8 – Jeff
“Mr. Charles?” Becky asked. Jeff’s head jerked toward her. “Mr. Charles, Dr. Maser wishes to see you.”
“Thanks, Becky,” Jeff said, waving her off.
He’d been daydreaming. His concentration level was almost zero, and had been since he’d woken up after saving the girl’s life. Allyson’s life. For some reason, he felt drawn to her, as if some magnetic force kept trying to orient him toward her. It definitely wasn’t a sexual feeling, but it was somehow intimate. As if she’d left a piece of herself in him, and that piece had taken his body over and wouldn’t allow him to function as a normal human until reunited with her.
Jeff rose and grabbed his jacket, sliding his arms into it. He buttoned the front of it as he left his office and headed down the oak paneled hall to Dr. Theodore Walden Maser’s corner office. He stood outside, took a deep breath, then knocked on the door.
“Enter,” Dr. Maser’s muffled voice said.
Jeff opened the door and stepped in, closing it when Dr. Maser, Ted, he reminded himself now that he was a partner, waved at it. He stood between two chairs in front of Ted’s polished cherry desk. The older, graying man behind it waved again for him to sit down.
“Jeff, are you feeling well?” Ted Maser’s voice was strong, full of bass, exactly what a good television lawyer’s voice should sound like.
“Yes, sir. I’m fine, why?”
“Jeff, my name isn’t ‘sir’ anymore.” Ted’s voice rumbled, and Jeff realized the man was chuckling, a sound he’d never heard come from the doctor in the seven years he’d worked at the law firm. Not even at the party two nights before where they’d made him a partner. Dr. Maser, Ted, had smiled, but had never laughed at a single joke or humorous anecdote.
“I know, sir. Ted. I’m sorry. Still getting used to the new position. I’m fine.”
“Are you sure? You’ve been acting a little under the weather since yesterday. You remind me of me when I take Actifed when my sinuses are all plugged up. Balloon head, I think is the term the kids use now.”
Jeff laughed. “I’ve never heard that one before. I’m fine. I’m just a little overwhelmed. I’m trying to start transitioning into my new caseload. And I’m nervous because I’m only the fourth name on the new sign and I don’t want to screw that up.”
“Everything all right with Katrina? And your daughter?”
“Karina,” Jeff corrected absently. He’d gotten used to people calling his wife Katrina over the years. “Jessica is fine, doing great in school. Everything is fine, Ted. I’m just in a bit of chaos at the moment. Remember when I first started? I thought I was going to get fired at least ten times in the first week.”
The older man chuckled some more. “I put a call in to Judge Rawlins’ office, you know. I told the secretary to ask Bill if you’d worn your khakis and that awful polo shirt into the courtroom. David and Gerry had a bet going as to whether or not I would fire you if you hadn’t magically procured a suit in time.” More laughter rumbled across the desk toward Jeff. “Kent Clark indeed.”
Jeff’s stomach did a quick nosedive at the memory before a laugh escaped him. If Ted Maser knew just how many other times Jeff had nearly given himself heart failure because of his constant bungling in the first week, the first month even, the old man would probably laugh himself into a heart attack. He couldn’t help but laugh anymore whenever someone called him Kent Clark.
“Anyway,” Maser said, standing up, Jeff doing the same, knowing the meeting was at an end, “take care of yourself. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Liz and Becky are sharp, and David Gardiner is now your senior assistant. They’ll make sure you hit the ground running. Trust them.”
The two men shook hands. Maser gave him one last look before turning back to his desk. Jeff left the office and headed to his own, his legs beginning to shake. He collapsed into his chair the instant he stepped through the doorway and rounded his desk. Liz buzzed him, reminding him he had a client interview in forty-five minutes. Jeff couldn’t even remember who the client was or what the case was about. All he could think about was Allyson’s hand slipping away from his, and when he’d catch himself replaying the false memory, he’d instead think of holding the girl on the bridge, the cop shining the flashlight in their faces, hand resting on his gun.
