General Fiction posted June 8, 2019

This work has reached the exceptional level
Putting back the pieces after a troubled son's death

Fixing Vincent

by Rachelle Allen

First Chapter Contest Winner 

As she looks into the bathroom mirror, Meg Tartaglia can see the glow of red numbers from the clock in the master bedroom. 6:39 a.m. She hurries to glide some Amber Rose gloss across her lips then finger-combs her dark gray bob one last time to help it dry. Before she grabs her purse from the dresser, she re-sets the alarm to 8:15 for Sam, as she has every day for the last eighteen years when she returned to the work force. She smiles at his deep, rhythmic breathing pattern that nothing but this alarm interrupts.

At the post office, she sifts through her mail en route back to the car and stops short when she sees an envelope with Custer County Court System in boldface type in the upper left-hand corner.

"It just never ends with you, does it?" Meg says between clenched teeth. Trembling, she opens the envelope and feels, first, a wave of relief and then one of dread as she reads the words, Jury Duty Summons, with its due date for the following Monday. She sets the notice on the passenger's seat and heads to St. Joseph's and raises the volume of her Debussy CD, an antidote for the envelope beside her that is already fraying her nerves.

Majestic white spires come into view. The blood red of the bricks below ensconce rows of stained glass windows, each depicting a different story of suffering and hope, pain and
forgiveness. Meg climbs the steps that look like an ascending carpet of diamonds and watches how their stark white granite seems to swallow up the bright September sun.

She genuflects beside a pew, then slides in and perches on the kneeler, bowing her head and silently praying for world peace and the health and happiness of her loved ones --her husband of thirty-eight years, their children, her mother, her older brother, and his family-- and then she adds a special prayer for the mercy of Vincent's soul and lights a candle for him as she heads to Cromwell Manor.

At the crest of the manicured grounds of the assisted living compound, Meg follows the circular driveway and sees several attendants in their sky-blue scrubs already out walking with some of the snowy-haired residents. Some are in wheelchairs, others are laboring with canes or walkers. The aides' heads are inclined toward their wards, their eyes making contact with them, and Meg says a quick prayer of gratitude that her father's business acumen was able to provide so well for his widow.

She exchanges greetings with the receptionist and heads toward her mother's room.

"How are you this morning, Sondra?" she asks the nurse who's dispensing her mother's meds.

The woman looks up and flashes a radiant smile. "Great," she answers. "As soon as your mother takes these pills, I'm heading home to get my daughter on the bus for her first day of Kindergarten!"

"Oh, I'm so envious," Meg responds. "I loved those days. Be sure to take lots of pictures,
will you? I'll want to see them tomorrow."

"I promise," Sondra answers and waits while Meg's mother swallows a small pleated cupful of tablets and washes them down with water.

"Goodbye, Marie." Sondra gives Meg's mother a quick hug. "I'll see you tomorrow."

She leaves, and after several beats, Marie moves her head toward the open door. "Was there someone just in here?" she asks Meg.

Meg sits down in the overstuffed plaid chair that faces a similar one in red where Marie is seated. "I had quite a scare this morning when I picked up my mail," Meg says to her mother.

The older woman's eyes are fixed now on an unidentified spot on the far wall.

"It was from the Custer County Court System, and it made my heart stop." Marie blinks, but her eyes register no connection with her physical presence.

"My first thought was pure instinct: 'Oh, what have you done now, Vincent?'" Meg's eyes glisten with tears and she reaches for a tissue on the side of the table near her mother. "And then, of course, it hits me that I can't even seem to stop blaming him for things five years after he's dead." Meg's shoulders are now trembling as she brings the tissue box to her lap. "Oh, Mama, how am I ever going to get over this? How am I ever going to be able to fix it for all of us and get us back to being okay again?"

Marie looks at her daughter. "Shhh, shhh, Caroline," she says. "We'll get you a new puppy."

Meg freezes a moment, then shakes her head and starts to laugh. She takes out her compact to wipe her eyes, then runs her fingers through her hair and grabs the tv remote. "Today or Good Morning America?" she asks.

At 8:20, Meg is heading toward her job at Addie's Treasures when she is jarred to attention by flashing red lights. When she sees the gigantic orange school bus, she settles back down. A pigtailed redhead with a kelly green dress and Hello Kitty backpack clambers aboard, and, after several moments, the bus belches out a burst of air and lunges ahead, blasting diesel fumes at Meg's windshield.

At the next stop, there are several clusters of children, all easily under ten, laughing and smiling at each other while comparing the contents of tote bags and lunch boxes. In a group further back, a small boy catches Meg's attention as his black backpack whiplashes from one shoulder and he swings a fist toward a group of three boys, all at least a head taller. Although they don't step back from the smaller boy, they do jerk their heads and torsos backward as he flails in their direction. The smaller boy charges headlong toward them, his jaw clenched and chin jutting upward.

Meg's eyes fill with tears.

"Vincent," she whispers, and just like that, it is twenty-seven years earlier, and Vincent's first day of Kindergarten. His brother, Joseph, starting second grade, and his friends were teasing Vincent about having a teddy bear with him, and immediately, her dark-haired second-born became an indignant, raging tornado of arms and fists. By sheer will, he managed to knock two of the bigger boys to the ground, and Meg, swollen with Adrianna, lumbered to intercede. But the bus driver leaped into the fray first and grabbed each felled boy by an arm.

"What's wrong with you two?" she shouted at them. "He's just a little kid!" and herded them toward the open bus door. She then held out her hand to Vincent and said, "Come on, Sweetie. You can sit up front near me." He looked up at her with his big dark eyes and thick
fringe of eyelashes and then linked his hand in hers. Meg watched as all the gruffness melted from the woman the moment they touched, and, over his shoulder, Vincent gave Meg a huge, mischievous smile.

"Bye, Mommy," he said and waved to her with his free hand.

The driver made a loud, fake-grunting noise as she hoisted Vincent up onto the first step, and he squealed with equally loud delight at her playfulness.

Meg watches the clusters of children in front of her file onto the bus and uses the heel of her hand to stem the onslaught of tears. "Even then, you were the victim of circumstances, Vincent," she says, and there is a catch in her voice. "You never had a chance."

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