The Odor of Grief

JoAnn Morreale

Sitting alone, he thinks of Darlene, in her favorite chair, across from him, chatting with him, about nothing in particular. The weather. Her plans for the day. She smiles at him. Or at least he imagines her doing this. He stares at her empty place. His shoulders slump. He shakes his head, as if to clear his thoughts. 

 

He stretches; the fruit bowl was a bit too far away. He wants a banana. To put in his yogurt. Plain yogurt. Greek. Banana and yogurt. A nutrient duo. Potassium and protein. A perfect grab-and-go breakfast. Not the breakfast Darlene would have made for him, if she were here. 

 

Mid-reach, on its way to the banana, forgetting its intended task, his hand pauses, it takes a different path, a new mission. It swats at a fruit fly. Misses. The fly moves out of reach. With nothing more to do, his hand settles uncomfortably on the table.

 

He forgets about the banana. Fruit flies take over his thoughts. Those pesky little things seem to come out of nowhere. With special olfactory neurons, they can sniff out the odor of decay. It smells of vinegar. It is fruit fly aphrodisiac. It calls, they come. 

 

Although there is no one there to listen, he uses his out loud voice and says: “You wouldn’t think a creature with a brain the size of a poppyseed could be capable of so much. You’d be wrong. Fruit flies can navigate landscapes, brawl with rivals, woo potential mates with a serenade. With a 7-day life span they accomplish a lot, including producing 500 offspring. They were remarkable creatures, pesky, but remarkable.” He likes talking out loud. He can pretend Darlene is there, listening.

 

Remarkable or not, those critters wouldn’t stand a chance against Darlene. Fruit flies hate clean surfaces. Under her watch, the kitchen was spotless. Fruit did not sit in a bowl and rot.

 

I need to empty the fruit bowl, he thought. And give the kitchen the good scrubbing it needs. Fruit flies may not be harm me, they alert me. They’re indicators. Something is not as it should be. I can do this, I can set things right, at least in here, in our kitchen. 

 

Shaking his head, his thoughts scatter. He needs to focus on his day. Abandoning breakfast, he heads to the front door. 

 

Stopping at the entranceway, he grabs his keys from the key hook. He checks himself in the hallway mirror, He doesn’t like what he sees. Tired eyes, a spot missed while shaving, a bit of toothpaste on his chin; shirt, not too wrinkled; tie, some might think matched the color of the stripes in the shirt; pants, pulled from the farthest reaches of the closet, the last remaining pair pressed and cared for by Darlene; socks, same color. He wipes his chin; the dried toothpaste flakes off. Ok, he thinks, I’m presentable enough to leave, without Darlene, this will have to do. It is the best I can do. 

JoAnn Morreale is a 71 year old, who in retirement is trying her hand at creative writing. With a spirit of “you can teach an old dog new tricks”,  JoAnn is taking a creative writing class at a local college. “The Odor of Grief” is a piece written for the class. A requirement of the class was to submit the piece to a journal. After researching over 2000 journals, the journal that was most appealing was Flare Journal. 

 

The Aluminum Raven

Mikayla Schutte

My legs were just long enough to scrape the ground, pieces of mulch flying as my feet drew angry lines beneath the swing set. My legs were just long enough, and I was just old enough to know the overwhelming wrongness of building a playset for children across from a graveyard. I could feel it—like an iron weight in my stomach—the wrongness of being there, on that swing set, instead of watching that black box sink into the ground; of not staying there like a dutiful daughter, watching strange men pile dirt on top of her casket as the other funeral-goers trickled home; of not digging my bare feet into the freshly turned earth beneath her headstone until the grass grew around me and through me; of not dying a little just for her—that's what she would have wanted, I think.

The playset was shiny and plastic and new, reflecting the heavy august sun in bouncing riots of synthetic color. If I had come but a few years prior, I would have been climbing around, burning my palms on the hot metal and the fraying rope ladder, ripping open my knees on the loose wood mulch. And she would have been there, chastising me for my carelessness. And I would have closed my fists through the pain and reopened those wounds—again and again and again—because she had taught me that love was pain, and she always seemed to love me most when I was already hurting.

