Dead Man is a story about a young man’s journey to repair his broken relationship with his father.

Chapter One

Dyrk volunteered at the Some Name Day Care Center for a few hours every other week. It was his way of making up for having lied about doing his community service in high school. Twice a month on Friday mornings, Dyrk would get on his bike and travel fifteen minutes to play with some kids for three or four hours, then make the journey back home. He loved the children there, all of them third grade and under. It was his job to watch them play outside in the back, to walk them to the bathroom, to make sure they shared the kickball and jump ropes, and to sit them in time out when things got a little out of hand. Sometimes they called him Mr. Dyrk and it made him feel old, like his father. Most of the time, though, it was “Teacher.” The name made him smile.

Today was Thursday, and he had already volunteered last week, so there was still a week to go before he saw the little ones again. Dyrk wouldn’t have imagined liking children. Whenever he visited family, and the younger cousins were playing in the room, he made sure to hang out with the adults, no matter how boring the conversation may have been. But after volunteering for a few months, he was starting to like it.

“Dyrk, do you remember your Aunt Maria?”

“Of course I do,” Dyrk replied. He was sitting with his father at the kitchen table. They’d both risen early that morning, despite the fact that they didn’t open the store today. He shoveled some chocolate mush that only vaguely resembled Cocoa Pebbles into his mouth. It was always like his father to interrupt his thoughts with random conversation. Didn’t his father know that he didn’t want to talk?

“Well, she decided to join the Raven’s Club. Can you believe that?”

Dyrk swallowed. The Raven’s Club was an exclusive club that only let in extremely rich people. His grandfather had been a part of the club and had begun to rise within the ranks when the store began to lose money. The club decided that they couldn’t have a member who was struggling financially, and forced his grandfather to leave. After hearing the story, whenever anyone mentioned the club, he was left with an unpleasant aftertaste.

“Yeah, I believe it,” was his only response. He stared at the box of cereal in front of him, hoping to look interested in the cartoon cavemen, even though the packaging had the same puzzles on it since he was a kid and he could solve them in his sleep. His father bought the charade and left him alone, picking up his half empty bowl and leaving the kitchen.

The phone rang, breaking the rhythmic sound of the spoon clanking against the side of the bowl every time he went for another bite.

“I’ll get it.”

Dyrk reached for the red plastic phone and held it to his ear.

“Hello?”

“Good morning, may I speak to Dyrk Chamberlain?”

“Yeah, this is me.”

“Hello, Dyrk, this is Victoria, from Some Name Daycare Center.”

“Oh, hello, Victoria.” He didn’t recognize her voice over the phone. She was the secretary, but she also had a few kids in the center. She was a nice enough lady, and her kids were okay. They weren’t the best behaved, but they weren’t as bad as the owner’s son. That boy was a trouble maker.

“Dyrk, I see that you aren’t scheduled to return until next week Friday. Do you think you might be able to come in tomorrow? Mr. Grayson would like to speak with you.”

“Um, that sounds great. When would you like me to come in?”

“Can I put you down for eight o’clock?”

“That’s perfect.”

“I’ll see you then.” She hung up on her end.

Dyrk set the phone down on the table. What could Mr. Grayson want to talk about? He wondered why the man didn’t just call him over the phone. They never really talked. When Dyrk had inquired about volunteering, it was Mr. Grayson’s wife that had led him through the process of finger-printing and background checks. Why would Mr. Grayson want to talk to him now?

He stood up from the table, set his dish in the sink and let the water run over it. Whatever it was, Dyrk was grateful for something to wonder about. Even with the bi-monthly volunteering, he had slipped into a monotonous routine of waking up, going to work at the store in the morning, then coming back home in the evening. He wanted to do something different, and picking his brain for all possible reasons as to why Mr. Grayson wanted a meeting was different enough to satisfy him.

Turning off the stream of water, Dyrk stepped into the living room. It was a small room, with only a tattered futon and an old TV propped up on an even older bureau. His father stood by the window, bowl in hand, peering out into the garden he kept in the front yard.

The man noticed his entry.

“Hey, Dyrk,” he said, not turning from the window. “Come, take a look at this.”

Dyrk joined his father and looked out.

“You see the birdhouse on that tree?”

“Yeah.”

His mother had put it up a few years back. The house was made of wood, which had been painted in blue and yellow stripes. A small opening had been cut in the center with enough room for one or two birds to perch comfortably. It had seen its fair share of weather and decay: most of the wood had rotted away and the yellow and blue stripes were faded and peeling.

“Can you see the birds inside?”

He squinted. There they were, two fat pigeons, squeezing in the small space provided for them.

“I haven’t seen a bird in there since the funeral.”

His father turned to him. “Your mother wanted a place for the birds, but I guess they never wanted it themselves until now.”

Dyrk smiled. His mother had been so frustrated with the birdhouse. Every time a bird fluttered into the yard she would watch in hopes that it would land in her little wooden box, but it never did.

“I’m going to rebuild the house, Dyrk,” his father said, pointing out the window. “I’m going to make it like your mother had it. She would have wanted that.”

He didn’t say anything. His father was always starting projects but never completing them. He would either get distracted or get discouraged, and then add whatever he was working on to the long string of shelved, incomplete projects. Dyrk had no hope for his mother’s old birdhouse. After a few hours of hammering and painting, his father wouldn’t be able to handle it anymore.

“I’m going to town,” Dyrk said, more to himself than his father.

The man didn’t seem to notice. He continued to stare out the window, humming softly to himself, watching the birds, thinking of the woman who had never seen them enjoy the house she built for them.

Chapter Two

It took him ten minutes to get to town on his bike, but there was something in the wind that compelled him to move faster, faster, faster. He closed his eyes as he coasted along the sidewalk. It was straight forward in one direction, with a few breaks for streets here and there. He’d ridden this path hundreds of times over the years, going to school and back, heading to the store, meeting up with friends at the park. He’d seen the same buildings year after year, and the monotony would drive him mad one of these days.

