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Suffer the Children
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Suffer the Children

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Author: Craig DiLouie
Publisher: Gallery Books, 2014
Permuted Press, 2014
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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Horror
Sub-Genre Tags: Apocalyptic/Post-Apocalyptic
Vampires
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Synopsis

A mysterious disease claims the world's children before bringing them back. To continue surviving, however, they need to ingest human blood. As the blood supply wanes, parents struggle and compete to keep their children alive. In the end, the only source left will be each other. For them, the ultimate question will be: How far would you go for someone you love?


Excerpt

ONE

Joan

23 hours before Herod Event

The children were driving Joan Cooper bananas.

One meltdown, two spills, three time-outs, and counting.

Ninety-seven minutes until her home-based day care closed for the weekend and she'd have just her own kids to manage.

Megan assumed a commanding pose. "You have to share!"

"But this one is mine," whined Josh.

Joan had just set a box filled with reject plastic-lens eyeglasses, a donation from a local LensCrafters, on the floor for the kids to play with. Dillon and Danielle put on oversized black frames and made faces at each other. The room filled with hysterical laughter.

Then Josh snatched the green pair. Megan wanted them.

"Be nice to people!" the girl shouted, hands on hips. Joan thought the gesture seemed familiar. Her four-year-old daughter, she realized, was imitating her own style of scolding.

Josh was close to tears from her nagging. "I want to wear it."

"Megan, wait your turn," Joan said, using the warning voice.

"But I had it first."

Joan picked the funniest pair out of the box--big and red and round--and put them on. "So how do I look?" She held out her hand to shake. "Hi. Nice to meet you. I'm Mommy."

Megan laughed. Then Josh ruined it.

"My glasses," he said, walking away in a huff.

Megan stared at her mother in a mute appeal for justice. Her chin wobbled. In a moment, she would wail full throttle, and Joan would scoop her up and let her cry it out into her shoulder. Half the time, Joan walked around with dried snot on her shirt.

"Here, Megan, you can play with these until Josh is done," she said. She took off the red glasses and waved them. "Play nice for the next half hour, and I'll give everybody a piece of gum."

"Gum!" Megan crowed.

The other children eyed Joan. They wanted in on the action.

She repeated her offer, and the kids all cheered. "Half an hour, though," she repeated. "Playing nice."

"Me too, right, Joanie?" said Josh, who had dietary restrictions.

"That's right, buddy."

"I love Dubble Bubble," Megan announced. "It's my favorite!"

Joan smiled. Where discipline and distraction failed, bribery won out every time. It was her last resort, the Alamo of parenting.

She'd launched her day care three months ago, inspired by an article that said stay-at-home moms didn't count in the gross national product because they didn't get paid. Sell some cigarettes and pesticides, that counted. Chop down a rain forest, bully for you too. Raise two kids in a loving home 24/7 and watch them grow up one day at a time, though? It didn't count one bit.

It pissed her off. Joan had never thought of doing anything else but what she did. It wasn't about finances or lack of child-care options. She had always wanted to be a mom and housewife. She'd grown up with a mother who'd poured all she had into parenting. She'd wanted the same fulfillment, the same sense of satisfaction. It sure as hell had value.

Her eight-year-old, Nate, attended school all day, leaving her with Megan. She'd figured, why not watch over a few more kids and get paid to do it?

Only it had turned out to be a hell of a lot more work than she'd anticipated. After three months, Joan was still learning the ropes.

And her dreams of how they were going to spend the money were turning out to be just that--dreams. No sooner did she get paid than the money bled away on all the little things--hockey equipment for Nate, a new outfit for Megan, dinners out at Denny's.

Her friends asked her how she could handle four children every day. The simple answer was she had no choice; she'd signed up for it and wasn't about to back out now. She also loved it, though she often was too busy to realize this fact.

The front door flew open. Joan felt a gust of cold air. Nate trudged into the house, stomping snow off his boots.

"Home again, home again, jiggety-jig," he said, and roared, "Mom!"

