Jason wipes his forehead with the back of his arm and stops for a minute to compare the amount of paneling versus the amount of exposed cinder block. The last few bars of sunlight are fading outside and he is less than halfway done. There are better ways of spending a Saturday, he thinks. The basement flooded a week ago. A thick dampness hangs in the air and sticks in his throat. Jason always thought that if he and his ex-wife had lived in a house instead of an apartment that maybe things would've been different. Jason shoves the crowbar behind a section of rotted paneling and yanks. Chunks of wood and splinters explode onto the concrete floor. He stops. There's a door.
He glances around at the empty Miller Light cans and the clock radio he forgot to turn back on as if they might provide some clue as to why a wooden door is hidden behind the paneling in his basement. He pushes his goggles on top of his head. The brown paint is faded. The wood has tiny cracks running through it.
Emily stomps around upstairs, the floorboards creaking beneath her feet as she moves from their second, unused bedroom to the bathroom. She's in there a lot these days, he thinks. Jason opens his mouth to holler for her to come down and see the door, but he stops. A couple weeks ago the two of them would have marveled at such a find, debated about whether or not to open it. He pokes a gloved finger into the hole where the doorknob should be. Jason pulls it open, clenching his stomach muscles, afraid that someone or something is going to come screaming out at him. Nothing. He drags the work light over to the room. It's more of a closet. It's no bigger than a pantry.
This time it will be different. The phrase is carved into the back of the door, row after row of the same words stacked on top of each other, all the way from the top to the bottom. Jason tears the glove off his right hand. His finger trembles as he runs it down the length of the T and the curve of the h. Blood races through his veins. He wipes his sweaty palm against his dust caked jeans. The letters are smooth and deep. The crowbar slides out of his other hand and clanks against the concrete. A surge of water rises in his eyes.
"Are you okay down there?" Emily calls from the top of the stairs.
Jason sinks his teeth into the fleshy softness of his bottom lip and tastes the metallic sting of blood on his tongue. He used to think of himself as the kind of guy who wouldn't be afraid to cry in front of his girlfriend. "Don't come down here."
"Did you find mold?"
"Don't come down here."
He pushes the door open all the way. It thuds against the remaining paneling. The words aren't slashed into the wood, but are precise and deliberate incisions. His finger passes over them again and again.
This time it will be different.
Jason wants it all to be different.
He grabs a hammer out of the toolbox and pries the bolts out of the hinges. He wants those words to be true, but they feel like a slap in the face. The hammer bangs onto the floor. Jason pulls the door out of its place and pushes it to the ground. His lungs heave in his chest. He wants to smash that door, burn the splinters. He doesn't want Emily to be pregnant, but most of all he wants Elliott to be alive.
"It's just a door." Emily steps down the last two stairs. She steps over the debris covering the concrete.
"I know." Jason tries to picture the baby growing inside of her, but only sees blackness. Best not to get attached, he thinks. "I said not to come down."
She brushes past him, her arms wrapped around her flat stomach, and squats in front of the door, "Creepy."
"Maybe you should go back upstairs."
"What's wrong with your eyes? They're all red."
It should be so easy for him to open his mouth and tell her, but the words are stuck in his throat. "I got something in them."
"I told you to wear goggles."
Emily looks back and forth between him and the door, "What is it?"
"It's not right. Who hides something like this?"
She shrugs her shoulders. "At least we'll have some extra storage space." Emily walks into the small room. She gathers her sandy blonde hair into a ponytail and lets it drop. "I made an appointment."
"You still want to," she says, "you know."
"I thought maybe you changed your mind," he says, "because you hadn't called."
"Did you change your mind?" She turns around.
"I haven't." When Jason and Emily first met he had wanted to swim in her aqua colored eyes. Now, he would give anything for her to take them off of him.
He sets the door on its side. Pain jumps through his index finger. "Shit," he says. Emily scrunches her face into a question. "Splinter." Jason sucks at the entry point.
Emily grabs his hand, "Let me see it."
He tugs it back. "I got it." Jason kicks the door. It bounces against the concrete.