Dyrk pedaled hard. His father’s comments had been unsettling. He hadn’t really thought of his mother since they laid her to rest. The mere mention of her name stirred up anger in his heart and he pushed his feet down on the pedals.

“Hey, watch where you’re going!”

He opened his eyes and swerved. A girl pushed him out of the way. He stumbled to a stop and planted his feet on the ground.

“I’m so sorry,” he started, turning to see who he had nearly run over.

“Don’t worry about it, Dyrk. Just keep your eyes open next time.” She was an older teen, maybe seventeen or eighteen, and she had a glowing look to her.

“Uh, how do you know my name?” Dyrk asked, leaning on the handlebars for balance.

She shrugged and played with the zipper of her black and purple sweater. She didn’t look him the face when she spoke.

“You come into the supermarket all the time. My dad practically wants to adopt you.”

Dyrk frowned as he tried to remember if he had seen her before. “I didn’t know that Andy had a kid.”

She lifted her head. “I’m more than just Andy’s kid, you know. I’ve got bigger aspirations than this low-life town.” She cringed as she heard the icy remark come from her mouth. “I mean, it’s a nice town and all, but I’m not the one who wanted to move here.”

“I don’t like this town either,” Dyrk replied, waving off her criticism. He didn’t care much for the town, not after how it treated him. Maybe that’s why he spent so much time with her father, Andy, at the supermarket. The man had only just moved in to town and didn’t know much about Dyrk’s past. He wanted to keep it that. No one understood how great it felt to talk to someone with eyes that didn’t accuse, eyes that didn’t look back to some stain you’d picked up along the way and couldn’t wash off, no matter how hard you tried.

“Well, Dyrk, I’ve gotta go,” the girl said, giving a small wave.

“Uh, wait a minute.” Dyrk held up his hand. “Why aren’t you in school? I mean, Riverside High doesn’t let anyone out for lunch and it isn’t a half day or anything like that. And how come I’ve never seen you before?”

“Oh no, you’ve found me out.”

She said dramatically, clutching her heart. She produced a small book from her pocket and tilted it to him.

“I’m heading over to the river to get some writing done.”

Dyrk smirked. “Oh, so you’re one of those weird writer types that make up fake stuff because they can’t handle the real world?”

“Not at all.” She replaced the book and clasped her hands together. “I’m talking about writing in my journal. It’s the only way I can really think in the midst of all this.” She gestured to the town around them. “And there’s nothing wrong with writing, Dyrk,” she added. “For some of us, it’s the only way we can truly think.”

“So you skip school to go write in your journal.” He shook his head and glanced at his watch. It was time to go. “I guess I’ll see you around.”

“I’m home schooled. Mom gives me Friday off.” She began to walk away. “You say hi to Dad for me, okay? Ask him why he never talks about me. And you can call him ‘Dad’. I don’t mind.” Her voice grew deep as she tried to imitate her father. “He needs a good son to carry on the family name.”

Dyrk laughed. “You’ve got Andy written all over you, kid. I’ll see you around.”

He pushed off the ground and pedaled forward. The dreary buildings to his right and left faded away, revealing plumes of black smoke rising from where wood, plastic and flesh burned together in his memories. Dyrk closed his eyes, but he still saw the house, burning. He could still smell smoke, feel it clinging to his throat.

And, of course, the guilt was there, smiling as it stepped across the threshold, holding a pile of bones in its hands as it shouted his name at the top of its lungs.

And, as usual, Dyrk let it right in.

Chapter Three

Mr. Grayson’s office was larger than he imagined it to be. A polished mahogany desk sat parallel to the door, with a leather chairs on either side. Stacked on the desk were neat piles of folders, papers, and binders, as well as a large calender and a few pencil canisters. The room itself was decorated with photographs of Mr. Grayson, his wife, and a few grown children. It looked just like a Principal’s office. Dyrk smiled as he shut the door behind him. He had seen his fair share of those.

“Ah, Dyrk, it is so good to see you,” Mr. Grayson said, standing up to offer him his hand in greeting. Dyrk shook it firmly and sat down. Mr. Grayson returned to his seat and reached for a folder in front of him.

“How have you been doing?”

Dyrk leaned back in his chair. “I’ve been doing well. We’ve got a lot of work to do with the store, but it’s not a problem.”

Mr. Grayson nodded. “That’s good to hear.” He glanced up from the papers in his hand. “I see you’ve been volunteering here for quite a while now. How do you like it?”

“Well, it’s great, sir. I didn’t really think I would like children, but there’s something about them that doesn’t let me get away from them.”

“That’s interesting,” Mr. Grayson replied. “Most young men in this town can’t stand to be around children at all. I mean, even I can’t handle children so well, and I am in charge of this center.”

Dyrk squirmed in his chair. Was this a test? He didn’t know what to say in return, but figured he should just start with the truth.

“I think that children have a capacity to wonder that astonishes me.” He paused. “I don’t remember being a child, so I don’t remember when I learned certain things or when I didn’t know things and it was a joy to learn them. I enjoy having to use my imagination when I play with the kids. It’s a honor for me to spend time with them, especially when no one else seems to want to spend any time with them at all.”

Dyrk stopped when he realized that Mr. Grayson was looking him square in the face. He averted his eyes. He had spoken for too long.

“Dyrk, you are a surprising young man. Who would have thought that Riverside could produce someone so passionate as you?” Mr. Grayson folded his hands together. “Dyrk, the reason why I brought you down here was to offer you a job. We are in need of more permanent staff members, and ones who will do more than just babysit children until their parent’s show up.” He pointed at Dyrk. “I think you are a perfect fit.”

“Uh, sir, I don’t know what to say.”

Mr. Grayson smiled. “You let me know by Sunday night. I want you to start working next week.” The man stood up. Dyrk followed his pattern.

“Thank you, sir, I will let you know.”

He stepped outside of the office and closed the door behind him. Victoria looked over from her desk and smiled at him.

“So I’m assuming you made it through the interview in one piece.”

