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Reach(Paranormal Flash Fiction) (Susan Grass)

Bruce leaned against the wall and pinched the bridge of his nose.

“Mom,” he was saying, “I know. I know. I have other things to do, okay?”

“We go through this every year,” she said. “Every year, Bruce. You need to make your peace. It's been-”

“I know, mom. Look, I need to go. I have an appointment, okay? I'll talk to you later. I love you.”

He hung up before she could reply. The phone was dropped into his pocket and he scrubbed at his face with both hands. It was hard to get a solid handle on the thoughts racing through his head. That's precisely why he had a therapist now; it helped. His mother didn't understand. His wife couldn't.

He could only hope his kids never would.

Bruce pushed away from the wall and gathered up his keys. A glance at the clock reminded him that if he left now, he'd make it to his appointment a little early. Better to be early than late, especially when Doc Andrews was concerned; Elena wouldn't yell at him, precisely, but she would politely remind him that it's mostly a waste of his money when he showed up late. He would laugh it off at the time, but it would always drive him to look over his finances again, just in case. She was worth every penny as therapists went - and he'd been through his fair share.

The drive to her office was littered with memories of past sessions. All the crying and screaming and internal anguish that he'd bled onto that couch; it all came right back up in a chest-tightening swell of emotion. It was just the time of year, he told himself. Mom would get worked up and it would get to him. It chewed at him - and it got right down to the bone.

He pulled in and took a deep breath to compose himself. The first was quickly followed by a handful more before he could steel himself enough to clamber out of the car. Her car wasn't there, which was unusual, but he shrugged it off. It wasn't even ten o'clock; she had plenty of time to get there. He stepped into the building and went directly to the waiting room, where he had his choice of a nice loveseat or an overstuffed armchair. He sank into the latter with a magazine and did what the room insisted visitors do: wait.

When he looked at the clock again, it was a quarter past and there was still no sign of Doc Andrews. He was in the middle of fishing for his phone when she showed up, huffing and puffing all the way.

“Oh, gosh. I'm so sorry, Bruce. Minor emergency at the house. I would have sent a text to let you know, but-”

He stood and shook his head. “No, no. It's fine, Doc.”

“It's not fine.” She was adamant. “We'll run a little over this session to make up for it. It's the least I can do.”

He opened his mouth to protest and she lifted a hand to shush him before he could get a word out.

“Step into my office, Mister Hammond.”

Every session started the same way. They followed a familiar pattern by now, one that he could sink easily into. It was like a long soak in a hot bath; everything just opened up and the words just flowed. Nothing new. Nothing exciting. His wife was upset that he was more distant than usual. His job was a drag. He was struggling to keep his anger under control again after he'd been so good about it lately.

“Is it related to the anniversary of your father's death, do you think?” Elena looked up from her notebook and peered at him over the edges of her glasses.

Bruce stopped dead in the middle of his sentence.

She flipped through her notes. “This happened last year, too. And the year before…”

“I. Yeah. Yeah, I know.” He fidgeted on the couch and glanced up at the ceiling.

“You still haven't fully processed what he did to you, did you? You haven't moved on.”

He choked and said nothing - which said plenty on its own.

“Look, Bruce. It's going to take work on your part. We can't keep treading this old ground year after year.” She closed her notebook and stood up. “Until you're ready to really address it, you're going to keep having these problems.”

“What's there to say about it that hasn't already been said? He was a crazy alcoholic that liked to beat women and children for shits and giggles, as he'd say.” Bruce sat up and bristled. He gripped the couch cushions with hands gone white-knuckled.

“He was sick,” she said. “And there is no cure for what he was sick with. It's no excuse for what he put you and your mother through - but he's also been in the ground for three years now. He can't hurt you any more.”

“I know that.”

Elena's mouth pulled itself into a familiar, tired line.

“Next session,” she said. “No more putting this off, understood?”

“Yeah, yeah.” Bruce grunted and got up. “What time is it? I probably should get going.”

“Are you sure? I told you we could go a little over to make up for it.”

