The Next Step

The knock came early on Sunday morning, between my second cup of coffee and my first beer. I didn’t get much company. The last ten people to knock on my door were UPS drivers, and they fled in their big brown trucks before I even answered the door.

I peeked out the front window, expecting my landlord, who would want to know when to expect last month’s rent. Instead, I saw Mack Davis, the guy who had made my two years at Bobtown University a little piece of Hell. He didn’t look like I remembered. A couple of decades wore everyone down, but his once full frame had grown slack. His gray temples faded in to a receding hairline. Time had erased his trademark smirk and had left crow’s feet in its wake.

I opened the door as far as the brass security chain would allow. “What do you want?”

“Hi, Sammy. Do you still go by Sammy?”

“It’s Sam, now.”

Mack took a deep breath and blew it out. “Okay, Sam.”

“What do you want?”

“Can I come in for a second?”

This man had taunted me. I skipped classes just to avoid him. He once beat me so badly that I couldn’t sleep and spent the night sitting on the benches at student health, waiting for the doors to open. Now, he stood before me, turning a yellowing piece of notebook paper over in his hands. His slumped shoulders stole at least three inches from his height, and he had lost at least thirty pounds of muscle.

“Why?” I asked.

Mack slicked back his thinning hair with the palm of his hand. “I’m here to ask for forgiveness.”

He looked hurt when I laughed. Part of me liked the way that he squirmed on my doorstep. His discomfort gave me a sadistic sense of pleasure.

“Sure, come in.” I disengaged the chain and opened the door.

Mack took slow, small steps in to my living room and looked around at the packed boxes stuffed against the walls and in corners. “Are you moving out?”

“No. I’m still unpacking.”

“Ah. How long have you been here?”

“About two years.”

He nodded and looked at his feet. I waited for a smartass comment, but it didn’t come. Instead, he whispered. It took me a moment to realize he was praying. Somehow, that offended me more than any judgement that he could have rendered.

“So you want to ask for forgiveness?” I asked. “Let’s get on with it.”

“I know I was an asshole in college. I had a lot of problems, but that isn’t an excuse. I was abusive and mean, and I am sorry for it.”

“Why?”

He looked confused. “I’m sorry, because I know I was an asshole.”

“I mean what brought this on? It’s been twenty years.” I walked off to the kitchenette of my one bedroom apartment. He could have stayed put and still be in the same room, but he followed along, keeping a respectful distance.

“I’ve been working through the steps.”

I chuckled. “So you’re an alcoholic?”

He nodded. “Alcohol and painkillers. Ever since high school.”

“And what step are you on?”

“I’m trying to make amends with all of the people that I harmed.”

I rinsed my coffee cup in the sink and stuffed it into a cabinet that held a single bow, a single plate, and a single glass. “Long list?”

“Too long. Not as long as some. Longer than others.”

“Where am I on the list?”

Mack finally looked up. “What?”

“What number am I? I’m just wondering how far down I rank.”

Mack rubbed his red nose. “I have two more stops after this one.”

He jumped as I slammed the cabinet door. “Third from the bottom,” I said. “That’s what I’m worth.”

Mack held up his hands and backed away a couple of steps. “It’s not like that.”

I got a bottle of beer out of the refrigerator. He looked away as I opened it. “I flunked out of BU, because of you. I went to community college. It took me six years to get a degree that I should have had in three.”

“I’m sorry about that—“

“You broke two of my ribs. I thought I was going to die, and I could have had you arrested. Prison would have cured you, right?”

“And I’m sorry. I—“

I hurled the bottle across the apartment splattering both of us with ice cold beer. “Stop saying that! Sorry doesn’t mean shit.”

Mack’s bloodshot eyes began to water. He whispered another prayer.

“And don’t do that shit either,” I said.

Mack bit his lip. “Maybe I should go.”

“Maybe.” I crossed my arms and leaned back against the kitchen’s bare, eggshell walls.

“I apologize—“ he started. He stopped himself and retreated towards the front door.

“What did you expect me to say?” I asked.

Mack stopped. “Nothing. It isn’t about you—not really. All I could do is try.”

“What did other people do? Did they forgive you?”

He looked down at his shoes again, wingtips, well-polished with worn soles. “I hope some did.”

I grabbed my bright yellow windbreaker from a peg in the kitchen. “You have two more stops, right?”

Mack nodded.

“I want to go with you.”

His eyes widened. “Wait. No. You don’t need to do that.”