Dyrk looked up at her. That was an interview? Mr. Grayson sure had an odd way of doing things. Right now, though, he needed to get home and think about this job offer. Was it really something he could commit to doing until the end of the school year? Dyrk had always dreamed of leaving Riverside and going to a good school and learning to be something great. Could he be great here in Riverside? Could teaching and playing with children ever be considered great?

He wasn’t so sure.

Chapter Four

“Dyrk, let’s go on a vacation.” His father bounded into the kitchen as he spoke, causing Dyrk to start.

“Dad, what are you talking about?” He looked down at his turkey and cheese sandwich and took another bite. He had just returned from his interview and had intended to spend the rest of the day determining if he was going to take the job or not. Sunday was too many days away to spend second-guessing himself. He needed an answer by tonight.

“What does anyone mean when they use the word vacation? We need to get away from all of this, Dyrk.” His father placed a hand on his shoulder. “We need to spend some time together, son. It’ll be good for us.”

“Do you have somewhere in mind?”

His father smiled. “Lawford. I’m headed up there to do some business over the weekend, and I figured we could use the trip for some father-son bonding.”

Dyrk laughed. “Lawford is not a place you want to go for vacation, Dad. Especially not if you’re doing business.”

“Look, son, I know it isn’t as huge a deal as when we went down to Florida when you were a kid, but I want to do something like that again. We had a good time then, didn’t we?”

“Yeah.” He stuffed his sandwich into his mouth. If he could keep his mouth full, maybe he wouldn’t have to talk. Maybe he wouldn’t have to tell his dad that going on that trip had been the worst thing for their family.

But, then again, he hadn’t seen his father this excited in years. Could he really deprive his father of this one wish? Besides, how bad would it be to spend some time with his dad?

He swallowed hard.

“When are we leaving?”

His father ran to the refrigerator and began making himself a sandwich. “As soon as I eat this, we’ll head on out.” He grinned as he set the turkey and cheese on the counter. “We’ll get to eat at Lucky’s, my favorite bar in town, and we’ll stay in a motel, and if we’re lucky, we might even see a rat or two! Son, this is going to be a great time of bonding.”

Dyrk nodded and stepped away from the table. Why did it feel like it was going to be the complete opposite of that? He tried to be optimistic and began to pack a few clothes into his traveling duffel bag. The one time that he really needed to be alone and think, his father decided that he wanted to go on vacation, and to Lawford of all places! Everyone knew what you went to Lawford for, and it wasn’t anything good. How was he supposed to focus on discovering his plan for life when he was stuck with his dad for hours on end?

Chapter Five

“Have I ever told you about your uncle Garcia?”

“Uh, I don’t think so.”

They were on the Second Lane, the only road that connected Riverside with the rest of the world. It would take them two hours to get to Lawford if they pushed 70. Knowing his father, it would most likely take them longer. His father wasn’t keen on breaking any laws and would stop at every single stop sign even when there was clearly no one around. Dyrk didn’t much care for those rules, at least, not when he was being careful. That was probably why Dyrk didn’t get on very well in this town. Everyone followed the rules down to the last letter, and if you messed up, you were done for. And, yet, somehow, they let Dyrk stay, in spite of the fact that he was a screw up.

“Well, I’ve got a crazy story about him, if you want to hear it.”

Dyrk didn’t want to hear it, but they were supposed to be having this great time of relationship building, so he had to pretend to be interested at least. He sighed.

“Was Garcia his first name or his last name?”

“I have no idea. Anyway, your mother’s brother was a crazy man, always ready to get into some kind of trouble.”

“Now I know where I get it from,” Dyrk mumbled under his breath. His father didn’t seem to notice.

“He was a fisherman, your uncle Garcia, and he would spend most of his days searching out the best places to fish, and he would always come home with a large catch.” His father paused for a stop sign. Dyrk groaned.

“So one day, he decides that he wants to go fishing with a few of his buddies. They head on over to one of those canals and they’re just setting up when all of a sudden, a cop shows up.”

“Are they allowed to fish in canals like that?”

“The cop said they weren’t allowed to, and if they didn’t move out within five minutes, he was going to give them a fine. The other friends start packing up their things and they’re almost ready to go when Garcia punches the cop in the face, jumps into the canal, and starts to swim away.”

Dyrk turned to his father. “For real? That really happened?”

His father nodded, a satisfied smile spreading on his face. “One hundred percent certain.”

“Garcia sounds like a crazy man.”

“Definitely one to do the unexpected. Aside from his canal swimming, he was known for the twelve rats he raised in his backyard. Too bad he got rid of them before I met your mom.” His father reached for the radio. “Anything in particular you want to hear?”

“Not really.”

His father switched between a few stations, then lowered the volume. The car grew silent. Dyrk looked out the window. A few birds burst from the trees and hovered in the sky. He wondered what it would be like to be a bird, to have the ability to see beyond present circumstances, to look out and see danger while it was still far ahead, to find the best shelter and food. But if he knew the ending, would it really change the way he lived?

“Mr. Grayson offered me a job at Some Name Day Care.” He hadn’t wanted to tell his father, but he felt that he should probably know. “He said he needs some more permanent teachers, and since I already have experience, he thinks it’ll be a good fit.

His father turned to him. “Is that where you went today?”

“Yeah, he called me in for an interview. Says he wants me to start working next week.”

Dyrk studied his father’s face for a response, but was caught on his physical appearance. The man had dark brown eyes and a long, protruding nose. He wore his hair cropped close to his skull and had a few day’s worth of stubble on his chin. Dyrk was surprised to see the growing beard. Ever since the funeral, he had never let his facial hair grow out. His mother had never liked facial hair, and it was an area of contention between the two of them. His father had always let the hair grow out and his mother would always get mad. After she died, he started to shave, most likely in her honor. But why stop shaving now? What had changed in the last few months? Was his father finally starting to move on?

“Well, that sounds like a great opportunity.” His father began to drum a beat on the steering wheel. “Is this something you can see yourself doing?”

