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Sorry I'm Late

Updated: Dec 23, 2019

Indian Summers tended to result in the kind of day that brought everyone out for their last hurrah for the year. Street performers and preachers attempted to attract the attention of the natives looking to enjoy the bright spot in the dreary November autumn. Cars and trucks moved at a molasses pace on the already crowded streets, contributing noise and fossil fuel pollution to the once tranquil lakeside city.

A sandwich food truck parked next to the sidewalk worked like a small peninsula bisecting the stream of traffic. The alluring smell of grilled meats drew in prospective consumers before going to war with the exhaust and freshwater air.

Charlie Gardner decided to join the rest of the city in taking advantage of this final, hot, sunny day on his lunch break from his internship through the city council. He leaned against the steel truck waiting for the cook to finish preparing his shrimp po boy. Unlike a majority of the crowd walking past with their noses in their phones, Charlie was attached to him by the ear, immersed in conversation

"When are you supposed to bring Maia home tomorrow morning?" he asked impatiently tapping the concrete with heels of his Doc Martens. He messed with his strawberry blonde hair, rolling his eyes at how the response turned out. "Why do we even need to throw her a party? It's not like she did anything worth celebrating."

"Shrimp po boy, mango, cilantro, and ghost pepper salsa, no sriracha," the cook announced from the truck's window.

Charlie mouthed thank you to her, grabbing the foil wrap with feigned interest in his phone call. He turned to walk back to city hall with the flow of bodies. "Yeah, let's throw Maia a party for going thirty days without doing whatever drug she is addicted to at the moment." Soon the crowd met interruptions from a renegade street preacher's gospel, a starving guitar player and a hula hoop dancer. Charlie fixated on the sidewalk ahead to avoid any disruption.

"The day of reckoning is upon us, atone for your sins!" the preacher shouted approaching Charlie with a sign covered in Bible verses. "It's not too late! Please come with me!" Charlie repelled the man with a sharp glance from his green eyes.

"Please, Mom, you know as soon as she gets overwhelmed or bored she'll just pick up some new addiction," Charlie insisted. He dropped some of the change left over from his lunch into the guitar player's case and the rest in a bucket for the dancer. "Because that's what Maia does. She gets all happy and normal before something happens and she does a new drug or whatever. She'll go on saying that she doesn't have a problem with whatever she dropped last, but will eventually get back to it."

He was getting more frustrated with every word his mother's insistence in Maia's recovery. He aggressively walked down the street, hoping to get back to the office faster. "I'm not gonna buy into her bullshit anymore. I can't do it and neither should you. This party is just enabling her to continue this cycle of addiction, rehab, happy homecoming!" Charlie confessed. His yelling started to garner attention from his sidewalk compatriots and peddlers, alike.

Soon Charlie felt a tug against his trim blazer from an old woman in a headscarf. "Can you not?!" he yelled at her.

The old woman gave him a look that harkened one of an elderly basset hound. Her near cataract blinded eyes stared into his soul as he shook her off. "Freak," he insulted her.

"Not you, some creepy old gypsy tried to scam me," Charlie said power walking to get away from her. "I'm not coming home for this." He looked over his shoulder to see the woman stood like a statue in the middle of the crowd, focused right on him. "You can do whatever you want, but maybe Maia needs some tough love"

A doorman ushered Charlie into city hall before security checked his person. He nodded in recognition for their work before dropping his sandwich, keys, and wallet into a tray. He gestured that he was on the phone as he walked through the metal detector. "Just because I'm her brother doesn't mean that I'm just gonna sugarcoat the pile of shit that she brings along like everything is okay," Charlie said to his mother as he pushed the elevator call button. "She'll learn someday."

Charlie picked up his necessities from the security check before walking to the elevator on the back wall. The doors welcomed him inside the car to go to his floor. "I love you all, but maybe this is the best way to help her," Charlie said clutching his sandwich. "I'm not sorry for not babying her so she doesn't learn from her mistakes." He pushed the four button on the panel to climb the building and the doors shut in front of him.

Despite the day early October heat, the temperate identity of the day waned in the early evening sunset. Charlie wore the effects of the long day with his untucked shirt and tie stashed away in his brown leather messenger bag. His hair mussed and matted from persisting frustrations at work. He clicked his key into the building's security door before climbing three flights of the pre-war staircase to his own apartment.

The apartment door swung open and locked behind him upon entry. "Melanie, food, please." Charlie dropped the bag and kicked off his shoes near the door to the three-room apartment. "What do you want?" He met Melanie at the bedroom door and he grabbed her by the waist of her off-the-shoulder purple dress before giving her a quick kiss. He stripped off his work clothes and tossed them on the bed. "I'm thinking something cold."

"What's going on with your sister?" Melanie asked sitting down on the bed.

"Sushi sounds really good today," Charlie continued laying flat on the bed only in his underwear. "Take out because pants just feel like a challenge."

"Are your parents bringing her home soon?" Melanie asked. "She has to be getting really anxious."

"Let's binge watch something tonight," he suggested. "Call in the food and live in pantsless joy. I just wanna forget about phone calls, councilmen and creepy old gypsy women."

"Are you even listening?" she asked. "It's like you don't even care about what's going on with Maia."

Charlie sat up and looked at Melanie in her deep brown eyes. "They're throwing a party for her. They're throwing a party because she completed a third stint in rehab."

"Your parents care about her and they want to show it," Melanie said putting her hand on his leg. "Her friends will probably be there too. It's really nice."

He turned his head to the Xerox paper mosaic Fight Club poster on the wall in front of them. "You mean the friends that she ditches for a new set of junkies after a few weeks," Charlie said. "They're pretty stupid for going back to her like a bunch of upper-middle-class clichés."