Jeff had driven to the Snake River Psychiatric Care Center during his lunch the day after pulling the girl back up over the railing. As he sat in the parking lot, he had no idea what he would say to her. He wasn’t even sure he wanted to say anything to her. What he really wanted was to be near her so she could have whatever she’d left in him back. The thought was ridiculous, and Jeff knew it. He was an educated, intelligent, professional attorney. Psychic magnets getting stuck in people was something guys like Stephen King and Dean Koontz came up with, not things that happened in the real world.
He finally decided he would simply walk in and visit her, and he’d decide what to say, if anything, whenever they were together. The nurse, a woman who looked like she might have been a battlefield medic in World War Two, greeted him, then proceeded to tell him that she couldn’t give him any information, couldn’t let him see a patient that she could neither confirm nor deny was at the facility. Jeff had grown angry, and had even tried using his status as an attorney, Allyson’s attorney, to get the woman to let him see the girl. Nurse Knoble, according to her name tag, though Jeff wasn’t in the mood to play Junior Detective or Amateur Psychologist, had laughed as if he was the twentieth lawyer to try that trick on her in the last hour.
The BMW’s tires spit small rocks and cigarette butts when Jeff stomped on the accelerator and screeched out of the parking lot. The nurse wasn’t his enemy, he knew, but she was the outlet for his frustration. Nurse Knoble had handled him like a pro, and Jeff wondered if part of his anger was at being rebuffed, something he’d not had to deal with in a few years other than by the attorneys who sat across the conference tables from him. He slammed on the brakes as he came to the stoplight, spent the twenty seconds until the light turned green gathering his wits, calming himself down by taking long, slow breaths.
He’d calmed down by the time he pulled into the parking lot at Maser, Franklin, Waters & Charles, but sat in the car for another five minutes listening to classical music on the stereo just to rid himself of any lingering frustration. All he could think of was Allyson, how she slipped away, how he caught her.
“Have a good day, hon.” Karina kissed him on the lips then leaned her head on his shoulder. When he kissed her on the forehead, she looked up. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” he said, kissing her on the forehead once again before disengaging and grabbing his coffee. “The partners told me to take the entire weekend off and spend it with you, and that’s what I did. I could definitely get used to this once a month.” He leaned over and kissed her on the cheek one last time. “It was nice to spend all day doing absolutely nothing but schlubbing in sweats and watching those awful movies Jessie picked out.”
Karina laughed. “They were bad,” she agreed. “Call me if you’re going to be late.”
“Roger dodger,” he said and opened the door to the garage.
Jeff put the soft leather briefcase in the passenger seat of his BMW, then walked around to the driver’s side and carefully opened the door, keys in one hand, his insulated coffee mug in the other. After securing the mug in the cup holder, he reached up and hit the middle button on the remote, hearing the familiar quiet grind of the garage door opening. He put the key in the ignition, turned it, and smiled at the rumble of the sports engine, then smiled wider at the sound of Steve Inskeep and Renee Montagne’s voices on “Morning Edition.”
He moved the shifter to reverse and began to back out of the garage. He jumped in fright as if he’d been bitten at the apparition that appeared next to his window almost the instant his car was all the way out of the garage. Jeff blinked then looked to his left again, but the figure was still there. He blinked again and saw that it was a man. When he rolled down his window, he saw that it was a teenage boy. Jeff’s hopes rose, thinking Allyson had sent the kid to his house with a message.
“Can I help you?” Jeff asked the kid, his voice polite.
“Yeah. I don’t know. Maybe.” The teenager seemed painfully shy, his face turning bright red as if he was suddenly embarrassed to be standing at the edge of Jeff’s driveway.
When the kid didn’t say any more, Jeff said, “I have to get to work.”
The window began its climb. Just as it neared the top and Jeff resumed backing out, the kid shouted at him. He rolled down the window again after shifting the BMW into park.
“You’re Jeff Charles, right?” the teenager asked.
“Yes. Can I help you?” Jeff asked, a crazy hope growing in him that this teenage boy had been sent by Allyson to deliver a message that she was doing well.
“No.” The kid looked confused. “I mean, yeah, I guess. I just thought… you know.”