Jason takes the stairs two at a time. The kitchen wallpaper has purple and green grapes printed on it. It reminds him how much work needs to be done to the house. Stuck on the refrigerator is a dry erase calendar with March written across the top in Emily's tiny block handwriting. She said she felt the need to keep better track of time. Emily bought it the day she told Jason she was pregnant.
He had come in from mowing the lawn to get a glass of water. Emily had walked in the kitchen and showed him the test. He knew what the two pink lines meant. The water overflowed from his glass. "Are you going to have it?"
"It wasn't part of the plan." Emily flipped the test around in her hand. "Do you want to have it?"
"I don't." He took a gulp of water.
Jason passes the living room, one of the few rooms in the house that is done. He refurbished the floors himself. The color on the walls is called autumn sunrise. It's orange. Jason can't stand how everything is overcomplicated. If it's orange, call it that, he thinks. He passes the bedroom.
The bathroom's medicine cabinet is cluttered with all of Emily's hair and skin products. She has Suave skin firming moisturizer, grapefruit face masque, Control Freak frizz control, and a half-dozen other bottles that Jason has no idea what she does with. None of them are going to help him get the splinter out, he thinks. The drawer is filled with hair bands and bobby pins. Jason dumps the drawer onto the black and white tiled floor.
Nina used to say he was too impatient. She used to say that she hoped Elliott would be more like her in that regard. Jason often catches himself wondering what Elliott would be like now. Jason finds the tweezers hiding underneath a blanket of rubber bands. He sits on the edge of the tub and pulls the top part of the splinter out. It breaks leaving part of it under his skin. "Fuck." Jason throws the tweezers at the wall. The metal rattles around the base of the porcelain toilet. The white tile surrounding the tub is cool against his forehead.
Emily leans against the doorframe. "Do you want to talk about it?" She sits down next to him and runs her fingers through the hair above his ears.
Jason closes his eyes. "Not really."
The ceiling fan in the bedroom spins around making a slight hum. He woke up because he thought he'd heard a baby crying. Emily rolls over onto her side. She faces him but in the dark it's hard for him to tell if her eyes are open. Jason tucks his hands behind his head and tries to see the three individual blades. His stomach feels like an alka-seltzer tablet has been dropped in it. It does this when he concentrates on something for too long.
He pushes aside the blanket. The lights from the street seep through the blinds. Jason walks across the cold wooden floor to the window and pulls the blinds open. His breath fogs the glass. The front yard has a trench in the middle of it stretching from the foundation of the house to the sidewalk. The roots of a maple tree that had been in front of the house had clogged the drainage pipes allowing the basement to flood. The tree had to be removed and a trench dug so the plumbers could fix it.
Jason lies down next to the bed and puts his feet on the floor. He raises his torso up until it meets his knees.
"Are we doing the right thing?" Emily says.
"We are." He lowers himself back down.
"Did you and Nina ever talk about having kids?"
"Why?" Jason lifts the top part of his body again.
"You were married for a few years. You must have talked about it."
"Do you want to get married?" He rests his arms on top of the mattress.
"Not really." She props herself up on her elbows. "We can have a baby and not be married."
"We already decided."
"I know." She sits up and draws her knees into her chest. "Did you ever want kids with Nina?"
"Is that really why you got divorced? She wanted kids and you didn't."
"Shit. We made a decision." Jason slaps his hands on the bed and stands up.
"What is it?"
"Nothing." Jason puts his red and blue plaid robe on and ties it shut.
An image of Elliott in his arms, his face blue, flashes in Jason's mind. He squeezes his eyes tight, balls his hands into fists. "I can't."
She holds her hand out to him, "Come back to bed."
The living room is dark, but he knows how to maneuver around it. The clock on the VCR says it's two. His muscles ache. Jason flops onto the beige canvas couch. He sits up and runs his hands through his hair. His palms push into the top of his legs as he stands up and walks into the kitchen.