"I'm right heee-re," Joan sang.

He shrugged his jacket onto the floor. "I'm hungry, Mom."

"We'll be eating supper as soon as your father gets home."

Nate sat on the floor and pulled off his boots. "But I'm really hungry now."

"Mommy said I could have Dubble Bubble if I'm good," Megan bragged.

Nate stopped and looked at his mom hopefully. "Can I have some gum?"

"You can have a peanut butter sandwich," Joan told him.

"Awww."

She eyed the playing kids like an engineer looking for cracks in a dam and judged it safe to leave them alone for a few minutes. Dillon was playing near the Christmas tree, but not near enough for worry. Megan and Josh were sharing the green glasses. They were laughing. For the moment, all was right with the world.

Outside the big picture windows, her small suburban corner of Lansdowne, Michigan, white with snow, was already dimming to gray. Soon, the windows would be black with night and she'd feel closed in. Damn, another day gone in a blur. One thing at a time, she reminded herself. She made a mental note to plug in the tree.

"Come on, Mom," Nate called as he headed into the kitchen. He'd taken off his winter hat and put on his favorite, a Little League cap emblazoned with its Giants team logo.

Joan sighed as she followed. The drawings the kids made that morning still cluttered the kitchen table. It was easy to spot Josh's. He was into monsters now. A giant black thing devoured a burning city skyline one building at a time. The Wiggles played in the background on the CD player, a song she'd heard countless times and knew by heart. She spread some peanut butter on a slice of bread and poured a glass of milk.

Nate crammed the sandwich into his mouth and said, "No school tomorrow."

"Yeah, thank God it's Friday," Joan said. She glanced at his hat, considering another battle to get him to take it off inside the house. He caught her looking and pulled it lower over his eyes.

"Are we still going skating tomorrow?" he asked.

"We're going to Sandy's birthday party at the park." She noticed the unread newspaper on the counter as she put the bread away. The thrilling world of Spy Master called to her from the movie listings. It was coming out this weekend. She needed a break. If she could talk Doug into taking over with the kids for the party, she'd sneak away for a matinee showing with her friend Coral.

"Yeah, but it's a skating party, Mom."

"I stand corrected."

Her daughter's voice: "Mommy! Mommy, come quick!"

Joan raced into the living room. "What? What?"

The kids looked at her with wide, watery eyes and pointed at the Christmas tree. She'd been ready to give up this year and get a fake, but Doug had insisted on a real one with all the trimmings. He'd had it rough growing up and always wanted his kids to have everything. It looked majestic and prosperous, heavy with ornaments and garland. All it needed were presents. Once plugged in, the house would feel warm and cheerful, like the holidays.

Josh lay on the floor under its branches, writhing and clutching his stomach.

Ramona

23 hours before Herod Event

Ramona Fox was terrified.

The man she intended to terminate this afternoon had just entered her office. Tall, handsome, and dressed in a well-tailored gray suit, Ross Kelley looked like a CEO, though all he really did was handle employee insurance.

As an HR manager, Ramona knew how to handle a termination. One small problem: She'd never actually fired anybody.

She'd sat in on enough terminations to learn firsthand it was a confrontation, and she hated confrontation at work. The superstore chain's employees generally bought into the perception that she was on their side, which allowed her to mediate their conflicts with the company.

This time was different. Ross worked directly for her, and today would be his last day with the company.

"You wanted to see me?" he asked.

"Yes," Ramona said, her mouth dry. "Close the door and have a seat, please."

She considered her inability to bring him around a failure on her part, but he'd simply given up. Ross was a great guy, but most days, he just stared at his computer and did the bare minimum. It was typical behavior among people who knew they were facing termination--they drew a check for as long as they could while doing as little as possible.

The only reason he lasted as long as he did is because you have a little crush on him, she thought, then scolded herself. That wasn't fair. Nothing about this was personal.