Dyrk crossed his arms, slipping one arm under the seatbelt. “I’m not really sure just yet. I want to work with the kids, but I don’t know if I’m ready to commit to it full time.”

“I see.”

The car grew quiet again. Dyrk shifted in his chair. They never really talked about this kind of stuff. His father seemed uncomfortable as well.

Well, here’s the time to use all that information you learned in your parenting books. I don’t care if I’m twenty years old. Give me advice!

Dyrk knew his thoughts were cynical at best, but he couldn’t help but feel them. His father had never really been there for him as a father, despite what the books lying around the house instructed him to do. His mother had filled that role in his life, playing both leader and nurturer. His father had just been that guy you don’t want to upset or else you would feel the wrath. He’d been that guy who paid all the bills, so you made sure you were on your best behavior whenever he was around, and you tried to convince yourself that he was worth all the uncomfortable things he forced you to do. You tried to convince yourself that he was worth all the horrible ways he treated your mom, even until she was on her deathbed.

He didn’t hate his father, but he didn’t love him either. They were somewhere on the middle ground. Despite his pessimism for this as a bonding experience, he hoped that the trip would shed some light on where their relationship was truly headed. Was it worth continuing, or should they let it die the slow death it was headed for?

Like everything in his life, Dyrk just wasn’t sure.

Chapter Six

They made it to Motel Magnificente before noon. Their room had no windows. A single bulb lit the small room, bathing it in a dark yellow haze. It reeked of urine, despite the fact that the bathroom was further down the hall. Several bird paintings covered the pink walls, their eyes peering through the canvas, touching Dyrk’s soul. You should not be here, they accused. You do not belong.

He set his duffel bag on the rumpled bedsheets. What did the birds know about belonging? They were just animals with no feeling. What right did they have to say anything about him? He wanted to burn them. His father would have a fit. Plus, they would have to pay for damages to the motel, and he didn’t feel the need to waste any more money on this pathetic business.

“This room isn’t so bad, is it?” His father closed the door gently behind him. He patted Dyrk on the back. “I’m telling you, this is the way to do it. I saw a rat while I was in the bathroom.”

“Okay, why are you obsessed with rats, Dad? Why do you want to see them?”

His father sat on the messy bed. “Your mom was afraid of rats. I guess it was because of her brother raising them when she was young. Whenever we would go on a trip together and our place had a rat, she would scream and yell at me, begging me to kill it.” He smiled sadly. “I would just laugh at her until the rat scampered away and we couldn’t find it anymore.” He looked up at Dyrk. “I want to catch another rat, Dyrk, and I want to catch it for her.”

Dyrk stared at his father.

“She’s dead, Dad. She’s not gonna know if you catch one. She’s not coming back. You can shave your face, rebuild birdhouses, and catch all the rats you want, but you will never bring her back. You might as well stop trying.”

“What is wrong with you?” Dyrk’s father rose from the bed and got in his face. “No one said a word when you went through your grief phase over Cameron. Your mother and I dealt with your strange behavior for years without stopping you. ‘Give the boy space,’ she said. ‘He needs to overcome his grief, in his own way.’ Well, it’s my time, and here I am, trying to overcome my grief, and my only son won’t even let me.”

“You never let me overcome anything, Dad! You told me I would never get rid of the guilt, and that I was destined to live with it forever and Cameron would never get justice. If it weren’t for Mom-”

“Don’t you talk about your mother!” A sneer formed on his lips. He breathed deeply. “Are worthy of your mother’s memory? Are you worthy to be called her son?”

Dyrk looked away. He knew he shouldn’t have said what was on his mind. He knew he should have held his tongue, but his father needed to know the truth. He needed to know that moving on quickly was the only answer. This pain was momentary and it would sting, but the slow pain of grief that would never go away. It was the best choice to make. It’s the choice his father made for him.

“Answer me!”

Dyrk started. His father grabbed his shoulders. “Do you think you are worthy of her?”

“I don’t-”

“No, you are not. You were never worthy of her or me or the Chamberlain name, and there is nothing you can ever do to change that!” He threw Dyrk’s duffel bag to the ground. “You take your bag and you get out of here. I don’t want to see you anymore.”

Dyrk stooped to pick up his bag. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. They were supposed to be growing closer, not tearing apart. He turned to the door and looked at his father. Their house was broken, decayed and rotten like the old birdhouse that hung in their yard. There was no hope for repair, and it was all his fault.

“Good bye.”

His father shook his head.

“Here’s your justice, Dyrk. You wanted it, and here it is.”

Chapter Seven

His father returned home that Monday. He heard from Andy that his father was happier than normal, talking with the supermarket owner for more than two hours about his plans for the future. By the time his father came home, Dyrk had already packed most of his clothing into a suitcase and was staying with a friend. He didn’t have any personal items to care for, and most of his money was in the bank anyway.

He would survive.

He went to work for Mr. Grayson, but it just didn’t feel the same. The children were as talkative as ever, but he couldn’t focus long enough to hear them out.

“Teacher!” He felt something on his arm. Jacob, one of the first graders, arguably his favorite student, tugged on his arm.

“What’s wrong?”

“Look at Henry! He’s pushing all the girls.”

Dyrk looked out into the playground. Jacob spoke the truth. Henry, a fifth grader, ran around the swings, slapping the girls, pulling their hair, throwing rocks at them. They screamed and tried to fight back, but some of his friends had joined in on the game.

He felt tired. He wanted to call out to Henry, but his throat protested. He patted Jacob on the shoulder. “They’ll be fine,” he said, taking a seat on the bench. “They can handle Henry.”

Jacob looked up at him. He could see the confusion in the little boy’s face. Dyrk sent him away. Jacob noticed something was different, and he seemed shocked.

Mr. Grayson had noticed it, too. Dyrk felt him watching him at every turn with a grave face, scrawling notes in a binder. He pretended that he wasn’t bothered and put on more movies for the children to watch.

“Dyrk, can we talk?”

It had been three weeks since the explosion with his father. He was just straightening up the main playroom when someone walked in. He looked up.