Jason eases the door from the kitchen to the screened porch shut. He feels like a kid sneaking out of his parents' house to meet up with his buddies to drink. He drops his keys into the front pocket of his robe. Jason inches past his mountain bike, the roll of carpet that had been ripped out of the living room and a Rubbermaid box full of dog food. Their golden retriever, Cody, ran away three months ago, but Jason still buys food for him in case he comes back.
Jason pops the trunk on his Subaru Outback and sifts through a week's worth of newspapers. He tosses aside the crumpled brown paper bag filled with tapes of bands he listened to in high school. One falls out, Pearl Jam's Ten, and thuds against his old Oregon license plate. Underneath all of this he finds the gunmetal gray lock box. Jason takes a deep breath. He fishes the keys out of his pocket and unlocks it.
The chocolate brown leather date book is about the size of the bibles hotels keep in nightstand drawers. Keeping track of time had taken on new importance after Nina told Jason she was pregnant. The date book was the only thing, besides a picture of Elliott that he had taken with him when he left Nina. The edge of the 5 x 7 picture sticks out the top of the book. Jason wonders what Elliott would look like now. He looked like Jason when he was born. The nose was almost an exact copy, round with two slight indents above the nostrils. Jason had read that most babies look like their fathers for their first year. It was nature's paternity test. Not that he ever had any doubts Elliott was his son.
When Jason first told Emily that he had been divorced, she asked him if he had any kids. He had said no. He had felt like he had betrayed his son. Elliot was dead, but he had lived and Jason had loved him. He could have acknowledged his existence, but he hadn't wanted to see that pity in her eyes. At Elliott's funeral, everyone had stared at him with that wide, poor you, look in their eyes and told him they were sorry. He had wanted to punch all of them. His son had died for no reason and that's all anybody could say. Emily would have given him the same pathetic look, but he had wanted her to smile at him and love him.
Jason runs his finger over the photo of Elliott and puts it back in the book. This time it will be different. What if this time it isn't different?
The hearty, warm smell of sourdough bread baking fills Jason's nostrils. Mike stands next to the industrial size mixer, pouring flour in for a batch of wheat bread and tossing his head back and forth to the rhythm of "Enter Sandman." Four years ago, when Jason started working at the bakery he realized that he was going to be friends with Mike whether he liked it or not. Mike would talk to him in the mornings, even if he didn't respond. After a few weeks Jason gave in. It was Mike's wife who introduced Jason to Emily.
Jason dumps the dough from a metal mixing bowl onto the butcher-block counter in front of him. The dough sticks to Jason's fingers a little more than he would like, but it's good enough to make the croissants.
"That hole in your yard must be killing you." Mike turns off the mixer.
"It's costing more than we can afford." Jason pushes the rolling pin over the dough.
Mike opens the oven door. A wave of heat circles the room. "I mean you're so particular about your lawn." Mike slides a long wooden paddle in and takes three loafs of bread out.
"There's nothing wrong with maintaining a nice lawn." Jason cuts the dough into six wide, long pieces. Two of the pieces are too thin.
"It is when you spray the whole yard down at the sight of one dandelion and use a ruler to make sure the grass doesn't go over a certain height." Mike pulls three more loafs out of the oven and closes the door.
"I was never that bad." Jason gathers the dough back together.
"You were well on your way. Your yard being torn up is the best thing to happen to you." Mike stretches his arms above his head. His faded Metallica t-shirt lifts up exposing the round sack of fat protruding from his mid-section. Mike swears that at one time the shirt was too big for him. He told Jason once that he'd never stop wearing it, no matter how big his belly gets.
"I doubt that."
Mike chomps into a piece of bread. "What's this about a door in your basement?"
"They tell each other everything, don't they?"
"Pretty much." Mike scoops dough from the mixer into a metal mixing bowl. "Nothing like bakin' and rockin' out to Metallica." Mike turns up the radio.