For the entire week, Ramona had mentally prepared for this meeting. She'd spent a lot of time this morning fussing over how she looked and put on her blue suit for the occasion. More nervous than if it were a date, she wanted everything to be perfect.

Ross sat in the chair across from her wearing a curious smile. Ramona's heart pounded so hard she wondered if he could hear it.

Get right to it, she told herself. You know the saying: Hire slow, fire fast.

"I'm sorry, Ross, but this isn't working out. The company is letting you go."

He blinked in surprise. "Really? Why?"

She paused, pleased with the way she'd broken the ice. Her tone sounded strong but neutral. She felt poised and confident. The meeting was off to the right start.

"The company values--"

Her cell phone rang.

Only a few people had this number, including Joan Cooper, and Joan wouldn't call unless it was an emergency. Oh God. Josh.

"I'm so sorry," Ramona said, her face reddening. "I, um, have to take this."

"Are you serious?"

Ramona politely raised a hand to Ross and turned her chair away from him for privacy.

"Ramona Fox," she said.

"Ramona, it's Joan Cooper. I wanted to let you know Josh is pretty sick right now."

"His stomach?"

"Yes, it's as if--"

"Is he in pain?"

"Yes, but it's--"

"I'll be right there," Ramona said, and terminated the call.

Minutes later, she hurried across the frozen parking lot to her car. She barely remembered what she'd said before grabbing her bag and rushing out the door.

Sorry, you're fired, gotta run.

Very sensitive. You're a model HR professional.

"Lay off me," she said aloud to clear her head.

Ramona raced her Toyota to Joan's house and parked out front. The sidewalk and driveway were neatly shoveled. Joan kept a clean and orderly home. It was one of the things that had convinced Ramona she could trust Josh to Joan's care. He'd had acid reflux as a baby--he'd refused to eat, and this spiraled into a series of allergies, digestive issues, and food aversions. One of his biggest problems was gluten intolerance. When he ate anything made with wheat, his immune system reacted violently, damaging his small intestine and preventing it from absorbing nutrition from food. It also gave him the runs and one hell of a gut ache.

Josh had eaten something today he shouldn't have, Ramona was sure of it. Something she'd explicitly told Joan he shouldn't eat. She practically ran to the front door, seeing red.

When it came to her son, Ramona had no problem with confrontation.

A worried Joan opened the door. Ramona was struck again by the contrast between them. While she herself was tall and thin and pale with long red hair, Joan was big and curvy, dressed in jeans and a blue and gray Lions sweatshirt. Her cheeks were flushed from chasing kids around all day.

"He's doing fine now," Joan said.

"Where is he?"

Josh approached meekly, gazing at his feet. Ramona's heart went out to her pale, scrawny boy with his beautiful, sensitive face. Behind him, the other kids clutched each other and watched, excited and a little scared by his getting sick.

"Ramona, I'm so sorry," Joan said.

"Sorry, Mommy," Josh echoed.

Ramona knelt and felt his forehead to see if he had a fever. "How are you feeling?"

"My tummy doesn't hurt anymore."

"Did you go to the bathroom?"

"Uh-huh, yeah."

"Was it hard or runny?"

"Runny."

"Was there any red in it?"

Josh shook his head. "No."

He seemed fine now, but his tongue was bright red. Ramona had never seen that before. It was alarming. What did it mean?

"Do you want to come in?" Joan asked. "I can make some coffee."

"I'm taking him home," said Ramona. "Please get anything in the house that belongs to him and bring it to me. Now, please."

Joan blinked with surprise, reminding Ramona of how Ross had reacted to the news of his termination. "Can I ask if he's coming back to us on Monday?"

Ramona put on Josh's coat. "I don't know yet." Joan had broken the first commandment of Josh's care; on the other hand, Ramona didn't have a lot of options or much time to explore them. "He has celiac disease. I told you that. It's not some New Age yuppie thing. It's real. He's gluten intolerant. He can't eat any wheat or he gets sick. What did he have?"