“Um, hello, Mr. Grayson.”

“Dyrk, I’m a little concerned about you.” He stepped further into the room. “You’ve been a little disconnected since you received this job.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Is anything going on? Anything giving you trouble?”

“No, sir, everything is going well around here.” He lifted the mop in his hands. “I could use a new mop, though.”

Mr. Grayson kept pressing.

“In your personal life, then? I’ve heard that there was a problem with your father – ”

“I mean not disrespect, sir, but that is not your business.”

“I agree, but this is.” He gestured to the room around him. He sat on the children’s snack table. “I’ve worked hard for this place, and ever since my father handed it down to me, it has seen success.” He crossed his arms. “When I hired you, I felt that you brought something that could contribute to the future success of this business. But after watching you for the past three weeks, you don’t bring anything to the table.”

Dyrk looked down. Was this really happening? An unraveling of everything he lived for? If he was honest, though, had he really been living for his father? Had he been living for this job? Had he been living for anything?

“Dyrk, I am going to have to let you go.”

“That’s it? No second chance?”

Mr. Grayson stood. “You’ve got a lot on your plate right now, Dyrk. I’m not ruling you out forever. Maybe this isn’t the right time for you to work here.”

“Mr. Grayson, I can try.” Begging was lower than he ever thought he could fall.

“I’m sorry, Dyrk.” Mr. Grayson walked to the door. “I’ve got the children to think of as well. Do you really think that while you’re in this state you can really be an influence for them?”

He left the room. Dyrk drifted to the table Mr. Grayson had just vacated. Once again, everything was his fault. Wasn’t that stage where you thought you were a failure only supposed to happen in high school, that crazy time where life was upside down and nothing made sense? Hadn’t he gone through that stage long enough? Was there no end to being a troubled teen?

He looked around him. He wanted to burn the snack table, the one he’d wiped a thousand times after kids left spilled juice, Cheerios, and mucus on it, not caring who took care of it. He wanted to burn those bookshelves, with the dumb, repetitive books about the alphabet, underwater sea creatures, or whatever other nonsense people thought kids wanted to read about. He wanted to set the “Circle Time” rug on fire, with it’s colorful train pattern and urine stains from the kids that couldn’t hold it for a few simple minutes.

He stormed out of the room, out of the building, not closing any doors behind him, not looking back for one final glance. He was done with Some Name Day Care Center. It couldn’t make up for the cheating he had done in high school. The guilt he felt about that portion of his past was drowning in a raging sea of anger and he was on the boat and ready to set sail.

Chapter Eight

The river had become his refuge. In the past, it had provided the founders of the town with an avenue for trading with other cities, taking them from ghost town to port city. It had provided his ancestors with a living, back when the store used to sell fish and they were struggling to make ends meet. It had provided his mother with a place to unwind when the medications were driving her insane, giving her the space she needed to work through the mental anguish. And, now, it provided him peace. Always moving at a constant, steady pace, the river didn’t care about pleasing anyone. It didn’t feel guilt or shame. It simply moved forward, bending and turning along the sandy banks, never fearing where it was headed next.

He could never be like the river. He didn’t need to be. Watching it drift past him for hours on end was enough to calm the confusion swirling through his mind, even if only long enough to get him through to the next day.

Time was passing, and he had no grasp of it. Days blended to form weeks, weeks formed years, and life marched along with the river, never stopping to ask for directions, never wondering if there was another way, always on a steady course, onward toward the last syllable of time.

Dyrk had his own home now, but he rarely spent any time in it. The house was large and beautiful, better than anything his father had ever owned. The empty rooms haunted him. If things had gone different, could he have had a family? Could he have been a father? He hadn’t heard from his own father since the two of them left Lawford so many years ago. But Dyrk was a man now, and no longer needed to play the part of a child with a father there to pick up the pieces when they inevitably shattered on the ground.

He had made himself invisible around town. No one needed to see him until he had cleansed his name, until he was worthy to call himself Dyrk Chamberlain. That was the only cause he felt he needed to fight for. Everything and everyone else had resented his support, and he saw no use fretting over it anymore. He had learned long ago to spot when people didn’t care for his help. It had been tough, but he taught himself to distance himself from them. The only cause worthy of fighting for anymore was himself, and he had no shame in saying it.

Dyrk had lost a lot of friends in this quest. Who wanted to be friends with a guy who only cares about clearing his name? Every single moment of their friendship would be filled with him begging for their approval. And the population of Riverside would never approve of him. They would never be satisfied. They would continue to demand his perfection until the day that he died.

He would have to fight from a distance, but he was ready to give them the fight of their lives.

Chapter Nine

He hadn’t been able to dream since his mother received her diagnosis. Whenever they visited her in the hospital, she would recount incredible stories from her subconscious. In an effort to connect with her, he tried to pay attention to his own dreams. Maybe, he thought, if they were interesting enough, he could share them with her. But each morning, he woke up with no recollection of any dreams, and nothing to tell his mother.

But this morning was different. When he opened his eyes, it took a moment before he realized where he was. The room smelled of freshly laundered clothing. He had brought up the finished load before he went to bed. He sat up in his bed and rubbed his brow.

What had just happened?

The dream was interesting, to say the least. Most dreams were. His mind worked hard to call up the memory of the dream, although it felt like it was slipping further away with every second he waited.

There had been a fire inside a tunnel. A subway car had toppled over and someone was inside, screaming for his help. He reached for them, but the heat stung his fingers. He searched around for something to put out the fire, but it was too late. The fire was raging and consuming the subway car, taking yet another helpless victim.

Dyrk was no stranger to fire. It haunted his past and plagued his present, always burning and destroying anything he tried to build.

He stepped onto the ground, the cool marble floor stinging his feet. He dressed and prepared for the day. He had gotten a job running deliveries for Riverside Meat Factory, and it was a decent living, but today was his day off, and he was grateful. He needed to go into town for some groceries and to pick up a few light bulbs. Hopefully, he could get them for a decent price at Andy’s supermarket. He knew that his dad carried light bulbs, but there was no way he could go into there.

