"Justin? Oh my God! What are you doing?" William Clemens shouted over the hysterical nine-year-old screams ricocheting off the classroom walls.
William had pleaded and bartered with God every night for months begging to see Justin again, any sign of life, a phone call, a text. As he shielded two of the terrified and trembling children, William realized his prayer had been answered, in the form of a curse.
The man who stood facing him, with his back against the paper-snowflake decorated whiteboard, held a .45 automatic in his right hand.
"You never volunteered at my school, never even came to any of my games. I was the one who took care of the family. Look at me now. Look at ME! I got no place to live, nothing to eat, cops on my ass. Ain't nobody helping me now!" Justin said, repeatedly hitting his chest and pacing back and forth in front of the screaming fourth graders.
"Shut up. Shut! Up!" Justin bent down, losing control and yelling directly at a crying little girl in purple glitter flats, getting so close to her that his breath caused her brown hair to flutter. Raw fear grabbed each child by the throat and rendered them quiet, save the uncontrollable, primitive whimper indicative of captured prey.
"Give me the gun," William said slowly.
"Oh, I should give you this?" Justin said as he aimed the gun at Williams' chest. "Why should I give you anything? Don't let him fool you, kids. He's not one of the good guys." Justin's baggy windbreaker whistled discordantly as he took two steps closer to his dad. "Noble father devoted to his autistic son? Ha! You think I don't know about the affair?"
Justin pointed the gun at a very small boy humming and rocking under a desk riddled with crayon doodles, math problems and eraser shavings. "We barely had enough money for Sam's therapy, mom's hospital bills and you were out spending money on some whore named Amber?" Justin grabbed a binder and threw it in the air, papers flying like frantic birds. "Mom knew, you know. She pleaded with me not to say anything to anybody. She wanted to die with dignity but you know what? It wasn't the cancer. She gave up because of you." Justin leaned on the overhead projector and locked eyes with William and a tangible exchange of untreated pain bled between them.
Justin, suddenly nose to nose with his father, said, "You. Killed. Her."
William watched those three ominous words float through the air and slither under the classroom door leaving a trail of failure he could taste.
If he had seen Justin on the street in passing, he might not have recognized him. His boy's cheeks and eye sockets had fallen like sinkholes; his skin crawling with open sores; the clothes that once proudly revealed a muscular, athletic body now betrayed him and hung like a punctured balloon over his skeletal frame. William couldn't comprehend that this man was the child he had known who wore his Batman cape every day for two years; the student who played defensive end for his high school football team; the brave son who stoically carried his mother's casket; the teenager who helped explain it all to his autistic little brother; the young man who had begun uncharacteristically slamming the front door, often in a rage, until one day he simply stopped walking back in.
William swallowed the truth and his eyes filled with tears, his legs and resolve feeling weaker by the minute as he stared at the product of his years of deceit, the broken child he could not fix. Every bad decision, every stupid justification, every punishment he deserved as a father and a man all dumped on his boy and the guilt was more than he could bear.
William glanced at the teacher and knew she had dialed 911 from her cell phone. The police, the SWAT team, the media would be here soon.
Staring straight at his father, tears spilling down his cheeks and settling in the craters that marred his young skin, Justin raised the gun and pressed it against his temple, his hand unable to hold the weapon steady.
The blast was deafening. The children were shrieking. Blood splattered against the paper snowflakes and dripped down the whiteboard where lessons were taught. An eerie, impenetrable silence draped William as he caught glimpses of young contorted mouths in silent screams; hands that rose slowly, too late to cover tender ears. The classroom clock ticked like a time bomb. William watched as his oldest son crumbled to the floor.
William melted next to his boy, his world spinning and crashing; lullabies smashing into old arguments; a wifely white wedding dress circling a sinister, silver stiletto; hypodermic needles and chunks of hair raining on motel mattresses; slamming front doors made of brightly colored Legos dripping like tears. Whispered closet conversations echoed through champagne glasses as he watched a casket lowered into a pit filled with painful moaning, crying infants and death laughing. The sum of it all erupting, drowning William with its intensity until he was sucking for air, grasping blindly at sanity, and, finally, staring skyward through dirty water at the face of an angel.
"Waffles, daddy. Waffles?" A young voice pushed its way through the chaos and into the forefront of William's thoughts; syrup and blood spilling from Justin's body inexplicably. As he kneeled over his dead son, the classroom tile softened and the shredded, exposed tissue somehow morphed into smooth, red flannel.
William bolted upright, clutching his pillow, staring at the tiny face of his youngest boy, dressed in his fireman pj's, who was now verging on the edge of panic. "Waffles, daddy!" Sam stressed, pointing at the clock.
Still reeling, William sat the pillow down and pulled his sweaty T-shirt away from his chest and tried to re-orient himself, glancing at the still empty side of the bed where his late wife once slept.
Reality snapped hard back into focus. "It's okay, buddy. I didn't mean to sleep so late." William reached up, rubbed his eyes and checked the clock. "We've got thirteen minutes, Sam, before it's eight o'clock. That's plenty of time to get your waffle ready."
Relief washed over Sam as he grabbed William's hand and prodded him out of bed, oblivious to his father's tormented state.
As William began cutting Sam's waffle into precisely eighteen bites, Justin walked into the kitchen, football helmet and pads in hand. Justin's body had returned to its youthful state and the sullen teenage expression that William had once resented, and now welcomed, had been replaced by the mass of torn cheek muscle and shattered bone that had just haunted William's thoughts less than eight minutes ago.
"Practice this morning?" William asked.
"Yeah," Justin grunted.
"Big game tonight, right?"
Justin paused and with a fair amount of sarcasm said, "Yeah."
"Sam and I are coming. Hell, we might even drop by and watch you practice today."
"Whatev," Justin said, grabbing a box of cereal and a bowl from the cupboard.
But it was too late. William had seen it, that brief curl of Justin's mouth. That single faint gesture in that single frozen moment nakedly revealed Justin's broken and buried desire, a longing too stubborn, too afraid, too untrusting to show itself from beneath his well worn costume of anger and adolescent indifference.
William's phone buzzed and Amber's face flashed on the screen. Two buttons: Ignore and Answer. It had never been more clear to him as he watched his boys eating breakfast which button he would press.