Joan bowed her head in thought. "Sliced apples for a morning snack. Bologna sandwich on gluten-free bread for lunch. Later on, we had strawberry smoothie pops for the afternoon snack."

"He ate something, Joan. This doesn't just happen."

"I don't see how--"

"I trusted you."

Joan flinched. The kids behind her looked scared now, sensing the additional tension between the grown-ups.

Ramona added, "I can't take time off like this. When I do, it's noticed." She hesitated; this definitely wasn't coming out the way she wanted. "There's a cost."

Now Ramona made it sound like all she cared about was her career, but it was more than that. She was on her own. There was nobody else providing for Josh. Just her. What she failed to add was that the better she did at her job, the better the life that Josh would have. He'd have better care, more fun, greater opportunities. As with everything, it all came down to money.

And the money came from the job.

"Okay, I'll get his things," Joan said quietly.

"Thank you." Ramona finished dressing Josh to go home. He wouldn't look at her. He was scared too, but it was more than that. He was hiding something.

Joan returned with Josh's drawings. "He likes to draw monsters," she said with a shrug.

"Can I give Joanie a hug good-bye?" Josh said.

"No," said Ramona. "Mommy's taking you home now."

"I am sorry, Ramona," Joan said. "Please call me whenever you can." She crouched in front of Josh and smiled. "Bye, Josh. Hope you feel better."

Ramona took his hand and pulled him to the car. She buckled him into his car seat in the back while he wept and clutched his drawings.

"Josh, please stop crying."

"I don't want Mommy to be mad at Joanie," he wailed.

"Okay, Josh. But first, tell me, what did you eat? I promise I won't get mad."

Josh let out another sob. "I ate the play dough."

"What?"

"We made it out of salt and flour and some other stuff. Joanie said it was safe. We put stuff in it to make different colors. Then we played with it."

"And it looked so yummy you ate some."

"Yeah. I'm sorry, Mommy."

Food coloring. That's why his tongue was red.

He said, "Joanie said it was extra safe to play with but we shouldn't try to eat it because it tasted bad. She was right. It tasted really bad. It was really salty."

An innocent mistake. Ramona sighed and looked back at the house. The front door with its plastic wreath was closed. The family Christmas tree sparkled in the window. She figured she owed Joan an apology.

Something else to feel guilty about. Add it to the fucking list.

She'd call Joan over the weekend. Maybe call Ross while she was at it. Apologize to everybody for everything. When she had time.

"It's okay, little man. Don't cry. Mommy's not mad. I just hope you learned your lesson."

"But I want to come back. Don't be mad at Joanie!"

"I'll bring you back on Monday. I promise. But first we have to see Santa tomorrow, don't we?"

Josh perked up a little. "Santa at the mall?"

"That's right." She got into the driver's seat and eyed him in the rearview. "I love you, little man." She couldn't hide the exasperation in her voice. "I really do. Are those your new drawings? Can Mommy see them?"

She took the sheets of construction paper and rested them on the wheel. As Josh approached the age of five, his drawings had gone from crude stick figures to highly detailed renderings. He insisted his mother tape every drawing to the refrigerator door and, when that space ran out, the walls of his room. Praising his artwork always cheered him up.

But these new ones were disturbing. She leafed through them quickly with a frown. Black shapes chased fleeing people in every one.

Her son, who normally drew knights and animals, was now drawing monsters.

David

22 hours before Herod Event

David Harris listened to Shannon Donegal's life story, scribbling notes into her file while ignoring the dull ache in his leg.

She was eighteen, beautiful, and glowing with robust health. In three months, she would bring another life into the world, a baby boy she was calling Liam.

David held a license as a pediatrician, not an obstetrician. He treated children, not pregnant women. When he'd returned to work after the accident, however, he'd started offering free one-hour prenatal consultations to rebuild his patient base.

He considered it an investment. He was beginning to feel hopeful about the future for the first time in a year. Not a lot, but enough to make an extra effort to restore his practice to what it once had been.