"How can you say something like that about your own sister?" Melanie asked. "She needs love and support, it doesn't matter how many times she goes through this."

"You don't even know, Mel," Charlie said putting his head in his hands. "This has been going on since we were in high school. First, just a little something to help make parties fun. Maia used to get some for me and my friends too, but I chose not to let a series of addictions take over my life as she did."

"You can still care about her," she said grabbing Charlie's wrist. "Lead by example and help her find something new to devote her life to."

"She'll already have a plan that'll get too hard for her," Charlie said.

"So Maia can't break the cycle," Melanie said holding onto Charlie's right hand with both of hers. "Break the cycle for her and teach her that a roadblock won't ruin whatever plans she makes."

"It's not that..." Charlie started.

"Easy," Melanie cut in turning Charlie's head to look at her. "Charlie, you realize that nothing in life gets handed to you easily, right?"

"Of course, I'm not stupid Mel," he said.

"Right now, you're acting just Maia," Melanie said. "Things are hard for you, but instead numbing it or using something to feel different, you're choosing to turn away and ignore what's important."

"I'm not..." Charlie started again.

"You are," Melanie responded. "It's one of those things that is okay, but not. Ya know? I'll support whatever decision you make because I love you." She gave Charlie a light kiss on the cheek and rubbed it with her thumb.

"I should break up with you for being so overly involved," Charlie said laughing. "But, just because I like the way you twist my arm."

She laughed at Charlie's dirty humor before wrapping her arms around him. "Where did you see a gypsy?"

"On my way back to work from lunch and then she was outside of city hall," he answered pulling the two of them back down on the mattress. "She grabbed me by the blazer when I was on the phone with my mom."

"You sure she wasn't just some kind of street performer?" Melanie asked. "Some of them look pretty crazy for their act."

"Headscarf, wrinkly skin, milky eyes," Charlie said. "After I shook her off she just stood on the sidewalk staring at me. I think she waited for me to get out of work too because she was in the same spot five hours later."

"She was probably just homeless," Melanie suggested comforting Charlie. "You want me to go with you tomorrow?"

"So presumptuous, that's not a good trait to have," he said kissing her neck. "Nah, I should probably go by myself." Charlie pulled himself away from Melanie and rolled on to his right side. "Rip the bandage off, but maybe another time, okay?"

"How about that dinner?" Melanie asked killing the mood as she got off of the bed. "Helping you make life-defining decisions really drums up an appetite."

The cold, grey afternoon descended down upon the suburbs, signaling the end of the Indian Summer. Charlie walked up the sidewalk to his childhood home. He closed both halves of his black, wool pea coat to protect his torso from the environment, even though he didn't feel cold. There were no cars in the driveway and the lights were off.

"Am I early?" Charlie asked himself reaching for the doorknob. The door opened as he grabbed the handle. "It's unlocked? Hey! Sorry I'm late! Mom! Dad! Maia!"

Stifling silence filled the house as if there was no life present outside of Charlie. All of the furniture and pictures were arranged in the same way as it always had been, except everything shone in the same cold, grey light as outside. "Really, guys, a surprise party? Quite an effort you put in here," he said sarcastically.

He walked through the first floor, inspecting the living room, his dad's den, and the dining room, only to find all three devoid of life. Then he walked into the kitchen to see if his mom had placed any food out to welcome Maia and the other partygoers. There was nothing on the countertops, no food, no utensils, nothing.

"What the hell is going on here?" Charlie asked looking through the cabinets to find any signs of his family. "I can't believe Mom actually listened to me about not having a party. They had to have gotten home before me." The door was never left unlocked while the house was unattended. Charlie reached into his pocket and pulled out a smashed up smartphone. "Fuck. This was whole when I used it in the cab. What happened?"

An echo resonated throughout the house from upstairs. It sounded like crying. A light cascade of water fell from the ceiling above Charlie, pouring down on the island. He looked up to find where the water came from, but he could not find a single crack in the pristine, plaster ceiling. He left his coat on the counter in front of him and headed upstairs.

His bedroom was the only room above the kitchen so the only source of the leak could have come from a damaged pipe between levels. Charlie ran for the walnut staircase in the foyer and the crying echo became more pronounced.  He turned back and forth at the top of the stairs to find where the noises were coming from.

"Mom? Dad? Maia?" Charlie asked looking toward his bedroom. Their cries were coming from his room, but he couldn't understand why they didn't hear his first calls from downstairs. He walked into the room, but there was no one else inside. The crying echoed even louder closer to the bed. The sounds were easily coming from his family.

"Where are you?" Charlie asked as he messed up his hair. The touch felt wet and warmed his ice-cold hand. He pulled it down to eye level and it was covered in blood.

Immediately, he ran into the bathroom across the hall to inspect himself. A trail of blood stained the cream-colored, Berber carpet in the wake of his rush to the bathroom. Charlie tightly grasped the porcelain sink, forcing the blood to erupt down his arms leaving a bloody handprint on each side.

"No!" he yelled observing the mass of cuts across his face. Charlie released the sink to check his pulse in his neck. Nothing, just a bloodstain left from the fingerprints of his index and middle fingers. "How did this happen?"

Another noise echoed from his bedroom, but it wasn't the sound of crying. It was a newscast projected on his old television "A car-semi collision resulted in the closure of Patrick Highway at the I-94 intersection. The truck t-boned a taxi cab coming from the city in the rear passenger side quarter of the car. Both the truck and cab drivers escaped with minimal injuries, but the passenger..." The rest of the story faded into oblivion with his family's cries.

Charlie grew numb and sank to the bathroom floor. His vision blurred, blending the cold shades of grey into a single solid color as it dimmed to black.

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