“Stop crying, Elsie.” A hand, tight—too tight—around my wrist, yanking me along faster than my stubby legs could manage. “You’re embarrassing yourself.”

A meaty black bird soared above me before perching on the top of the pole to my left. It was a raven, I thought, or maybe a crow. Its coat was varying shades of black, the ends of its feathers catching the sunlight in a way that made it seem… crafted, artisan, intentional; totally opposed to its man-made neon-yellow perch. Its beady gaze caught on me, and a line of focus was pulled taut between us. I stood, my feet finding purchase on the side of the swing set opposite the bird, its attention never leaving me as I lifted myself up and up. I swung my legs over the crest until I was straddling the pole, eight feet above the ground. The raven had turned completely towards me, its feathers ruffling in the wind. My eyes involuntarily focused on the cemetery behind it.

“Don’t pick those up, Elsie.” And a blue robin’s feathers slapped from my hand. “You stupid kid.” 

I swore the raven could see that memory, my eyes projectors, playing it like a film reel. It cocked its head.

“Are you lost?”

The raven took off as a concerned middle-aged woman approached the playset, a toddler clinging to her fingers. The kid watched me with wide eyes, and I wondered what I looked like to him. Some gangly twelve-year-old dressed in black from head to toe, perched like his own little raven at the top of his beloved swing set. A monster, maybe. A haunted widow come to collect his soul if he didn’t behave.

The woman looked at me too. But she saw the cemetery, and she saw the black. Another kind of monster; not so tangible, not so easy to conquer. Her brows knitted together in concern, and I shifted uncomfortably, turning my focus back to the gawking kid, staring shamelessly.

“Don’t stare, Elsie.” And then a slap. And then tears; but only when she wasn’t looking. 

It’s bittersweet in hindsight: to lose the things you never wanted, to try to mourn the thing you never had. I learned when freedom chooses you—and not the other way around—it quickly curdles on your tongue like sour milk.

The mother’s fingers were firm around the toddler’s chubby hand, and he started pulling on her arm after a moment, all bouncing energy anxious to burst to life. She whispered to him quietly—her voice like the cooing of a dove—and he stilled, his arm going lax in her grasp. Just like that. This kid and his dove. Me and my raven.

I realized the mother was still looking at me, waiting for an answer to her question. I swung around as gracefully as I could, falling onto my feet in a messy plie. A quick glance between the cemetery across the street and the parking lot to my right, and then back at the mother and son, had me stepping away.

I cleared my throat and answered honestly as I turned. “I don’t know.”

M.R.C. Schutte is a Cincinnati-based writer, earning her undergraduate degree in Creative Writing from Northern Kentucky University. She was named a topical winner in Live Poet's Society's 2019 High School Poetry Contest and her work has appeared in Hole in the Head Review.

 

In Search of the Lambs

Divyank Jain

Almost all the villagers had gone. I watched the last of them crossing the narrow wooden bridge

with bags on their shoulders, and gathering around down there where we had blocked the main

road before the sunrise. Beyond the sloping farms, the stream and the steep bank of the river,

stood an army truck at the edge of the road next to the trench, with a few soldiers helping the old

women climbing in as well as bundling their belongings to thrust in the truck. Then, the

overloaded truck had gone, leaving the rest of the crowd to wait and hope. After a while, another

truck arrived and the people rushed into it frantically. As soon as this truck too disappeared in the

expanding shadows of the southern mountains, the first one had returned bringing a dim hint of a

smile on the winter beaten faces of the rest of the people.

This exhausting cycle had been running continuously for seven hours in front of our eyes at the

foothills of the north-western valley of Kashmir.

After we had vacated villages yesterday, we were informed about the terror attack that

occurred here last night. A big failure of our intelligence. We had ordered that the entire village

should have been vacated in a single day. So, we started off early and it took the whole day as

the village was inhabited deep in the valley. Being a newly appointed commanding officer of the

patrolling unit, I had to keep an eye on every activity until all of them, the villagers, had been

safely transported elsewhere. That was all. However, in the bone-shattering winter of January,

even standing there still wasn't an easy task. All-day, the sun was showering its solace over us

but it was now exhausted and wanted to rest behind the white mountains. With rifles in our hand,

we were no more than statues carved out of the Himalayan rocks with some snowflakes resting

on our shoulders and we were now tired.

