Step Nine

Photo by Several Seconds
Step Nine by Michelle McGurk

Joe unfolded his hands from his lap. The authorities had made it clear: no physical contact. He looked at the pale eyes, the unfamiliar vacancy, and felt a burning in his gut, a dizziness like the wrong end of a bender.

Joe clenched the edge of the table. “I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again till the day I die. Whatever I might’ve done to contribute to this sorry mess, I’m sorry, son.”

The fluorescent buzz filled the space between them. Danny darted his eyes toward the far corner of the room. “Where is Jessica? I told them I wanted to see my wife and son. Not you.”

“Dan, please.” Best to get the worst of it over with. “Son, you’ve got to face facts. She’s not your wife anymore.”

“I never agreed to it.” Danny stood, the metal chair scraped against the floor. “Till death do us part, that’s what she promised.”

The guard stepped close. “Sit down, Ryder. Sit down or the visit’s over.”

“I didn’t want to see him anyway.”

“Danny, it’s Christmas,” Joe said. “I’m the only visitor you’ve got. I didn’t come all this way, spend three hours waiting just to leave. Sit down and talk, son.”

“I just want to see Jessie.” Danny’s voice rose, stretched high and tight like the skin on his chin. “Where did you put my wife? I want to see my wife.”

Joe stood and touched his son’s shoulder. Damn the regulations. “She’s not your wife anymore, son. Far as she’s concerned, you’re dead.”
Buddy slides his seat back and forth, right to left, then left to right, catching Joe’s attention. A breeze ruffles the water. The sky brightens to a steely blue.

“Do you think Mom and Brandon should get married?” Buddy asks.

“Not my place to say.” Joe searches for signs of distress, but it seems to be an ordinary question. “Thought you said you like Brandon.”

“He’s cool. Wait till you see his cars. He has a Porsche and this electric car that goes as fast as a Porsche. It’s called a Tesla and instead of gas you plug it in to charge it up.” The kid bounces a little as he talks, eyes lit up, whole body twitching. Then his voice lowers. “Sometimes I think—can I tell you a secret, Grandpa?”

Something churns in Joe’s gut. Shouldn’t have drunk all that coffee, eaten the soft almost-raw center of the fritter. “Course you can, Buddy. No secrets between boys and their granddads.”

“You won’t be mad?”

“Nothing you could do that could make me mad.” Another lie, one he should have told his own son a long time ago.

“Well, sometimes I think Mom likes Brandon better than Dad.”

Joe doesn’t doubt this is the truth. He can tell something else is worrying the kid. Wouldn’t be surprised if Buddy himself felt the same way his mama did, especially if he ever heard any of Danny’s crazy-talk. “You know, Buddy, liking Brandon doesn’t have a thing to do with your Dad. Two totally separate things. He’s gone, and he wouldn’t want you to be moping around all the time because you miss him.”

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Michelle McGurk is a former reporter and now works in public policy in San Jose, California. She holds an MFA from Lesley University. This is her first fiction publication.