“You don’t get to decide what I need.” I zipped up the jacket. “You need to make amends, right? If someone else forgives you, then you’re off the hook with me.”

Mack shook his head. “This is personal stuff.”

I slipped my feet in to already-tied sneakers. “Either you want to make amends or you don’t. If you aren’t serious about this, then go ahead and leave without me.”

When he nodded in defeat. I opened the door and followed him to his car, a mid-nineties Ford Escort with bare rims and sun-faded paint.

We spent the first part of the drive in total silence. His eyes didn’t leave the road, and my eyes didn’t leave him. I tried to process the gall of a guy who would go to door-to-door asking for forgiveness. It seemed egotistical in hindsight, but being third-to-last bothered me. I seethed, angry at the way that his beaten down appearance robbed me of my rationale for being pissed. I had always harbored an unspoken belief that people like him went on to have great lives while people like me continued to get beaten up literally or metaphorically for all eternity. But here he was, broken down and struggling to get through life—competing with me for the title of biggest fuck-up.

“What the Hell happened to you?” I asked.

The vehicle lurched as he tapped the brake, shocked by the sudden dialogue. He took another nervous breath. “I screwed a lot of stuff up.”

“I got that. Programs don’t attract a lot of people who have their shit together. But what happened?”

“I’ve had knee problems since high school. The BU football program fed me pills so I could keep playing. Then it wasn’t enough anymore. Alcohol—that part runs in my family, I guess. I got kicked out of college my senior year.”

“That’s a year more than you gave me.” I spoke with venom.

Neither of us said anything for the rest of the drive. He wore the same, defeated look right up until we stopped next to the curb of a large funeral home. Sad men and women in black dress clothes haunted the front lawn. Mack’s face went pale.

“Is this it?” I asked.

He clutched the wheel as if he was unsure that he wanted to stop there. “It’s the wake for Coach Denney, my position coach. He recruited me, and I let him down. He died two days ago. I didn’t make it to him in time.”

“So, how are you going to make amends with a dead guy.”

Mack didn’t answer. He put the car in park and got out. I followed him through the crowd, feeling out of place. Mack blended in as much as he could with his ratty suit, but I looked like the Raisin Bran sun in my bright yellow windbreaker, dishing out two scoops of gaudiness to a gallery full of black clouds. Mack froze as we entered the viewing room, and I had to push him over the threshold.

A dead man lay at the front of the room, his casket flanked by a Bobtown Bobcat Football wreath. A tired-eyed elderly woman stood on the opposite side, shaking hands with large men who offered their condolences. I had started to push Mack forward again when a large angry man in a smooth black suit grabbed me.

“What in the hell are you wearing?” he seethed between his teeth, his dark eyes eclipsing the sun of my windbreaker.

Mack held out a hand. “How are you doing Coach Garret?”

Garret stared at the hand. “Are you with this guy?”

Mack looked at me. “Yeah. He’s a friend of mine. It’s good to see you again.”

Garret looked Mack up and down. “Who are you?”

“Mack Davis.”

Garret shook his head. “Doesn’t ring a bell.”

“I played linebacker for you.”

Garret gave Mack a blank look.

“Class of 2003, but I—“

Garret finally took Mack’s extended hand. “Sure. Look, kid, a lot of people played for me, and the memory isn’t what it used to be. Get your friend out of here, will ya? I can’t stand looking at him.” Garret patted Mack’s hand like a child’s and went to talk to a group of men on the other side of the room.

“Who was that asshole?” I asked.

“The guy who gave me the pills.”

Mack watched the coach from a distance as I seethed. I couldn’t decide why I was offended—whether it was the insult to my fashion sense or the fact that Mack had destroyed his life for a guy that couldn’t even remember him. My face grew hot. My cheeks were almost as colorful as the jacket that Garret hated.

“Do you want to wait outside?” Mack asked. “I’ll only be a second.”

He didn’t wait for my answer as he walked to the line at the front of the room. I headed outside to get some air, conscious of wary looks from the black-clad figures standing still in the yard like goth lawn flamingos. I leaned against Mack’s car until he came back out, his head down, not making eye contact with anyone.

“So what happened?” I asked.

“I told her that I was sorry for her loss and that her husband was like a father to me.”

“What did she say?”

“She asked my name.” Mack got in the car.

There were many things that I wanted to say as we drove. I had insisted on tagging along, sure that this would be an embarrassing clusterfuck for Mack. It had turned out to be worse than I expected. I wasn’t enjoying this. Instead, I felt anger on his behalf. Mack had been used. He had given his life up to the gods of football, for wins and losses. His prize was a used sedan with no hubcaps and a list of people that he had wronged.