After the truck had gone, I smiled at one of the officers standing by me. We proudly completed

the task, without the cost of a single life. It was pleasant to see that there were no more of them

waiting in front of our eyes, and right then I, with my soldiers, had been sent back to the

abandoned village for the final probe.

Keeping the pointy end of the rifle in front of our nose, we crawled along a rugged stone wall,

hiding. In many dark places in the village might have been bombs hidden underneath and

possibly a few armed adults could be lurking here and there as well since it was normal for the

young adults of this region to be conspiring with terrorist organisations and act out with double

standards. Therefore, being on guard was necessary for all the circumstances. Carefully, we kept

moving further, beyond the stream up the hill.

The deeper we went the darker it became. The snowy wind now started to grasp our throats. The

steam came out of my mouth as I gasped while climbing uphill. The village looked as if it had

lost its soul. Old and dull, the houses with cracked clay walls were forced to abandon their

belongingness. I felt something crack inside of me as well when I heard dry leaves rasping on the

harsh ground and the wooden doors of those houses swung back and forth with the wind,

exposing the interior walls, dead and cold. Apparently, many villagers had left their goats and

hens behind which were bleating and clucking at our presence, perhaps trying to wake up the

deads too.

It took one hour to search out half the village, to look behind every rock and wall, and to shake

up the old dead bodies which were killed by no one and lied there peacefully, then we finally

came to the ravaged part of the village where the blast took place last night. On the hilltop, it was

an old seminary painted in dark green, where they hid the bomb. Although only a wreck now, on

the collapsed walls of it were some Urdu letters standing upright. Too much about the god was

written on these broken walls, and to be true, we were scared as hell as we walked on the debris.

We turned the rubble and shook up each body we found down there. Their blood was mixed up

and turned into the dried stains. Around a hundred villagers were killed here last night and more

of the bodies might have been buried deep under the holy debris.

By walking on it, and perhaps on their bodies, we've reached the last stone wall of the village

that must have failed to guard it. Downhill, on the other side of it too were a few houses. Trying

not to look back, I said, "we cannot leave that part." I was afraid and it was getting cold.

I saw through the rifle-scope and found an old man in a silvery-grey phiran, sitting against the

wall of the cottage, staring at the purple sky with his eyes closed, and he seemed to be talking

with someone. We decided to go to him, separately. I sent a soldier to the right, two to the left,

and I alone moved forward. Although he was too old to be any danger to us, we planned to

cluster him around.

The old man remained unconcerned until we reached him. When the tip of my gun collided to

the left of his neck, he opened his eyes that looked tired, and he smiled. His face, covered with

old chickenpox marks, looked red and terrible. I hinted to the soldiers to search out all around the

cottage, they went and came back to me, alright.

"Who are you?" I asked him.

"You are in my house, you tell me who you are?"

"You know who I am, can't you see this?" I was all alert.

"No," the old man said, "I can't see anything in the dark."

"It's not fully dark yet, but it will be in a short while. Are you a villager or one of them?"

"I was an Imam here."

"A lot of people died in the seminary last night, I wonder how did an Imam survive?" The grip

of my finger tightened on the trigger as I pushed myself ahead. He held his old dusty hands up in

the air while my companions searched in his pockets of phiran and in his underclothes.

"It was simple," he said calmly when the soldiers were done on him. "I was out of it. I was with

my lambs."

"Your lambs seem lucky. But you must be gone from here by now. Trucks are transporting your

people down to the army camp. Why were you not with them, the other villagers?"

"I was waiting," he said thoughtfully.

"For?"

"The sun's down and my lambs have not returned yet."

"Do they always come back on time?"

"Yes, they do!" The old eyes staring at the sky seemed confident.

"If you know which direction your lambs had gone to, you can find them later."

"I don't know," he said. "They broke the chains somehow and ran away right before it

happened. Animals always have presentiments, but they do know the way back. They will be

here and find no one if I am gone with you, and this will surely scare them away. I cannot come

with you. I must stay. I must wait."