Bruce cut a look askance to his digital watch. 11:11 blinked placidly back at him. “I think we're good.”

“Okay. Next week, Bruce. Promise me.”

“I promise, I promise.”

The nightmares from the night before drained him more than he thought. He blearily glanced at the clock and pulled a face. “Only nine?”

His wife looked over at him and offered a smile that was tired for other reasons. Marjorie was doing her best, he knew, but it was hard on her. It always was.

“Maybe you should go to bed, mm?”

He hesitated, until something in her eyes finally spurred him to get up. It troubled him, that look in her eyes. It was so weary, so drained; he mumbled his good nights and I love yous before shuffling off to bed. She remained on the couch and he knew, without needing to see, that she was on the hunt for a tear-jerking chick-flick that would give her an excuse to cry.

Sleep came quickly. It usually did. He suspected it was because the nightmares wanted to get to him quickly, but he couldn't be sure. They were always the same in some sense; his age might change, the location might differ, but the scene was always the same. The nightmares didn't disappoint this time, either: he was eight or nine and running. The shadow of his father was running after him, bellowing in a booze-thick slur that he was only making it worse for himself by running.

Still, Bruce ran. He ran hard. Then the nightmare would kick everything into slow motion for him and him alone. His feet couldn't lift fast enough and the air felt so thick he couldn't breathe. He looked over his shoulder, eyes wide and full of tears, to see the man looming over him and lifting the bottle.

He jolted out of the nightmare with a gasp. Cold sweat soaked him to the bone and everything felt raw and jittery. His stomach was knotted and his head hurt. Bruce turned his head to one side and saw the clock flashing a mild 11:11. His nose wrinkled and he forced himself to get up. A glass of cold water, some headache meds, and a long look in the mirror did their job well enough. He returned to the living room to see Marjorie asleep on the couch, a box of tissues cradled in her arms and a pile of used ones on the floor.

He picked them all up as quietly as he could and tossed them on his way back up to their room. Along the way, he checked in on the twins and found them soundly sleeping. Ana and Alex wouldn't have the nightmares, not if he could help it. His father might have been a raving alcoholic, but Bruce had never touched the stuff out of fear of what it might do to him. Was it enough? He wasn't sure any more. He tucked them in and returned to his room - and, this time, sleep stole in and buried the nightmares under a thick blanket of black.

Saturday was usually a day for sleeping in - which, for Bruce, was about nine or so in the morning. Then it would be breakfast, crossword puzzles, then onto the day's 'honey do' list. Most of the time, such was the order of events. When he finally did wake up, it was to the calm sight of 11:11 floating on the face of the digital clock. The number caught him at an odd angle and his brow furrowed with thought. Weird, was all he could think. It was just weird, that's all.

Bruce meandered downstairs, groggy and out of sorts. Marjorie was already there, nursing a cup of coffee that was probably cold to match the toast on her plate. The toast was untouched and he winced inwardly at the thought that he'd kept her from getting her day started.

“Why didn't you get me up earlier?”

“You looked like you needed the sleep.” Marjorie's clipped tone was one of exhaustion. She looked sidelong at him and her mouth pulled into a flat line. “Good morning, by the way.”

“I- sorry. Good morning. The kids up?”

“They left for practice already with Deborah and her kids.”

“Oh. Ah. What's on the agenda today?”

Marjorie shook her head and knocked back the last of her coffee. The toast was tossed in the trash. “You're talking to your mother today, Bruce. You're going to lunch with her in an hour.”

“What? No, I'm-”

“Yes, Bruce. Yes, you are.” She rounded on him and it was the first time he'd truly seen how sunken her eyes were and how hollow her cheeks had become. The stress was getting to her. “Because I'm not going to field another call from her, do you understand? I'm tired of playing the middleman for this bullshit game of yours. You avoid and avoid and avoid, but it always comes to bite you in the ass, doesn't it?” She threw her hands in the air and they dropped bonelessly to her sides. “No more. You take care of this with your mother and you take care of this with you. I'm not doing it any more. I'm not.”