Shannon had her own problems, it seemed.

Valedictorian of her class, she'd earned a scholarship to attend George Washington University in the fall, where she would have studied international relations. Instead, at a graduation party, she'd had sex with her boyfriend Phil, who, despite being the football team's star running back, had no scholarship or real plans. He'd seemed destined to remain stuck here in Lansdowne while Shannon went off to bigger and better things. Two missed menstrual periods later, however, she discovered she was having a baby she wanted but Phil didn't. Now it was Shannon who seemed destined to remain in Lansdowne, while Phil had left town as fast as his feet could take him.

Little of this story proved relevant in any medical sense, but David listened with polite interest, reminding himself to take his time and make a good impression. He steered the conversation back to her and the baby's health. Did she smoke? Who was her obstetrician? Were there any health issues she was concerned about?

No health issues, it turned out. Just questions.

"Should I breast-feed or go with formula?"

"I recommend breast-feeding for at least six months. A year is even better. Breast-feeding can prevent allergies and protect the baby from a number of infections and chronic conditions."

"So Liam and I would pretty much be breast-feeding all day and night, right? What's the term? 'Glued at the boob'? I mean, isn't that the trade-off?"

"To an extent, but not all the time. My wife used a breast pump to store milk, which I fed to our boy in a bottle once per night. That gave her some uninterrupted sleep."

I'd hug little Paul as he cried against my chest in the boy's warm, dark room, swaying side to side on my feet and shushing him to get him to return to sleep.

A file drawer slammed shut in the reception area outside his office. Nadine, going about her work and likely eavesdropping. He cleared his throat, forgetting where he was for a moment.

"Oh yeah, I will definitely be exploring that," Shannon said. "Phil's gone, but I will have help." She wrote it down in her notebook. "What about circumcision?"

"There are health arguments on both sides of that question, although the percentages are low for any risks. It's really a personal decision."

Shannon winced. "Doesn't it hurt?"

"A topical cream or some other anesthetic is used."

"What did you and your wife do?"

David suppressed a frown. He didn't like to talk about his personal life with his patients, although he'd brought it up. "I'm circumcised, and I wanted Paul to look like me. When I realized that was the only reason we were going to do it, we decided against it."

"What about shots?" Shannon said. "Did you immunize him?"

"Of course we did."

"Some people say it can cause autism."

"Studies have found no link. As a doctor, I rely on empirical evidence. What I can say is if your child is not immunized, he risks contracting a deadly disease."

"What about the disease itself? You can get measles from the vaccine, right?"

"Not really. The odds of something like that happening are very small. Your baby would already have to have a severely compromised immune system for such a thing to be likely. Again, such a thing is very rare."

Shannon sighed. "Okay."

"I like your questions. You came well prepared."

"I am really, really scared."

He smiled. She was utterly adorable and far too innocent. "You should be. It's a very serious thing to bring a life into the world."

"Then please give me some advice as a father, not as a doctor. What's the most important thing you've learned?"

"You don't need personal advice from me. Did you have any other medical questions?"

"Come on, doctor. Please? Just one thing. Consider it a question of supreme importance to my mental health." She held up her notebook and showed him a page filled with her neat handwriting. "Look, I'm keeping a diary of good advice from everybody I know."

"All right. Well, not to be flippant about it, but my advice is to be careful about soliciting too much advice. No matter how much advice you get about things like keeping your child happy, no one will know your child better than you will. Trust yourself."

"Wow, I like that," she said. She wrote it down in her notebook. "Thanks, doctor. There are just so many things to deal with."

He remembered holding Paul and thinking, Don't grow up, baby boy. Stay just like this forever. "Millions of women have done it before you--most of them under very primitive conditions. Take it one day at a time, and you'll be fine."

"One day at a time, huh?" She smiled. "That's going to be my mantra every time I think about all those diapers I'm going to have to change."