The old, light brown eyes looked into mine when the cool breeze crossed our bodies, leaving me

to shiver. I watched the grey-looking part beyond the hills; under the stars, there were mountains

massive, tall, and the edges of them were sharp and creamy against the rising moon. A dreamy-

looking northern country that was, in many ways, very different from the entire nation. Although

it was beautiful, you never want to look into the north-western direction of it. It always makes

you feel cold. So, you learn to look at it only with the burning anger in your eyes.

"They better not come here," I said to the old man, not looking at him. "There is nothing left for

them. Try to get up. We'll take you down there. It's almost dark and you cannot see in the dark,

right?"

"But they can see in the dark. I raised them here. They cannot forget the way to their home. But

I am afraid..."

"Of what?"

"What if they have gone to the other side? They have never been taught to recognize the

difference."

"Oh," I raised brows. "Then I must say, either your lambs have been killed or if not and are

fine, they'll come back here."

"Then, can I really come here to find them later?" he asked. "Can you promise me?"

I dared not to say anything. I didn't want to discuss it anymore. It wasn't a good place and a good

time to talk about the lost lambs. "Listen!" I said, "if you don't get up, we have to carry you."

The old man laughed and shook his head sluggishly. He tried to get up, then the soldiers helped

him to be stable. But, the long-lasting wait for the lambs made his knees tremble and he fell to

the ground.

I handed over my gun to one of my companions. Then, wrapping my left arm around the old

man's stiff back, I lifted him with the right over on my shoulder before we began to walk down

the hill. My companions with rifles ready to shoot guarded us against all the sides until we left

the bridge behind. Even the gentle burble of the cool water flowing below it was haunting me.

There was a truck standing down there facing to the south, and in the beams of its headlights, a

tall, Sikh soldier was waving both his hands to us and only seeing this warmed us enough to

cover the remaining distance. My companions and I were desperate to go back to the camp. Our

duty was done, we had found what we were looking for; but the old eyes of the man lying over

my shoulders were still looking back at the village, in search of the lambs.

Divyank Jain is a teacher based in Udaipur, India, who loves to write. They have been writing short stories for three years and has been published in more than 10 anthologies including Notions of Living, Notions of Healing, Chariots of Rebellion and Magazines like Radiate Lit. Journal, Listreamagzine, Activemuse.

 

A Father's Son

Sandeep Kumar Mishra

The mourners were not plentiful the day of the funeral. Vasudev had not been a popular man in this life, having dedicated very little time to cultivating and maintaining relationships. Pradeep, his eldest, watched the people move about in respectful silence, occasionally stopping at one of his siblings or mother to offer quiet condolences while the chanters continued through their mantras. Some made their way over to him, but he had nothing to say to them in return. Everything was too fresh -- Pradeep wasn’t sure how he felt about his father’s death yet. He hadn’t even seen his father for at least ten years before now, having gone off to live with his aunt while still a boy.

 

He looked over at his mother, his brother Ishaan, and his sister Shaleena. His mother looked sad at least, but Ishaan and Shaleena looked about as numb as he doubtless did. He wondered what the past ten years had been like for them. If their father had changed at all since failing Pradeep.

He would never forget the first time his father struck him. It was a miserable, humid day, the air so wet that you could almost taste it. Vasudev was home, classes having been let out, and was especially short of temper.

 

Pradeep, still a small child at the time, refused to go outside to play. “It’s too hot,” he remembered protesting. “I’ll melt!”

His mother had gently but firmly encouraged him to go outside anyway. “You won’t melt, I promise. But you really should go outside. The sun is good for you.”

“I don’t want to!” His little voice rose in aggravation.

“Pradeep, my darling, please go outside.” His mother looked around, fear coloring her face. It was the first time Pradeep could recall seeing his mother afraid, though it would not be the last.

Vasudev appeared around the corner, his face an oncoming storm, and Pradeep instinctively understood his mother’s fear.

“What is the meaning of this noise?” It was less a question than a demand.

Pradeep ventured a reply. “I don’t want to go outside.”

The baleful gaze Vasudev leveled at his son burned into the young boy’s soul. “I heard your mother tell you to go outside. Why do you stand there mewing?”

“I--”

SLAP.

“Do as you’re told! If I see you in the house again before supper you will get twice as bad!”