When he tried to embrace her, she slid out of his grip with a pained snarl.

“Go. I don't want to talk to you until this is settled.”

She turned and fled the room like a ghost, leaving him to sink into a chair with his face buried in his hands.

11:11. The numbers flashed in the darkness of his eyelids and he blew out a breath. A few minutes later and he was on the way to his mother's house. 11:11. It must mean something, he reasoned. Maybe it meant nothing. He wasn't sure, but it was worth a considerable amount of mental gnawing over.

His mother was waiting for him, as was her way. Instead of going to the car, she motioned for him to come in.

“I made some sandwiches,” she explained along the way. “And that tea you like.”

“I thought we were going out-out.”

She laughed and shook her head. “It's been so long since we've eaten here, I thought it was time.” She was silent for the span of a long breath and added, “Besides, we need to talk and you know how much I hate talking about family matters in public.”

Bruce groaned. “Mother. There's nothing to talk about. I'm going to go home if you start in on it.”

“You'll go home to nothing.” Her tone was strange and curt and he stopped in his tracks. “Marjorie's going to spend the night at her mother's. The twins will stay at Deb's. We need to talk about this, Bruce.”

A chair provided all the support he needed when his knees decided to give up. “I don't understand. I don't-”

His mother shuttled about the kitchen to gather lunch and set it on the table. She sat down and leaned forward, hands in her lap and with her head tipped down just enough that she was able to properly look at him through her glasses.

“Your father was sorry for everything he'd done, you know. Before the stroke- before that, he was trying to think of how to apologize to you. He wanted to. But you kept pushing, Bruce. You kept pushing and pushing and not listening to a word he had to say. Now- stop. Don't interrupt. You weren't the only one suffering. Your brothers were hurt, too, but they found it in their hearts to forgive him.” She sat back and spread her fingers over her chest. “I forgave him for all he'd done to me in those years. But he could never get the forgiveness from you - and he could never forgive himself.”

“He had a funny way of trying to apologize,” Bruce snapped.

“He was sick, sweetheart. He was so very, very sick - and there's no cure for it. He tried. He tried so hard - and you never even gave him a chance.”

Bruce looked away and caught a reflection in the mirror. His heart stopped for a beat and his throat worked hard to pull out the lump that suddenly developed there. He rose on wobbly legs to look at the grandfather clock in the other room amid his mother's questions and concerned noises.

11:11, the old clock was stuck saying. 11:11.

”… what does it mean?”

“What?”

“11:11. I keep seeing it everywhere.”

His mother passed her tongue over her lower lip and looked away. “I don't know what it means to you, but I know that's when your father finally passed.”

“I- I woke up at 11:11 last night after one of my nightmares. it wasn't the only time, but, I…”

“Was it one of the chasing nightmares?”

He nodded.

”… have you ever tried looking at him, Bruce? Turning and looking at him?”

“Why would I? In those nightmares, he's always yelling and angry and fit to beat me-”

“But does he?”

“No, but I always wake up before he does.”

“Try it this time. For me. For us. Please.” She pressed a hand to his arm, smiled, and returned to the kitchen. “I'll send you home with these and the pitcher of tea. You go home and get some rest. You look so exhausted, sweetheart. Maybe some time alone with your thoughts will do you good.”

He could only mumble agreement through lips that had gone numb.

It was as his mother told him: the kids were off with Deb and her family, while Marjorie was gone. It looked like she only packed a day bag, so that was heartening to some degree. Bruce slumped onto the couch and tried to eat one of the sandwiches, but it had no flavor and the tea was bland. It curdled his stomach a little. He gave up both and tuned into the television instead for a while.

Mindless programming ate the hours away while he continued to bury any errant thoughts that tried to bloom. He warily looked at the clocks from time to time t make sure they were clipping right along on their usual schedule and that was somewhat reassuring. Eventually, even that nervous habit went away and he sank into the comfortable mental anesthesia that was presented to him on the screen.