“Look, kid,” Jeff said, his patience beginning to wear thin, “Just spit it out. I have to get to work. I’m supposed to be this bigshot lawyer, but I can’t do that if I’m stranded in my driveway all day waiting for you to tell me what you want.”
“I… I almost killed myself two weeks ago.”
Jeff’s breath hitched in his throat. The pain in the kid’s voice was unmistakable.
“I was going to actually do it today for sure. Was going to do it instead of going to school, just hide out until my parents went to work, then… you know…”
“What’s your name?” Jeff asked. He turned the car off.
“So, Paul Horner, tell me why you are in my driveway at eight fifteen in the morning instead of at school, or hiding out at home waiting for your parents to leave.”
“Because of you,” Paul said, as if Jeff were an idiot.
“What do you mean ‘because of me?’”
“You saved her life. The black girl. You talked her out of it. She said you touched her somehow and suddenly she didn’t want to die. That she could see there was a reason to go on.” Paul was nearly in tears, the pleading in his eyes shook Jeff to the core. He didn’t know if he could handle another emotional dam burst from another suicidal teenager. “I want you to take my pain away. I don’t want to live like this anymore.”
“What do you expect me to do?” Jeff asked, flustered. He was beginning to get angry. Angry at this kid, Paul, bringing his troubles to Jeff’s house. To Jeff. When Paul didn’t say anything, a single tear rolling down his cheek, Jeff started the car again. “I gotta go, kid.”
“Please!” Paul cried.
“Listen, Paul. I don’t know what you think I can do for you. Allyson was on a bridge, hanging over the edge. You’re in my front lawn. I’m sure you have a screwed up life, but I’m not Jesus. I can’t just touch you and make you better. I didn’t just touch Allyson and she magically woke up to the realization that life is hard but you have to keep going on for it to get better.”
“She says you did.”
“She says I did what? Touched her and healed her like a preacher at a tent revival?”
“Yes. Says you talked to her, made funny pictures appear in her head, then you caught her when she fell. Then you kissed her on the forehead and she didn’t want to die anymore.”
Paul’s words had begun to jumble together as he talked. The look of desperation, the pleading in the kids voice, the fact that Allyson had sent Paul to him…
“Okay, Paul,” Jeff said, turning the car off once more. “Tell me why you want to kill yourself.”
“So am I. I’m a lawyer. Not even a real human, just an asshole with a briefcase.” Jeff laughed at his own joke, and only shrugged when Paul stared at him. “Okay, not funny. We’re all different. What’s so different about you? You look like a normal kid, like you wouldn’t be anywhere near Allyson’s social circles.” Jeff winced at the memory of Allyson telling him she had a single friend in the entire world.
“Okay,” Jeff said, not fazed at all. It was within his top three reasons that he’d guessed as to why the teenager was at his house. “And?”
“Listen, Paul, that’s not it. There’s more to it than that. I mean, so you’re gay, that’s not a huge deal to people like me, but I can see it being a problem because of where we live. But that alone isn’t reason to kill yourself.”
“I can’t go home. My parents found out.”
“Ah, Gotcha. Did you maybe think it might be wiser to wait until you got to college?”
“I was going to. But they came home early and…”
“Oh.” Jeff’s face scrunched up. “They caught you, uh, with another boy?”
“We were just fooling around. I was, you know, going down…”
“Sure, sure, you were giving him head. I’m not a prude. I know about these things.”
“My father walked in. We didn’t even hear them come into the garage.”
“Okay, I’m with you. Your parents walked in while you were giving your boyfriend a blowjob. In the living room?” Paul shook his head. “Bedroom?” Another shake. “The kitchen?” Paul nodded. “I can see how that presents a problem. But I’ll ask again: is it something to kill yourself over?”
“He beat me with a belt. He made Derek watch. Called us queers, butt fuckers, cocksuckers, everything he could think of.”
“Your father beat you with a belt and made your boyfriend watch?” Jeff was beginning to wonder if the kid was messing with him somehow.