 

“I know your father was not a kind man.” Pradeep shook his head, returning to the moment, and looked over to  his Aunt Shashi . “Perhaps he will be kinder in next life.”

Pradeep couldn’t reply to that. He wasn’t certain his father deserved another life.

“I am sorry you did not get to say goodbye,” his aunt ventured again. She was a kind woman, almost a second mother to Pradeep, but she was too forgiving.

“I am not.” The first words Pradeep had spoken since the funeral began. “We spent all our words to each other a long time ago.”

 

A young Pradeep stood nervously in his father’s cramped office. Their small house afforded little enough space for their steadily growing family, yet Vasudev refused to give up this room. Pradeep had no idea what it was for, he just knew that his father’s claims to it meant that he and his new brother Ishaan would be sharing a room.

“Your brother will be your responsibility,” he remembered his father saying sternly, eyes intense and hard. “I expect you to pull your weight as the eldest.”

Pradeep didn’t speak. He knew by then that discussions with his father were not truly discussions, they were just brief moments when his father bothered to remember he had a child long enough to impart specific instructions. Any words on Pradeep’s part would earn him a backhand, and that was if his father was in a decent mood.

“That means helping your mother feed and change him, teach him, and--”

“Keep him out of your way?”

The words were a mistake -- Pradeep knew that before he said them, but sometimes he couldn’t help himself. He stood defiantly as the fury entered his father’s eyes. He would feel the repercussions of that remark for a long time, and remember them even longer.

 

Pradeep wasted no time after the traditional ten day mourning period to get back to his life. The fact that he even had to take ten whole days off irritated him, and he was unreasonably short with his family because of it. He wanted to leave this house and its memories, wanted to get back to his wife and children and wanted to burn the past away just as the body had been burned.

 

By sunrise on the eleventh day he was packed and ready to go, not even staying for breakfast. He bore no resentment towards his mother or siblings, but they had lived the past ten years without him; there was no reason to stay here any longer. So he quickly and quietly slipped out of the home of his childhood to catch the first train of the day and refused to look back.

As he walked, his thoughts wandered. He looked forward to home, hoped the train was running on time, hoped his wife Viha had set aside some dinner for him, and a thousand other thoughts like these -- anything to get his mind off where he was and what had just happened and get him moving forward. He was so focused on putting the past behind him that he didn’t notice the football until it was almost too late.

 

With a small yelp he bobbed his head to the side, narrowly avoiding a head-on collision with the flying ball. He shook his head, startled and confused, and looked around for the ball’s owner. He spotted them easily enough, a young boy -- who was smiling apologetically -- and his father -- who was laughing -- just down the road. The father jogged towards Pradeep.

 

“My apologies,” he began, still laughing a little. “My son and I like to come out for a little game before I have to go to work, and we are unaccustomed to sharing the road so early.”

Pradeep took a moment to gather his wits before answering. “Ah... it is alright. I was not hit, so no harm.” His eyes drifted back to the boy. “You two do this... often?”

The father nodded. “Most mornings. I work long hours, so I cherish the moments I can. Surely you can understand this?”

Pradeep looked back at the father. Such genuine happiness, speaking about his son, was something Pradeep did not understand at all.

 

“Pradeep, why does father never come out to play with us?”

Pradeep didn’t turn to look at his little sister. Shaleena was barely five, but already she was noticing that their house was not like the houses of some of her friends. Her father was practically a stranger to her, only seen at meals and on holidays. No great loss there, Pradeep thought with no small measure of distaste.

“Because he is too busy,” Ishaan said when it was obvious that Pradeep had nothing to say.

“Busy with what?”

Ishaan paused. “Work, I guess.”

Shaleena clearly didn’t understand, but filed the information away nonetheless and pressed on to her next question. “And why is he so sad?”

This got Pradeep to speak. “You think he’s sad?” Shaleena nodded and Pradeep scoffed. “Why do you think this?”

“Because he never smiles. Sad people don’t smile.”

It made sense, in a little kid logic sort of way, but Pradeep had trouble picturing his father’s constantly dour expression as anything but angry.

“He isn’t sad,” Pradeep said finally, frowning at the football by his feet. “I don’t know what he is, but he isn’t sad.”