Bruce wasn't entirely sure when he dozed off. It didn't matter. One moment, he was watching some trivia show and, in the next, he was back in his parents' house, running down the hall while the beast with the bottle raged behind him. Ten. Eleven. Maybe he was only eight. He kept running, even when the world slowed down and the darkness turned into an inky gel that refused to let his limbs move. He began to scream in that horrid dreamscape and if he screamed loud enough, maybe he wouldn't hear the bellowing monster behind him. Maybe, just maybe, the darkness would break and let him through.

“Look at me.”

It wasn't exactly his father's voice, not completely. It was a blending of his voice and mother's; that was the part that cut through his screams and demanded an audience with his ears. Dream-Bruce stopped screaming, but he didn't turn, either. He trembled and stood there, feeling the weight of the man's presence behind him. His shadow hung heavy over the boy, but it couldn't do anything. It was only a shadow. Nothing more.

“Look.” The word was layered, split between mother and father. Their voices merged for that word before breaking apart. Bruce wet his lips with a trembling tongue and, finally, turned with reluctant steps to look at the man behind him.

His father wasn't a large man. He never was. The bottle always made him bigger and scarier than he was but, now that he had the chance to really look, he could see just what he was. The sight filled him with a sudden ache that hit him hard in the heart. His eyes were sunken and he looked terribly old and tired for being a young man. And he was young in this dream, maybe in his thirties at the most - but he looked like a rough-run fifty pushing sixty. The lines in his face were stark and he was lean.

He was sick and it showed.

Bruce's knees let go and he sat heavily on the floor. Tears welled in his eyes and it was then that he saw twin streaks of slickness staining his father's cheeks. The older man half-collapsed to the floor and dropped the bottle, leaving it to roll away.

“Why?” It was the only question Bruce could squeeze past the lump in his throat.

“I don't know,” his father said. The man passed the back of his hand roughly over his cheeks to wipe away the tears, but it was futile. “It's all I knew, son. My dad, my grandad… it's in the blood. It was always in the blood. I wanted better for you, I always did, but I…”

Bruce shifted uncomfortably and pawed at his own face to try to stop the flow. “Why didn't you get help? There's so much out there. Why? Why didn't you?”

His father laughed a small, bitter laugh. “Some things can't be fixed. Like your mama's vase that time we were playing catch in the house. You can try, but sometimes the pieces aren't big enough to work with. Sometimes you come out with missing parts.” He looked at his hands and heaved a sigh. “I wasn't something that could be fixed. I was born broken and all I could do was keep grinding myself away.”

Bruce struggled with words and ultimately gave up. Silence quivered between them until his father spoke again. The man's voice had gone soft and trembled at the edges in a way that suddenly felt all too familiar. It was the way his voice was when he was drinking and yelling; it was weak at the edges and full of tears that were left unshed.

“I figured if I ground myself away fast enough, your mama would find someone better. Someone good. You'd have a good life. You and your brothers. I couldn't just up and leave her and she was too stubborn, God bless her, to break away from me with you boys. I figured if I pushed hard enough, if I just pushed hard enough…”

Bruce pushed to his hands and knees to crawl over to his father and that's when the dream began to shift. It was him and his father, but as they were only a few years ago, before the stroke. He pulled his father's head to his chest and held the older man close. They shivered together and cried together, with words left to turn into ever-tightening knots in their throats. When the worst of the storm had passed, Bruce pulled back slightly and pressed a kiss to the top of his father's balding head.

“I forgive you dad. I'm sorry - and I forgive you.”

“Thank you. Thank you.” The words repeated and echoed, while the dream began to unravel. The darkness dissipated and, bit by bit, the mind-constructed dreamscape dissolved into nothing. His father slipped away from his arms and Bruce wept.

Bruce awakened to a clock that was blinking 11:11 and the muted sounds of a television doing its duty. He fumbled for the phone he'd placed on the coffee table and dialed a number he knew by heart.

“Mom? I know it's late. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to wake you up, but… no, it's okay, I'm fine. I just- I just wanted to know what time you were going dad's grave tomorrow.”

Flash_Fiction


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