Paul pulled up his jacket and the shirt underneath. Jeff’s sharp intake of breath was followed by a boiling rage that began in his guts and worked its way to his brain. Paul’s skin was almost black, with patches of blue, yellow, violet, and even green interspersed throughout. The teenager grabbed the waistband of his pants and pulled, showing Jeff the top half of his buttocks. He looked away, feeling the ache in his hands from forming fists so tight he thought he could hear his bones creaking. Paul pulled up the left leg of his pants and Jeff visibly winced at the bruises and cuts that covered the boy’s calf.
“He wouldn’t stop!” Paul cried, the tears beginning to flow.
“Jesus, kid,” Jeff said, unable to think of anything else to say. His brain clutch finally engaged and he asked the kid what happened next.
“He started beating Derek, but we fought him. Got the belt from him. I… I broke one of the ceramic cannisters over his head. There was blood and then Derek grabbed me and we ran.”
“Did you kill him?” Jeff asked, wondering if the kid was confessing to him and he’d have to call the police. Paul shook his head. “Okay, so, can you stay with Derek?”
“Derek and I broke up.”
“Would you want to go out with someone whose dad would beat him until he was bleeding, then try to beat you?” Paul had half-shouted, half-blubbered the question.
“Right. Where are you staying?”
“Come on, you gotta be staying somewhere. A friend’s house? Relative?”
“I’ve been sleeping on the street. Staying with a friend whenever I can.”
“No one will help you?”
“Because you’re gay?”
“No one wants to be a faggot by association. I at least had friends, others who are like me. But Derek ruined that. They treat me as bad as the straight kids.”
“Look, Paul, I’m sorry. I am. Your father is a real piece of shit, and you probably shouldn’t go home, but I don’t know what to do for you. You can’t stay here—”
“I don’t want to stay here.”
“What do you want?” Jeff asked, frustrated. “What is it you want from me?
“I want you to tell me how everything is going to be all right!” Paul yelled. Jeff noticed a movement in the front window. He watched Karina pull the shade back just enough to look out. “I want you to do what you did for her! I fucking hate this life!”
Karina opened the front door, but Jeff raised his hand, calmly gestured for her to go back in the house. He didn’t feel calm at all. He opened the car door and stepped out, closing it before leaning against it.
“I don’t know what you want me to say,” Jeff said, trying to be as gentle as possible. He had no idea why Allyson had put some crazy thought into the kid’s head, as if he’d shared a magical power with her and was now supposed to share it with Paul.
“Tell me what you told her.”
“Shit. Okay. This isn’t verbatim, but it should be in the same spirit.” He paused. Paul nodded. “Right. Look, life is hard. It’s a challenge. Even on the best of days. Especially as a teenager. God, I remember those days. Who didn’t want to off themselves at least once per week? One week it would be because Jennifer Niedermeyer broke up with me. Another week was my mom getting drunk and showing up at school.”
Jeff’s mind wandered for a moment before he snapped back to reality. “The truth is, the world is a shitty place. Idaho is a shittier place. Rural Idaho is the shittiest place of all, except for maybe a third world country. But you’re smack in the middle of a bunch of inbreds who have worn grooves in their bibles over the decades from clutching them so tight. They hate you. They think you’ve chosen to be gay. They think you want to molest children and turn all of us straight guys gay.
“The worst part is there’s nothing you can say to change their minds. Even if you show them scientific proof, you’re still an abomination, and they’d put you to death if they could get away with it. Sometimes they do. Being a teenager is supposed to be safe, but I’ve heard all about roving packs of little Hitlers who think it is their God-given duty to beat the gay out of you. Or maybe just kill you and let God sort you out so they don’t have to worry about how much you’re harming society.”
Jeff could feel the spark of what he’d felt with Allyson, the faint, smoky images forming in his head as the words seemed to roll off his tongue but from someone else’s mouth.
“You want to hear that everything will be all right? Well, it won’t. It won’t until these old fucks die off and people like me, no, people like you, are in control. But you know what? You’ll all have gay marriage and adoptions and legal marijuana and pirated movies and music but there’ll be something you hate. Something you’ll hate as a generation that a younger generation is doing, and you’ll treat them just like you were treated. You’ll forget all about the struggle you put in to make things safer, healthier, more socially accepted, when it comes to whatever future thing you hate.