This confused the little girl more but Pradeep chose that moment to kick the ball and she took off after it, screaming with joy. Ishaan looked at Pradeep and frowned. “You should not speak of our father like that.”

Pradeep just rolled his eyes and watched Shaleena run.

 

Given the early hour the train station was thankfully quiet, and Pradeep managed to purchase his ticket and board with minimal wait. He also had his choice of seats for the long ride ahead of him. Settling his luggage above him, he sat heavily and sighed, thankful to be on the way home at last. The rest of his day promised to be an easy one, as it was nothing more tedious than waiting until he reached his stop that evening, then getting a cab to take him home. Comforted by these thoughts, he drifted into a light nap as the train began to move.

 

When he stirred a few hours later, he noticed the car was significantly more crowded than it had been, with nearly all the seats outside of the one directly beside him taken. He also noticed a lone man who, noticing that Pradeep was awake, headed his way.

 

“A thousand apologies, sir, but is that seat taken?” He indicated the seat beside Pradeep.

“No. Please, sit.” The man nodded his thanks and situated his own luggage, pulling out a well-worn book before stashing the bags, and settled into the seat. Pradeep’s eyes were instantly drawn to the cover.

The man noticed Pradeep’s attention and held the book up for better inspection. “I take it you are familiar with “Songs of Kabir”?”

Pradeep startled at the man’s question as though shocked. “Oh, ah, not as such. Or rather I have not taken the time to read that particular collection myself. Someone... I knew, they did. Spoke of it very highly.”

The man nodded understandingly and began flipping through the pages. “It is a good book. If you have any love of poetry, I highly recommend it.”

“I... shall keep that in mind.”

 

“What are you reading?”

Pradeep looked up from his own perch across the room from the conversation, watching where Shaleena had approached their father’s armchair and interrupted his reading with her question. He instinctively tensed, waiting for the cold dismissal or fiery rage at being disturbed; the first would cause Shaleena to run away hurt and Pradeep to follow so he could calm her down, and the second would be directed at Pradeep for not keeping her distracted in the first place. Either way it was about to become Pradeep’s problem.

 

Yet Vasudev did neither. Instead, he looked up slowly and studied his daughter for a moment, as though trying to remember who she was and how he should react. Then he closed -- actually closed -- his book in order to show her the cover. “This is a book of poems. Can you read the title?”

 

Shaleena squinted at the letters. “Songs of Kabir”?” She spoke slowly, careful to get every word correct. Pradeep couldn’t help but be a little impressed. He hadn’t realized her reading skills had progressed so far.

Vasudev smiled at her, and Pradeep frowned in confusion. “That’s right,” their father said, sounding pleased. “Would you like to read some poems with me?”

 

Pradeep looked back down to his own book, but he couldn’t focus on the words anymore. That was the kindest he’d ever seen his father behave towards anyone outside of their mother. Poems, it seemed, were the only subject he could be approached with. Something to remember.

 

Hailing a taxi to take him from the train station to his home didn’t take long, thankfully. It was already much later than Pradeep had hoped to arrive home, and he was anxious for the comfort of his wife and bed. As he was driven across the city, the driver made occasional attempts at small talk, most of which Pradeep answered with polite but short replies, doing his best to avoid a protracted conversation. One comment, however, caused him to pay attention.

 

“Are you excited for the start of Onam tomorrow?”

Pradeep blinked. “That’s tomorrow?”

The driver nodded. “I love Onam, personally. Well, specifically the Onasadya Feast, but the entire festival is fun.” Pradeep glanced at the driver’s bulky figure and guessed that the man did not save feasting for the festival alone. “Do you participate?”

 

“Hurry, Pradeep! Father wants us to be among the first visitors to the temple!”

Pradeep groaned, stretched, and tried to rub the sleep from his eyes. “The... temple?”

“Yes, the temple!” Shaleena was entirely too excited and loud for this early hour. “It’s the first day of Onam!”

 

Pradeep shook himself more fully away and swung his legs over the side of his bed. Onam... he smiled a little as Shaleena scampered off, her mission accomplished. Father was always in high spirits during religious festivals and holy days, his usual dour expression lightened and stormy mood calmed. He might even be persuaded to give his children treats, so long as all the proper observances are met. “It is a holy day first and a festival second,” he would solemnly intone. “Be respectful of that.”