"When it's your child, you don't care about those things. The fluids, smells, crying at all hours of the night." His eyes stung, and he turned to stare out the window. Snow fluttered onto the parking lot. "None of it matters because you love this tiny thing with every atom in your body. The biggest problem every parent has is it goes by too fast. Cherish every minute you have with your child."

Shannon's eyes welled up with tears. "Oh my God."

He tried to smile. "Sorry about that."

"No, it's really beautiful." She sniffed and fanned herself with her hand. "Do you have a photo of Paul?"

David picked up a framed picture of his son from his desk and handed it to her. In it, Paul grinned and held a Tonka truck over his head like a trophy.

"What a cutie. What do you do for day care? Does your wife stay home? If you don't mind me asking."

"I, uh... Paul passed away, Shannon."

The girl slapped her hand over her mouth. "Oh. My. God."

"Almost a year ago. There was an accident."

She stared at the photo. Tears welled in her eyes. "I am so sorry."

"No, I'm the one who should apologize. You came here for medical advice, not to become upset." He cursed his stupidity. The idea of death was infectious; it wouldn't take long for Shannon, her body raging with hormones, to imagine her own child dying. After taking the photo back, he picked up the phone, punched Nadine's extension, and asked her to bring a package of public health literature. "I'll get you some brochures to take home."

"I was judging you in my head, wondering why you don't smile," she said. "You looked so grim. I had no idea this happened. I am such an idiot."

"Not at all." He opened a drawer and produced a box of tissues.

"Can I ask what happened?"

Blinding light filled the car and winked into dark just before the BOOM.

"It was..."

The world spun and glass shards splashed up the windshield.

"Dr. Harris," a familiar voice said.

He woke to a hissing sound, his wife still holding the wheel, looking dazed, his leg pierced by a barbed tongue of metal.

"Paul?"

He tried to twist in his seat to look behind him, but his leg exploded in agony.

He gritted his teeth and tried again--

"Paul!"

"David."

He looked up in surprise. Nadine stood in the doorway of his office. She entered and slapped a handful of brochures onto the desk, glaring at him before turning to Shannon.

"What happened to the doctor is none of your concern," Nadine said. "It's a private matter."

She turned on her heel and stormed out of the office.

"I'm really sorry," David said, reddening. "She shouldn't have said that to you."

"What did I do?" Shannon wondered. "What was that all about?"

"That," David answered, "is Nadine Harris."

"Harris? You mean she's--"

"My wife. Paul's mother."

Might as well put it all on the table at this point, he thought.

He doubted, after this visit, that Shannon Donegal's son was going to become a patient of the grim Dr. David Harris.

Doug

20 hours before Herod Event

Doug Cooper liked that it wasn't as cold as yesterday. He liked that the trash he picked up today didn't contain any broken glass or disposable needles. He liked that the bags didn't rip open and spill rotten meat, asbestos, or shit-filled diapers all over his boots. He liked that no homeowners yelled at him, no cars came close to hitting him, no dogs tried to bite him.

And still it was a shit day, just like all the rest.

When Otis called him into his office after he'd changed out of his work clothes at the end of his ten-hour shift, Doug had a feeling it was about to get a whole lot worse.

He scowled under the grimy brim of his red LOVIN' LANSDOWNE baseball cap, which the Plymouth County Department of Solid Waste Management handed out last year to all its employees who worked in the city. Broad-shouldered, standing at an imposing six feet two inches, he towered over his supervisor. His stubbled jaw and handlebar mustache made him look comical when he laughed and meaner than a dog when he got angry. Right now, he wore his mean face.

"Grab a seat," Otis told him, and took a seat himself, leaning back in the creaking chair with his hands folded on his massive belly.

Doug sat and dipped his head to light a Winston. They weren't supposed to smoke in here but did so anyway when the long, hard day was done. The old office smelled like an ashtray. Doug recognized stacks of yellowing paper on Otis's desk he'd seen months ago. Nothing ever changed in here except the months and years on the calendar hanging on the wall.