“Life sucks. Beyond your father and these ignorant hillbillies, how bad is your life? I mean, even living here, you managed to find a boyfriend, and what did you say? The ‘group’ of gay kids you normally hang with? I could show you videos on the internet of people killing themselves. It’s gruesome. It’s disturbing. But the worst part is what you don’t see. The devastated families and friends, some who had no clue. And so what if your family sucks. Someone out there gives a shit about you. Apparently I do, since I’m late for work while standing in my driveway, trying to convince you that your life sucks but what other choice do you have but to keep going forward?
“You want to take the easy way out, fine. I certainly can’t stop you, because no matter how much I care, I have my own family to take care of, and that means I have to work, to focus on them, instead of trying to save every suicidal teenager that comes my way. Eventually you get to a point in your life where you move on, you find another place that is full of people who are your type. Not just gay. People you can have real friendships, build real relationships with, even if they aren’t intimate or romantic.
“At the end of the day, someone cares. Don’t be selfish and take away the ability to love you from them. Don’t be selfish and take away your own ability to love someone else. Many someones. This is such a small, insignificant part of your life. Everyone thinks high school is this important time, that the world stops and then begins revolving around the things they do. But the truth is, once that final bell rings, it’s all over with. Even if you go to college, everything is instantly different. It wasn’t that long ago I was going through the same thing.”
Jeff remembered the burning embarrassment, the puberty-fueled rage, the doobies in the parking lot during lunch, the feel of his first breast, the first time his finger found wetness between a girl’s legs, prom, the football team, the yearbook club. It had been so important to him, and anytime an adult tried to convince him that it was one of the shortest phases of his life and one day he would look back and have no choice but to agree that it was completely insignificant, he’d lash out with a cruel or snide remark.
Jeff Charles knew everything there was to know at fifteen. And sixteen. And so on, until he arrived at Penn State. His entire world had been turned upside down. No more parents up his ass all the time. Girls only needed a little alcohol, or maybe just a smile and some friendly conversation, and soon enough they were removing their clothes and his, doing things to him that he’d only fantasized about, and some he’d never even dreamed of.
He stepped forward and put his hands on Paul’s shoulders. “Paul, listen to me. There’s nothing wrong with being gay, no matter who beats you, no matter who insults you. It’s easy for me to say that you need to try and tough it out until you can get away from this small-minded region, but I don’t have to live your life. However, as hard as your life might be, there are rewards down the line. You’ll find another Derek. Someone better than him. Someone who won’t ruin your friendships because your father is an abusive bigot.
“There are people out there who will want you to be part of their lives. You haven’t met them yet. Maybe you have met some of them, but neither of you know that you’ll be part of each other’s lives. Hell, there’s a few people that I never hung out with in my little school that I now keep in touch with regularly, even go fishing with a couple of them every fall. You can’t give up. You can’t let anyone dictate to you how you should live your life. If you do, you’ll always live in misery, because that’s what people do when you let them have that power over you.”
The kid was a bawling wreck. Jeff had watched Paul break down a little more as each sentence left Jeff’s mouth. He could feel the teenager’s shoulders through the thin jacket, could feel them vibrating at first, then shaking with what Jeff thought might be seizure force. He shook his head, wondering if he gave the kid his best. The little pictures in his head had never solidified beyond wispy, half-imagined scenes. Maybe I only had that one shot inside me, Jeff’s mind offered. I spent my cache on Allyson.
Jeff closed his eyes and tried to blank his mind. All he could think about was Allyson, his thoughts unable to anchor on anything else. He decided to use Allyson as his focus, and almost immediately his head was clear other than a ghostly image of her face, her crazy hair, the studs and hoops in her eyebrows and nose. He thought he’d almost missed her. Paul crashed into his chest, tears still spilling from his eyes, just as Jeff’s mind replayed the memory of Allyson’s hand and locking into his, the sudden shift of balance as he nearly went over the side, and the tearing pain in his back as he pulled her up to safety.
Jeff hugged the young man, and without even realizing it, he kissed Paul’s forehead.