Jason turns left onto Fairmount. The houses on this street are too big for anyone to live in, he thinks. One looks like it might be more at home in the Italian countryside than Cleveland Heights. Jason passed one a few nights before and saw that they didn't have any furniture in what, he guessed, was the living room. What's the point of having a huge house and no furniture? He's one to talk, he thinks. Jason and Emily don't even have enough furniture to fill their small house. There's an extra bedroom that doesn't have anything in it, except for discarded moving boxes that Jason keeps meaning to break down.
He drives down Coventry and passes over Cedar. As he approaches the library where Emily works, he slows down. She'd be surprised to see him. Maybe he could take her to lunch. Something to acknowledge that he knows this is tough for her. His black t-shirt has flour smears across the front. Jason sniffs his armpits. They smell like he's been keeping rotten eggs under there. Lunch is a bad idea, he thinks. The light at the intersection of Coventry and Euclid Heights Boulevard is red. He stops.
In front of the car, a bald guy crosses the sidewalk with his son, who looks to be about five, the age that Elliott would have been on February eighteenth. The guy smiles at Jason. Jason grits his teeth at him. That's as close to a smile as this guy is going to get from him. The kid trips over the curb and falls. His face crumples and tears run from his eyes. His father picks the boy up and hugs him. Jason can imagine the guy telling his son that everything is okay. Jason slams on the gas. A car horn blares as he zooms under the red light.
Jason closes the dishwasher door and turns the dial. The overhead light casts a dull yellow film over the kitchen that makes the walls look dirty. He wonders if the people who picked the wallpaper were the same who wrote all over the back of the door or if they were the ones who covered it up. He picks at the seam of the wallpaper and tears a long thin piece off. Lime colored paint peeks out. Coffee gurgles in the coffee maker. The smell of brewing coffee relaxes Jason the same way that sounds of the ocean do for other people. Sometimes he makes it in the middle of the night when he can't sleep, but he hates the taste of it. When the coffee is done brewing he'll throw it out. The toilet flushes and water rushes through the pipes. Dinner didn't agree with Emily.
The date book is on the coffee table in the living room. Jason doesn't remember bringing it in, but he also doesn't remember putting it back in the lock box. He knows he has to hide it before Emily sees it.
On the dining room table is a light blue gift bag with a white, stuffed rabbit inside of it. The card has a stork on the front. "That coffee smells terrible." Emily zips up her turquoise sweatshirt.
"What's this?" Jason holds the card up.
"A congratulations on your baby card from work." Her hands grip the back of one of the dining room chairs.
"Why'd you tell anyone?"
"It just popped out."
"What are you going to tell them when you don't have a baby?" Jason looks over at the date book.
"I want to have the baby."
"I know. I know. But now I do."
"You keep saying that, but you won't tell me why."
He feels the words rising in his throat. Jason sees Elliott in his arms, his face blue. He strains to keep the images back. "It would mess everything up."
"It's not like we're a couple of teenagers who have to worry about giving up their scholarships for school."
Jason wishes it were that easy. If he were eighteen the decision would be much simpler, but he's thirty and wants to be a father. Jason wraps his arms around her. She pushes him away and walks out the front door. Her short quick steps have given way to slower deliberate steps like she's eight months pregnant rather than two. Jason slams the chair into the table. If only this time could be different, he thinks.
The basement light flickers. Jason steps over the strips of paneling that still litter the floor. He needs to clean this place up, he thinks.
"Nice to see you cleaned up for me." Mike plods down the stairs. He heaves a case of Miller Genuine Draft on top of the dryer.
Jason props the door against the wall and shines the work light on it. "There it is."
"That's some freaky shit." Mike hops onto the washing machine.
"Why did they write it?" Jason cracks open his beer can.
"Maybe some sicko owned this house before and locked people in that room and made them write that over and over again."
"And that dust isn't dirt, but human remains?" Jason sips the foam off the top.
"Anything's possible." Mike takes a long gulp of his beer. "Is this a not now thing or not ever situation?"
"I don't want to talk about it." Jason lowers himself on to the steps.
"Listen, I'm getting an earful of this at home. If I gotta hear about it, we're talking about it." Mike pulls a piece of notebook paper out of his pocket. "Look, they even gave me a script."