Whatever was on the man's mind, Doug hoped the conversation would be quick. He had no time for small talk or pictures of Otis's grandchildren. Joan was putting supper on, and he wanted to get home and see his kids.

"So how are you, Doug?"

"Peachy," Doug answered.

"Good to hear. I got some news from the County. Some pretty major news, actually."

"Oh boy, here it comes."

"Why do you always think the worst? I'm trying to tell you they approved the contract for the Whitley rigs."

Doug felt a surge of heat in his chest, like heartburn. "I thought that was dead."

Otis lit his own cigarette and waved the match. "It's alive, and it's here." His face turned an alarming shade of red as he coughed long and hard into his fist. "Better get used to it, Doug. They'll be delivered in the early part of the year. We should be seeing the first vehicles on the road by springtime."

Every day, Doug worked his ass off as part of a two-man sanitation crew--one man driving the truck, the other dumping trash into the rear of the rig, where it was compacted. The new Whitley trucks that the County wanted side-loaded waste using automatic lifts. The rig had a mechanical claw that grabbed the garbage can and dumped its contents right into the hopper.

It sounded great--unless you were a sanitation worker hoping to keep your job during a time of shrinking budgets. The automatic rigs needed only one man to operate them.

When Joan had gotten pregnant with Nate, Doug had sworn he'd do anything to provide for his family. He became a waste collector. At the time, he'd thought it was one of the safest professions on the planet. Sure, it was a tough and dirty job, but everybody needed it done, a good union protected it, and it couldn't be offshored.

He'd never anticipated that a new type of garbage truck might make him obsolete.

Spring was only four months away.

He stood, suddenly filled with nervous energy that he didn't know what to do with. "Shit, Otis. What about my job?"

"Sit down, Doug. Nobody's going to lose his job. The County will reduce head count through normal attrition. Guys move, others retire, and they won't be replaced. That's it."

Doug expressed his skepticism for that news with a snort. Whatever the politicians had told his boss, when it came to budget cuts, they had a way of changing their minds once they smelled blood.

Otis planted his elbows on his desk. "Look, that's what they're saying, okay? Don't go telling people otherwise, Doug. I don't need a goddamn panic."

"I don't gossip like some schoolgirl, Otis. But I will be checking with the union to see what kind of guarantees the County is offering in writing. I got mouths to feed at home."

"You're not seeing the big picture here. Why is there always a conspiracy theory with you? You got to look on the bright side."

"Yeah?" Doug asked, mean face in full effect. "And what's that?"

"Sanitation is being revolutionized," said Otis, as if it were a fast-moving, glamorous field. "Faster, cheaper, better. Trash pickup at a thousand homes a day, and the driver never leaves the cab. If the garbage isn't in the bin, it stays where it is. No rain, no rats, no stink."

Otis looked almost wistful about it. Doug guessed the man wished he had these rigs during the thirty-five years he'd spent hauling garbage in the rain and snow.

It was sad to witness. Otis had been a hairy son of a bitch back in the day, a hard drinker and a bar fighter, but now he just looked worn out, ready to retire himself. Doug always thought he'd end up just like him, marking time on a calendar in some crappy office and managing the next generation of hairy SOBs. He wondered now if he'd even get that privilege, thanks to the Whitley trucks.

What was he going to do if he lost his job? How would he face Joan and the kids, who depended on him? The very thought made him grind his teeth. What good was a man who couldn't provide for his own?

Doug had grown up in hard times. He'd known hunger as a child--not the I-wish-I-had-more-treats bullshit but real, gut-gnawing hunger. His biggest wish was to give Nate and Megan the childhood he didn't have and, he hoped, a chance at a decent future.

His kids came first. They would always come first.

"See?" Otis asked. "Change isn't all bad. There's a huge upside to this."

"Yeah, it's a bold new era in picking up other people's shit," Doug said with mock enthusiasm. He stabbed his cigarette into the ashtray on the desk. "Good night, Otis."