Dyrk had given up hope of fixing things with his father. They both said things that he regretted, and there was no turning back from it. He would focus on fixing things with the town, little by little, person by person, until the tiny ripples found their way to the core and his name was cleared.

He found his old bike and rode through town. His new home was closer to town than he’d ever lived, and he didn’t need to take the car out. After months of riding in the RMF truck, he really needed a break from the unsteady rumbling of tires against concrete and asphalt.

Riverside High had just let out, and dozens of teenagers crowded the sidewalks, talking excitedly and carrying, collectively, at least a ton of textbooks and homework. Dyrk grimaced as he dodged the younger ones on the sidewalk, but finally decided that riding on the street would be much easier. He glanced at his watch. Eleven o’clock. Wasn’t it a bit early for school to be out already?

“Well, if it isn’t Mr. Dyrk himself.” A young teenager stood in front of his bike, forcing him to squeeze the brake pedal. His bike lurched forward and he nearly crashed into the kid. He shook his head. The last time this had happened, it’d been with another teenager. What is it with teenagers these days?

“What’s the deal, kid? Why are you stopping in the middle of the street?”

The boy smiled and hooked his thumbs into his pockets. “You don’t remember me, do you?”

Dyrk studied the boy’s face. A bright red eye peeked out from behind a curtain of sweeping dark hair. Black nose, eye and lip rings protruded from the teen’s skin.

“Who are you?”

The teen swept the hair from his eyes with a shake of his head.

“My name is Jacob. You used to be my Day Care teacher.” The teen offered him a hand. “They say you disappeared after you turned your dad into a drunk.”

“I did not disappear,” he shot back. “And who said I turned him into a drunk?”

Jacob shrugged. “Heard it around, I guess.” He paused. “You don’t remember me, do you, Mr. Dyrk?”

Dyrk laughed nervously. “Of course I do. You were always a little troublemaker, if I remember correctly.”

The teen shook his head. “How hard would it be to just say ‘no’ and admit that you don’t know everything?”

“Hey, what’s all that about? You don’t even know me, kid.”

“Well, I’ve heard enough about you. They say that you are really a bad man, that you’ve hurt children before, and that’s why they didn’t let you stay on working in the center.”

What is wrong with this town?

“That’s ridiculous. I was fired from my job because I was too preoccupied to do my job fully. And, no, I didn’t hurt any children. That’s ridiculous.”

Jacob shrugged. “That’s not even the worst of what they say. Anyway, I’ve gotta go.” He stepped around Dyrk’s bike and waved. “Never thought I’d see you again. You look the same, of course, except for the hair. You used to keep it so long before.” He turned and walked away.

Dyrk shook his head as he mounting his bike. Were things that bad? What more would he have to undo? He was already a murderer. Now, they were saying he did bad things to kids? When was this going to end?

He pedaled toward the supermarket. The day had only just begun, and, already, he was about to lose his mind.

Chapter Ten

“Hey, Dyrk, so good to see you!” Andy shouted from the second cash register, waving wildly. Dyrk smiled and tied his bike to the front door.

“Morning, Andy.”

“I see you brought in an antique.” Andy gestured to the bicycle sticking out of the store.

“Yeah,” Dyrk laughed, “I needed to get some fresh air. A change of pace.”

“The trucks, they can do that to you.” Andy shook his head as he sorted some items on the counter in front of him. “I was a truck driver, way back in the day, but I did the cross country deliveries, the ones where you’d be gone for weeks at a time. It was really difficult.”

“I’m sure it was tough for your family.”

“They hadn’t come along yet. I’m not that young of a man, Dyrk.”

“I know what you mean.”

“I’m too old, Dyrk. My kids, they’re all grown up. Anna’s about to move out, you know.” Andy smiled sadly and leaned against the counter, staring off into a time since passed. “She’s still too young, but you know these kids, they need to face the real world soon.”

“They’ve got to use all the years of training you’ve spent on them.” Dyrk made his way past the cash register. “I’ve got some things to get from the back. I’ll see you in a bit.”

“Hey, I’ll be waiting right here, to collect your money.”

Dyrk laughed and grabbed a blue basket. He had really only come here for a light bulb, but it didn’t feel right for him to only spend a few bucks in his friend’s store. The man had been an immense help to him, especially in his time of financial need. Andy had been a friend to Dyrk, probably his only friend, but he knew that was only because Andy didn’t let himself get involved in the town gossip. He focused himself on his business and the church he ran in the apartments upstairs. Dyrk had never been too interested in the man’s religious side, but it did make him a better man, that much was certain.

A box of frosted toaster pastries fell off a shelf and onto the ground. Dyrk stared at it. No one was around. Why had it fallen? He stepped over to pick it up, when a hand came down heavy on his shoulder.

“Don’t move,” came the voice, deep and husky. He tried to turn his head, but he felt something cool press against his hair.

“I said, don’t move.”

“What do you want?”

“You’re gonna stay right here. You’re not gonna say a word about any of this.”

Dyrk closed his eyes. Were these guys really trying to get him to stay quiet while they robbed his friend? He turned around quickly and punched blindly. It landed heavy, and his attacker dropped to the floor.

He surveyed the damage.

“Hey, man, you’re no fun.”

A boy, no more than thirteen years old, lay on the ground, clutching his stomach.

“What kind of a game are you playing, huh? You can’t come at me like that and not expect to get attacked.” Dyrk leaned down and helped the boy up. A can of green beans rolled to the ground. He picked it up.

“So this is your idea of a gun? You think they look like this? I can tell you, they don’t look like this.”

The boy snatched the can from his hands. “You don’t have to be mean.”

“So now I’m mean? That’s fine. I’ll just grab my things and head on out of here.” Dyrk crossed his arms. “But not until I tell Mr. Andy what you’ve done here.”

The boy crumpled to the ground in a fit of tears. “No, please don’t tell him, sir! You can’t tell him. He’ll kill me. Literally!”