"I didn't think that sounded like you."
"She thinks you don't love her."
"That's not the case." Jason clears his throat.
"You're scared. I get that. I was shittin' my shorts with my first one too."
"You don't get it."
"Do you see yourself having a future, a life with her?"
"I'll marry her. I don't have a problem with that, but we can't bring a baby here."
"This house is a wreck. Our dog didn't even want to stay here." Jason swirls the beer around in the can.
"Then get a new dog." Mike tilts his head back and pours beer into his mouth.
"But what if that dog runs away?"
"Then get another."
"But it's not the first dog."
"It's just a dog, man. Shit happens. Move on." Mike burps. He jumps off the washing machine and pushes a piece of paneling aside with his foot. "You do all of this yourself?"
"You could have asked for help," Mike says.
"I thought it best to handle it on my own."
"I would have helped."
"You wanna help me clean it up?"
"Not really." Mike stands in front of the door and shakes his head.
"Don't blame you," Jason says.
Mike raises his wrist up close to his face so that his watch is inches from his eyes. "Enough of this touchy feely crap, I gotta get up early. Someone's gotta make the doughnuts."
"You want the rest of the beer?"
"You keep it. You need it more than me."
Mike honks the horn as he drives away. His white Caravan has a Metallica static cling in the back window. Jason passes the trench in the middle of the yard. He shuffles his feet, disturbing the dirt and sending a few pebbles into it. When he was driving across the country he had told himself he could forget it all. A new city was all he needed. Jason wouldn't accidentally run into someone who was going to ask him how he was holding up or worse, somebody who didn't know and was going to ask how Elliott was doing. This time it will be different. They're only words, he thinks.
The light on the neighbor's deck casts a long shaft of light across Jason's backyard. One of Cody's old tennis balls rests in the grass. The stitching is coming undone and the fuzzy covering is gray instead of the neon yellow it had once been. Jason hurls it over the fence.
Jason lifts the Rubbermaid box over his head and carries it out to the garage. He flips open the lid of the garbage can and pours the dog food in.
A couple of hours later, Emily walks into the kitchen and slams a box of ho-ho's on the counter, "Here. I had a taste for these, but of course I can't keep anything down." She grabs a green Sharpie pen off the top of the refrigerator and draws a diagonal line through Tuesday.
"Did you have to tell Mike and Liz? Can't we keep this between ourselves?"
"You're good at keeping things to yourself," she says to the calendar. "I know I'm supposed to say that I'll have this baby with our without you, but I don't want to do it by myself."
Jason wants to open his mouth and tell her everything. Tell her that he loves her. Tell her that he wants to have the baby. Tell her why he can't say that. "Emily."
She turns around. Her jaw is locked in place and her eyes look like stones. She folds her arms in front of her chest.
"There's something you don't know."
Jason could feel the weight of Elliott's lifeless body against his shoulder as Nina screamed into the phone that her baby wasn't breathing. He could see Elliott's head flopping back as he laid him on the carpet and tried to give him CPR. Emily goes out of focus, like he's looking at her underwater. Jason's bottom lip quivers. He bites into it hard. For a second he worries that his teeth might go all the way through.
"Forget it. I'm exhausted. We're done here," she says. The Sharpie hits him in the cheek. The latch on the bedroom door clicks into place. Jason tugs at his t-shirt. It feels tight around his neck.
This time it will be different. Nina had wanted to talk about the night Elliott died. He used to turn away from her or walk out of the room. Jason knew she had given up the day she looked at him across the table and said, "Forget it." They talked less and less, until anytime they were around each other was only a series of stares and mumbled words. This time won't be different.
Jason wakes up. He swears he heard a baby crying. This happened to him for months after Elliott died. He'd wake up thinking he heard him crying. He'd get up off the couch and stand outside the bedroom door, watching Nina sleep, knowing that his son was nowhere to be found. For a second he had forgotten. Jason sits up on the couch and rubs his eyes. The clock on the VCR says it's three. His hand hovers over the TV remote. Jason picks up the leather date book off the coffee table.