Minutes later, Doug drove his truck out of the lot and onto the long road home. Snow swirled in his headlights; it was already shaping up to be a crappy winter. The roads were thick with snow, but he drove nice and slow and trusted his four-wheel drive, one hand gripping the steering wheel and the other rooting for his lighter in the breast pocket of his flannel shirt. The orange glow of the sodium streetlights marked the way home. Leo Boon, his favorite country and bluegrass singer, crowed on the truck's CD player: The buck stops here. Yes, sir.

Otis had accused him of always thinking the world was out to get him, but it really did seem that way sometimes. Nobody was looking out for Doug, that was for damn certain, and he sure as hell was the only guy looking out for his family.

The truck rattled as he picked up speed. He glanced at his speedometer; sure enough, it read a little over forty-five. His pickup needed an alignment, another hundred twenty bucks he didn't have. He tapped the brake with his foot until things stabilized. An old rage burned in Doug's chest. Every time he got paid, something needed fixing or replacing. His life seemed like one big race to earn as much money as he could as fast as possible to replace everything that was always breaking.

"Goddamn it," he said quietly, still thinking about the new rigs. Damn everything. He wanted to punch something. He wanted a drink. He lit another Winston instead and counted to ten. No way he was bringing this shit home with him, not again.

The cab filled with dry heat and cigarette smoke, oddly comforting smells. He soon recognized the houses flanking the street, each drenched in Christmas lights and decorations. Lansdowne was a midsized city comprised of sprawling cookie-cutter housing communities surrounding an old industrial core. After the latest revitalization effort had failed, housing became its major industry for a while, which had struck Doug as a starving man eating his own foot to sustain himself a little longer. When that failed, the city suffered waves of foreclosures and discovered it had an even bigger homeless problem. Most people here worked low-end jobs at gas stations, supermarkets, big box stores, fast food joints, and the like. They still believed in America, even though they'd been betrayed by its failure to live up to its promises.

Like Doug, all they wanted was to give their kids a chance at a good life.

He pulled into his driveway and parked in the garage. Major, the Cooper family dog, sensed Doug's arrival and launched into his welcome-home barking ritual in the backyard.

Shucking his jacket in the entry, Doug felt warm for the first time all day. Hank Williams was belting out an old song from the kitchen. He heard zany cartoon voices on the TV in the living room. The smells of Joan's homemade spaghetti sauce made him feel human again.

After washing up, he found her in the kitchen wearing an apron with her hair done up in a ponytail. He watched her dance as she stirred a pan of frying meat on the stove. Doug remembered the night they first met at Cody's Bar. AC/DC had roared from the speakers while Joan stood in front of the jukebox picking the next song, slim and curvy, her hips swaying to the beat and driving every man in the place crazy. Including, of course, Doug.

He blinked, and the memory passed.

He wrapped his arms around her and hugged her. She melted into him with a smile.

"What's for dinner?" he said.

"Spaghetti and meatballs. How was your day?"

"You don't want to know."

"Join the club."

"I'm going to shower and change. All right?"

"Try to make it a quick one. Supper's ready in fifteen."

Doug entered the living room, which looked perfect. Joan constantly fussed after the kids, snatching up books, toys, and cups. Keeping things nice and neat. Nate hung off the edge of the easy chair with his head resting on the carpet, watching the TV upside down. Megan sat cross-legged about two feet from the screen.

"Anything good on?" he said.

"Hey, Dad," Nate said vacantly, his eyes glued to the TV.

Megan jumped to her feet and ran at him, screaming, "Daddy!"

He caught her and twirled her laughing through the air.

"Hey, princess."

"I missed you today, Daddy."

His heart warmed to hear that. It always did.

It was always good to come home after a long day. He swallowed his anger and his worries. Swallowed them hard. Everything he did in his life, this was the reason.

Sometimes it was too easy to lose sight of that.

Copyright © 2014 by Craig DiLouie


Reviews

Slow Build-up to satisfaction

- pizzakarin
  (6/15/2015)

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