 

And they were, though it was more out of fear of their father than respect for the day. Still, it bought the household some peace, and at the time it seemed worth it.

Pradeep slipped quietly into his home, unsure if his wife was still awake and knowing their infant son was not. He paused just inside, seeing the flower decorations all prepared for Onam. Setting his luggage down in the entryway and taking off his shoes to make as little noise as possible, he made a quick walk of the house.

 

Everything was spotless. His wife had done an excellent job keeping up with the cleaning, even with the added responsibility of their newborn. He smiled slightly as he paused by the dining room table, laying a hand on their son’s highchair. She is a good woman. I hope I am a good husband to her. He wondered briefly if his father ever had the same concern.

 

He moved into his office and saw everything was just as he had left it. It was, by agreement, the only room she didn’t routinely clean, as Pradeep had his own method to the seeming madness. He knew where everything was and that was the important part. He looked over his papers, his bookshelf, the grading pens and the half-finished poems, and he frowned. It looked remarkably like how he remembered his father’s office being laid out.

 

 How had he never noticed that before? “Am I becoming my father...?” The question was asked quietly, barely even whispered, as though Pradeep was afraid of the answer. In a way he was; were not all men their fathers’ sons? What hope did he have to build a better life for himself when he mirrored his father in even this tiny detail? In what other ways had he shaped himself after a man he... he what?

 

He missed. Here, in the darkness and the silence, he could admit it. He missed his father. Or, perhaps put better, he missed the idea of his father. He missed the connection he saw so often, even just coming home from the funeral. Someone he could talk to, someone he could play ball with, someone who led by example and listened to the worries of his children. Vasudev had never been any of those things for Pradeep, but he’d seen glimpses of that man in the way Shaleena interacted with him, and wondered if he had changed at all after Pradeep had left. If he had missed his son as much as his son now missed him.

“It’s too late for regrets,” Pradeep told his ghosts, trying to push them away. “He’s dead. Whatever that may mean for him, it means to me that he is beyond reach.” Forgiveness and healing were beyond Pradeep’s reach; there was no saving Vasudev’s memory or salvaging the relationship. The abuse, the neglect, and the fear were all Pradeep had to remember his father by.

Pradeep left his office and its ghosts and headed up the stairs. He paused midway up to look at the pictures hanging from the wall -- him and his wife on vacation, on their wedding day, on the day they brought their son home for the first time. They were happy in those pictures. Pradeep knew true joy in every moment captured and it showed. He thought back to pictures of his father; Vasudev had rarely smiled in person and never for the camera. Even in the oldest photos he looked serious and stoic, never expressing joy in his life.

He finished climbing the stairs, bypassing his own bedroom to check on his son. The child was sleeping soundly, completely oblivious to the presence of his father, and Pradeep smiled down at the small bundle. Resting a hand on the side of the crib and nearly crying for reasons he couldn’t explain, he made his son a promise. “I’ll do better. I swear, I will do better.”

 

The floor creaked softly, and Pradeep looked over his shoulder to see his wife, wrapped in her dressing robe, squinting sleepily at him. “Pradeep?” Her voice was barely audible, and he quietly crept over to her after a final look at his son. “I didn’t hear you come in.” She squinted at him again, then reached out and touched his face, concern taking over her expression. “You’re crying! What’s wrong?”

Pradeep cupped her hand and smiled. “Nothing. Come, let us go back to bed. I am ready for today to end and tomorrow to begin.”

Sandeep Kumar Mishra is the Bestselling author of "One Heart- Many Breaks-2020", an outsider artist, a poet and a lecturer. He is a guest poetry editor at Indian Poetry Review. He has received  "Readers Favorite Silver Award-21", "Indian Achievers Award-21",IPR Annual Poetry Award-2020 and Literary Titan Book Award-2020.He was shortlisted for "2021 International Book Awards", "Indies Today Book of the Year Award 2020" and "Joy Bale Boone Poetry Prize 2021" and "Oprelle Rise up Poetry Prize 2021".He was also "The Story Mirror Author of the Year" nominee-2019.