“Somehow, I doubt that.” He grabbed the boy’s arm and lifted him up. “Let’s go.”

“Uh, I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” Another voice joined in.

Remembering Jacob’s face, Dyrk heard his words: they say that you’ve hurt children.

Dyrk dropped the boy immediately. He turned to their visitor.

“Anna?”

“Yep, the one and only.” She gave a mock curtsy. “Well, I’m sure there are other Anna’s in the world, but you know what I’m trying to say.”

“What are you doing here?”

“Uh, this is my father’s store.” She pointed to the boy who was still crying on the ground. “The question is, what are you doing here?”

He helped the boy on his feet. “I was getting some food, when this guy decided he wanted to play cops and robbers. He tried to get me to hide out here while he robbed your guys’ stuff. I took him down.”

“It’s nice to see we’ve got loyal customers. But this little guy isn’t stealing anything. He’s a cousin of mine, and he’s staying with us for a bit.”

Dyrk turned white. “Well, please, let your dad know that I meant no harm, whatsoever.” He reached for the boy’s polo shirt, dusting it off and adjusting his collar.

“Hey, back off, sir! I don’t want you touching me.”

He lifted his hands in the air. “Hey, don’t worry, my hands are up. I’m not touching anything.”

Anna laughed and turned the boy around. “Go back upstairs, Lou, and don’t leave your sister alone next time.” She looked at Dyrk. “She’s only a year and he was supposed to be watching her.”

Dyrk didn’t know what to say. He hadn’t spoken to Anna very often since she knocked him off his bike a few years ago. They’d seen each other in the store, but never had any real conversation. To be honest, he didn’t really want to talk to her. They just weren’t the same personality type, or whatever you called it. She was usually more over the top, and he just wasn’t that kind of guy. His friends, if he had any, were more quiet, subdued, and enjoyed normal things. Like Andy, her dad. They made jokes with each other and just talked about life most of the time. But Anna…Dyrk was still trying to figure Anna out.

“So, are you buying more Pop tarts?” She gestured to the box that had fallen earlier.

“No, I don’t eat Pop Tarts. Can’t stand them.” He reached into his basket and pulled out a white box of toaster pastries. “I buy whatever generic brand my local store happens to be carrying.” He set the box back down.

“Be careful with all that fake stuff, Dyrk. Isn’t there some saying like, ‘you are what you eat’?”

“Ha, ha, ha. You’re a funny one, did you know that?”

“Really? No one has ever told me that I’m funny.” She pretended to swoon against the cereal food aisle. “I think I’m in love.”

Dyrk smiled. This girl was too much.

“I heard you were moving out soon?”

She straightened. “What, did my dad tell you that?”

“We’re bosom buddies, Anna. Of course he told me.”

“Oh, please.” She crossed her arms. “Yeah, I was thinking about moving out, but I didn’t think he would go around telling the whole world before anything was settled.”

“Hey, don’t worry. It’s not like I’ve got anyone to tell. You keep thinking about that, though.”

“You moved out, didn’t you? How did you do it?”

He shifted the basket in his hands. “Well, it wasn’t easy.”

“Come on, Dyrk, don’t give me that. How did you do it?”

He looked down. Recalling that day in Lawford was not as pleasant in the daylight as it was in the dark, when his anger at his father’s actions overshadowed his own foolishness.

“I said a few things to my dad that I shouldn’t have said.” He paused. “I said the things that I knew he didn’t want to hear, and he told me I had to leave.”

Anna immediately came to his side. “I’m sorry, Dyrk, I shouldn’t have asked. I’ve heard about what happened between you and your dad, and I should have been more sensitive.”

“Hey, don’t worry about it. I’m a grown man now, right? I can handle a few mistakes.”

She studied his face. He turned away from her gaze. He didn’t like it when she looked at him. It was one of the reasons he tried to steer clear of her. The big brown eyes seemed to have no pupils, and they peered at him, bottomless, consuming and enveloping all that made him who he was. Like the town, they were never satisfied, and they pulled even the darkest secret to the light and he felt that she knew, even though it didn’t make any sense, and she had no idea what was going on inside of him. Eyes couldn’t really see into your soul. That was just a fancy metaphor for feeling bare and exposed before someone. He despised the feeling. He needed to control people’s image of him. They only needed to see what he wanted to show them.

What a good job you’ve done at that. Jacob’s comment about him hurting children struck him where it hurt. He had no control over people’s image of him. He could do anything in the world, whether good or bad, and they still wouldn’t care. He didn’t belong here, and he knew it. He had run away from that truth for years – no, he’d run from it his whole life – and now, it was time, as a man, to own up to those mistakes. It was time for him to leave.

“Dyrk, I don’t think you have to.”

He turned pale. Had she read his mind? “What are you talking about?”

“You seem like you blame yourself for what happened with your dad. Well, you don’t have to.”

Dyrk shifted uncomfortably. What was she, two, three years younger than him? What right did she had to give him any advice? On top of that, what made her think they were cool with each other like that? They weren’t even really friends. This exchange had barely even happened.

He turned away.

“Look, Anna, I’ve gotta grab a few more things, then I’ve gotta head back home. This weekend is going to be really long.”

She nodded and headed the opposite direction. “You take care of yourself, okay Dyrk?”

He made his way to the cash register and asked for the batteries. Andy handed them over without hesitation.

“Thanks, Andy. You have a good day.”

Dyrk tied his packages to the handlebars of his bike.

“Hey, mister, don’t leave yet!”

He turned around. The voice didn’t sound like Andy’s, and the man didn’t seem to notice his hesitation.

“No, no, I’m over here!”

He looked outside the store’s front door. A breathless man leaned against the door frame.

“What’s wrong?”

The man held up a hand. “You’ve got to get to your-” He paused to breathe deeply. Dyrk felt the impatience boil his blood.

“Come one, man, where do I have to go?”

“Your dad’s shop. There’s been a robbery!”