The light above the kitchen sink is on. He cradles the date book between his left arm and chest as he tears open a package of ho-hos. Jason peels off the chocolate coating and eats the pieces until the brown spongy cake is uncovered. The cake is moist and the cream filling sweet.
Dr. Appt.—9:15, is written in the box for Wednesday on the dry-erase calendar. Even though Emily had told Jason the day of her appointment it felt odd to him to see it written on the calendar. Jason walks down the hall into the second bedroom. When he lived here by himself, it was going to be a workout room with a treadmill and a Bowflex. When Emily moved in, she thought about making it a reading room. Jason knows what she was planning on doing with it now. Emily has tacked squares of color samples to the wall. Jason pulls one down called Aloe Vera. It's light green, he thinks. On the floor is a catalog opened to a crib and dresser set. Next to it is a picture of a rocking chair ripped from another catalog. He presses his back against the wall and slides down to the floor. Jason rests the date book on his lap.
This time it will be different. Elliott's crib was in the room with Jason and Nina. He had heard the hiccupping start and stop of Elliott crying. Jason had cracked his eyes a bit, hoping that it wouldn't turn into a full-blown wail. It did. Nina pushed at his back. It was his turn to get up with Elliott. Jason lifted him up, careful to support his head, and cradled him in his left arm.
Jason yawned. The alarm clock said it was three. Elliott punched his fists into the air. Jason shuffled into the kitchen and grabbed a bottle out of the refrigerator. Elliott kept crying. "I know. I know. I don't want to be up either," Jason said. He lowered the bottle toward Elliott's mouth. He took it. Jason shuffled back to the bedroom. His eyes were half closed. Jason sat in the rocking chair as Elliott drank. He rested his hands on the sides of the bottle. Jason dropped his head against the back of the chair and fell asleep.
The alarm clock went off at five. Jason snapped his head up. Elliott was a boulder in his arms. Milk ran down the side of Elliott's cheek. The bottle was on the floor. His face was blue. Jason felt like a needle full of adrenaline had been heaved through his ribcage and into his heart. He put his ear to Elliott's chest. He wasn't breathing. Jason called out for Nina. Her mouth released a scream. She ran to the phone.
"Please God," Jason said over and over again. He laid his son on the floor, put his mouth over his and tried to revive him.
The doctors told him later that by that time CPR wouldn't have worked. They said nothing could have saved Elliott. Jason's intestines felt like someone had looped a belt around them and pulled. Jason thought that Elliott had choked on the milk, but there wasn't liquid in his lungs. A cause of death couldn't be found. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. He was nine weeks old.
Elliott was buried on a Friday. Nina said she didn't blame him, but Jason would never forget the hate in her eyes when they came home from the hospital without their baby. Jason spent every February eighteenth since the same way, wishing he hadn't fallen asleep.
The wood floor groans and Emily steps into the room. Jason wipes his eyes and traces a T over the cover of the date book. The edge of Elliott's picture sticks out of the top.
"I'm having this baby," she whispers.
"I'm gonna find a place of my own. If you want to see the baby we can work out a schedule or something."
"That's not what I want."
"You've made it very clear what you don't want."
Jason wants to tell her that he wants to be with her and raise their baby together. He doesn't want to be one of those guys who sees his child every other weekend. Jason wants to tell her all of it. He wants to tell her that he couldn't risk losing another child. "You don't understand."
"How can I? You won't tell me."
Jason feels like he could be talking to Nina again. If only he could have talked to Nina about that night, he thinks. Maybe things would have been different between them. Jason rubs his forehead. He doesn't want to lose Emily the way that he lost Nina.
This time it will be different.
This time it will be different.
He stands up and holds the book out toward her. This time it will be different. This time it has to be different. Don't let her walk out of this room without knowing, he thinks. Jason holds the book out to her. She puts her hand over her stomach. He can imagine the thwamp, thwamp of the baby's heart beating. Please take the book. He stretches every fiber of muscle in his arm towards her. The book is heavy in his hand and he doesn't want to hold it any longer.