustrated man stopped, pointing an accusatory finger at his family. “Look. There are my family. Are you saying they showed up for nothing?”
“You know that’s not what this is.” The boy wrenched his arm free, locking his cool eyes with Warren without a hint of animosity. “Besides, what about the others in your family?”
“Others?” Warren echoed, confused.
“Yeah. Lana, Hannah, and Barry.” The boy pointed out as if it was the most obvious thing.
“Oh, yes.” Warren replied smugly. “Barry is on the team, and Lana and Hannah are cheerleaders.”
“You forgot about them!” The boy cried out, incredulous. “You forgot about them and now you’ve forgotten that you’ve forgotten.”
“Look.” Warren was rapidly losing patience with this boy. His wife waved to him lovingly from the bleachers, and Warren quaked with impatience. He had a game to see. “You’re crazy.”
“Wait.” It was the boy’s turn to grab Warren’s arm. “Before you go, just answer one thing for me.”
“Fine, whatever.” Warren clenched his jaw. “Shoot.”
The question was simple. “Why did you move here?”
At the painful memory, Warren winced. “I thought it was best to start a new life after she died.”
“Who do you think?” Warren waved to his wife absently, and she blew him a kiss. “The love of my life.”
“Yes, Warren. But what was her name?”
All it took was a single word to shatter Warren’s world. It was a cruel realization that this word had come from his own lips. Crueler still was the new knowledge, deep within his very soul, that what he’d just said was true. “After Edith died, I had to come here.”
He turned back to the boy, but he was gone, and then Warren remembered his secret.
“No…” Warren murmured. “No!” He ran out onto the football field, pushing past the players, until he arrived at the player with “Thomas” emblazoned on the back of his jersey. His son….his son… what was his name? Warren tried to hold on to the knowledge, to his son, but when the thing he thought was his own, there was no face. Warren looked up, horrified, at the bleachers, where Edith was sitting, with his other children… how many were they?
Loosing a cry of utter agony, Warren tried desperately to hold onto anything- anything- just the sound of Oliver’s laugh, or the smell of the coffee Edith made for him every morning, or even the stench of Barry’s room after football practice. But it all slipped away, rapidly, and with heartbreaking speed and efficiency.
When Warren woke in his dingy apartment, alone, the only thing he could remember was a feeling of loss.