Chapter Eleven

Chamberlain Appliances was only a few shops down from the supermarket. Dyrk could walk the journey in his sleep. His mind raced with possibilities. Who would break into his father’s shop? They never kept much money in the drawers, and they didn’t carry expensive merchandise. The only ones who might be interested in breaking into a hardware store were guys who were trying to kill their wives and didn’t want their credit card history to link them with purchases of ropes, flashlights, and switchblades.

There were none of those sorts here. Riverside was a quiet, peaceful town. The crime rate had stayed at a steady low, with no big murders, kidnappings, or school shootouts to keep them in the headlines. When he was younger, he had often wished for something exciting to happen to the town, something that would bring visitors and the fame that came with them. Walking to his father’s shop now, he wondered if it was those very wishes that had sent those robbers out. He wondered if heaven smiled down upon him, a twisted, mocking smile, saying, “that’s what you get for asking for danger, buddy.”

He stopped in front of the store. The facade had been redone when he was still in high school. His father was of the impression that white walls painted with various appliances was not going to attract any customers. He had the entire wall torn down and a red brick wall built in its stead. Dyrk had hated it then, but seeing it now brought a smile to his face. He hadn’t been around the store in years.

Nothing looked broken from the outside. Dyrk touched the front door, his fingers leaving a print on the glass. It was still securely locked.

A white face stared back at him from the window. Dyrk frowned at the lightly bearded face, the short, messy brown hair on top of his head. His dark brown eyes were buried beneath his brow, compliments of his father. A long, slender nose peeked out from above his facial hair, compliments of his mother.

“You look like a mess,” he said to the man standing in the door, his breath blasting against the glass. The man disappeared. Dyrk grunted and pulled out a ring of keys from his blue jeans pocket. He hoped that he would still have the golden spare his father had made him when he turned fifteen. It’d been a right of passage, to get a copy of the store’s key. That meant you were old enough, and responsible enough, to lock up or open up on your own. It was a real honor. Dyrk flipped through key after key, searching for the right one. Had he taken it off, after all these years? And even if he found it, wouldn’t his father have changed the locks? It’d been a long time, and their falling out had been on the worst possible terms. His fingers found it after a few seconds of searching and he slipped them in the keyhole, praying silently that they would fit.

They did. He twisted the lock and pushed the door open. A familiar jingle reached his ears. His father had put the bells up there when he was eight or nine, so that his mother could hear when he came in after school. The store was dark and smelled musty.

He must not be cleaning it regularly.

Dyrk wondered about the business side of things. Were people still buying from his dad? Had they decided that they didn’t need any more appliances?

Could a day like that ever come, especially if you live in a macho town like Riverside?

He walked over to the checkout counter. The box was securely locked and showed no evidence of being tampered with. His father was the only one that owned that key. Dyrk turned around. The rest of the store was organized into four aisles, with one long aisle running across the back wall. A few bargain bins stood in front of the checkout counter, filled with cheap, plastic flashlights, whistles and coin holders. There was a small office in the back, as well as a small storage room next to it. There were no exits back there, though, so it shouldn’t be too hard to search the place. He wouldn’t have to worry about someone sneaking out through the back.

A loud crash interrupted his planning. It came from the back room. He reached for one of the bargain flashlights and clicked it on. There was no time for the overhead lights. He ran through the center aisle and stopped in front of the office door.

It was open, and light streaming out from the crack. He pushed the door open. The only one who could possibly be here was his father, and if so, there would be no reason to suspect a robbery.

“Dad?” He ventured further into the room.

The office had no windows, and it housed a small bookshelf and a wooden desk. They used plastic chairs when they wanted to sit down, but they mainly used the office for storing receipts or other business related papers and didn’t spend too much time in there.

“Dad?” He tried again. The flashlight in his hands was obsolete, and he tossed it to the ground.

Something groaned. He jumped.

“Who’s there?”

“Dyrk…”

He rushed over to the desk.

“Dad!”

His father lay on the ground, blood pouring from a wound in his chest. Dyrk immediately grabbed for the flow. His father mumbled something and tried to push him away.

“Dad, what’s going on? How’d you get hurt?”

“Someone followed…”

“Alright, I’m going to get you some help!”

“No, no, Dyrk, don’t go anywhere.” His father lifted himself from the ground as best as he could. Dyrk tried to push him down onto his back. The man was losing too much blood. He would have to find a phone and get the police on the line.

“Dad, let me get the phone.” Dyrk set his father down and reached for the phone on the desk. His bloody fingers fumbled with the buttons, but he managed to dial 9-1-1.

“Hello, emergency in Chamberlain Appliances. Send an ambulance. A man is dying.” He hung up immediately. The police would have to come immediately, and he didn’t have the time to trifle with operators asking him to calm down. If worst came to worst, he needed these last few moments.

“Dad, they are on their way.” He slid onto the ground and picked up his father’s torso. The man grimaced in pain.

“This is for…”

“Hey, hey, don’t worry. We’re gonna make it.”

“This is for the good, Dyrk.”

He felt the tears rising. There were so many things he wanted to say to his father. He wanted to say that he had been wrong, that he had opened his big mouth for the last time and everything was going to be different from here on out. But the lump in his throat blocked his vocal chords, and nothing came out.

“I want you to know that this is my justice.”

Dyrk shook his head. The tears came now. “No, Dad, you don’t need to die. I’m the one that killed. I’m the one that ruined our family.”

“No,” his father said, reaching for his arm. “You didn’t ruin our family. We destroyed it together.”

“Dad…”

“We can rebuild it, Dyrk. We can rebuild the house.”

“But you’re going to die, Dad. We can’t build anything if you’re gone!”

He felt his father growing cold. This was happening, and it was happening faster than he expected. Where were the paramedics? Why wasn’t anyone coming to their aid?

“You can keep building it, son. You can keep building the Chamberlain name.”

“But I’m not worthy of it! I’m not worthy of you, or Mom, or Cameron! I’m not worthy of any of it.”

His father managed a smile. “God will make you worthy, son. He has done the same for me.”a