“That was fucked up,” I finally said.

He nodded, barely breathing. “I wonder if that counts as making amends.”

I didn’t have an answer.

We pulled up to a small bungalow house on a quiet street. Half-deflated balloons hovered on ribbons tied to a mailbox that was painted with black spots like a milk cow. A piece of posterboard etched with bright pink marker stood in the yard reading “Happy Birthday, Hayley! A teenager lives here!” A woman our age bent to pick up clear plastic cups from the front lawn, depositing them in a white trash bag. When she saw Mack’s car, she dropped the bag and hurried over.

She was on Mack’s ass before he was even out of the car. “You’ve got a lot of nerve coming here—“

Mack leaned on the car as if it were the only thing holding him up. “I know you probably don’t want to talk to me—“

“You think? I haven’t talked to you in thirteen years.” She looked at me in the passenger seat. “And who is this? Your lawyer?”

Mack peeled himself off the side of the car. “Nothing like that. He’s just a friend. I’m here to talk to you and maybe Hayley—“

“Over my dead body you’re talking to Hayley.”

“I’m her dad, Tiff.”

Tiffany’s face twisted. “Don’t you call yourself that. Don’t you dare call yourself that.”

“I don’t expect you to forget what happened—“

“There’s no danger of that. Every time I look at her, I see your face.”

Mack shuddered as if he were freezing. “She looks like me?”

“What do you want from me?” Tiffany asked. “What else can you possibly do to me?”

“I’m clean, now. I’m in a program,” Mack stuttered. “I—I just wanted to make it up to you any way I can.”

Tiffany looked at me. “Mr. Attorney, this guy is a real piece of shit you know? Abandoning his pregnant fiancée two days before the wedding. Did he tell you about the drinking? Drugs? The bruises?” She didn’t wait for me to answer, but went right back to Mack. “You’re not getting that check back. No court is going to—“

“I don’t want the check back. That’s for you and Hayley.”

Tiffany stabbed a dagger of a finger at Mack’s heart. “It’s not for me. I don’t want a goddamn thing from you. Ever. It’s for her.”

“I have something else for her. For her birthday.”

“Her birthday was yesterday, you prick.”

“I know. I didn’t want to interfere with anything.” Mack retrieved a small package from beneath the front seat. He’d wrapped it with the Sunday comics. Garfield and Beetle Bailey’s hijinks graced panels that contained all the brightness that the real world lacked. He handed the package to Tiffany.

She tore it open. I thought Mack might object, but he didn’t. Inside was a small but beautiful antique jewelry box. Tiffany opened it. A ballerina twirled slowly as a tiny tune ground from its insides.

Mack stuffed his hands in his pockets as if he no longer knew what to do with them. “Can you just give her that? You don’t have to say that it’s from me. Say it’s from you. Just—please. I want to make things right. Maybe, someday—”

“Don’t hold your breath.” Tiffany turned her back on us. Mack reached out, as if he might attempt to cross the physical divide between them, but he stopped. Instead, he got back in the car. His hands shook as he struggled to put the key in the ignition. As we drove away, I watched in the rear-view mirror as Tiffany dropped the jewelry box in to the garbage bag with ant-covered punch glasses and frosting-crusted paper plates. I don’t know if Mack saw it. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him.

We drove back to my tiny house. The air hung thick and stale between us. The AM-FM radio failed to fill that void. When Mack parked along the curb, I stayed glued to my seat, my mind too busy to process any single thought.

Mack spoke, his voice dry and brittle. “Thanks for the company.”

“The bottom of the list weren’t afterthoughts.”

Mack shook his head. “No. They weren’t.”

“Are you going to be okay?”

Mack whispered a prayer. This time, I didn’t stop him. I thought about my own life. My wife. My infidelity. My separation. My own son sitting on a beanbag chair playing Xbox, and how I used to beg him to go outside and do something constructive. One day at a time. One step at a time. A doorstep. A knock. Who knows what might happen?

“I forgive you,” I whispered, my own agnostic little prayer for both of us.

“What was that?” Mack asked, lifting his bowed head.

“You’re forgiven.”

Jack Campbell, Jr. is a dark fiction writer in Lawrence, KS. His writing has appeared in various venues including Twenty 3 Magazine, Danse Macabre, and Insomnia Press.

He writes about reading, writing, and life on his blog at www.jackcampbelljr.com.

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