Welcome!  Enjoy an excerpt from A Million Roses, J.D. Stimpson's third novel!

When a life comes to an end, the results can sometimes be amazing. The lifestream loses a drop which, plucked abruptly from its path, causes ripples that will continue to flow until they reach the very edge of the stream, affecting everything within it in the most minor of ways. But all the ripple really has to do is to affect the drop next to it. For at that point, a chain of ripples begins, and as more and more drops are affected, the lifestream can sometimes end up a turbulent sea, shaking the limited universe of Earth to its core. As an ecopsychologist, a new and fascinating blend of social and cognitive psychology, my colleagues and I use a rose as a physical manifestation of this removal of a drop from the lifestream. Perhaps this is because a rose can be representative of so many things in our civilization. The versatility of this symbol and the diversity of its metaphor within the array of cultures on our world make it a fine illustration of the end of a life, as its beauty and resplendent color rivals the incredible assortment of emotions that emerge within the minds and hearts of the survivors of another’s death.

Benjamin Baker looked up from his laptop, lifting his reading glasses with his fingertips and rubbing his tired eyes. It was only the middle of the afternoon, but he was finding it more and more difficult to stare at his computer for extended periods as he aged. He refocused his eyes, and adjusted his glasses back to the little dimples at the top of his nose that gravity had caused the bifocals to erode into his skin. His best student’s dissertation continued to sit, staring at him, on the screen. It had been two weeks since he had looked at it, and the words now seemed distant and disconnected. Casey was a fantastic psychologist, much better than he had been at her age, and she had taken a real chance for him in her willingness to help develop ecopsychology. Most of the scientists and psychologists who had jumped on board with him were aging at best, and at worst, operating well beyond what should have been the end of their careers. She was a drop of youth in the lifestream of their innovative new idea. Now he was doing her a disservice in his lack of motivation to finish editing her life’s most valuable work to date.

But try as he might, Benjamin was finding his daily work increasingly thorny and monotonous. He found his mind wandering to Casey’s pretty smile when he was supposed to be reading her work, or to his brothers, Zachary and Drake, and their lives’ exploits, when he was trying to do his own research. Or baseball. His mind often wandered to baseball when he tried to work from home, his television teasing him beguilingly, begging him to see what games were on that evening. The season was, after all, winding down for yet another year.

This was being more stressful a summer’s end than any he could remember however. Every time his mind wandered, Benjamin found himself drawn back painfully to his work, engulfed in that bottomless nervousness that hits suddenly upon an agonizing realization. Every time it would happen, he would admonish himself, understanding that for the first time in a number of years, he had significant deadlines to compete against.

But for right now, he no longer had the energy to continue working on Casey’s research. His eyes blurred for a moment, and the words on his computer screen became a dark cloud surrounded by the bright white margins. Casey’s blue eyes and pearly smile came into his mind, and he shut his eyes for a moment, recalling a memory of her. She was walking away from him after he had made a clever joke, and she flashed a beautiful smile that lit up her eyes and her soft freckles, her blond hair waving its way prettily around her head to conceal her face as she turned. The entire scene happened in slow motion in his mind, and he repeated it a few times before coming back to reality and shutting down his computer. He looked around his office, debating about whether or not to take some reading material home.

Finally he decided just to take his laptop. His only edited copy of Casey’s dissertation was on it, so he took good care of it. He had been meaning to save a backup copy on a thumb drive for a while now, but never seemed to get around to doing it. He committed himself to finally doing it tonight. The research could wait for tomorrow, when he would come into his office and see it on his desk in the morning, making it hard for him to find a place for his coffee. It had been there every morning for months, and he would see it bright and early again tomorrow. He didn’t need to see it again this evening.

He proceeded down the stairs of the psychology department building, as he did every day. He insisted on taking the stairs because of his younger brother Drake, who had always been an addict to good health and in turn demanded an admittedly somewhat lesser, but still certainly tangible, commitment from his older brothers to the same end. But Drake was still in his thirties, as thirty-nine still counted, and his significantly older brothers took his goading with increasing inertia, preferring to use inane arguments and justifications for drawing back their own level of physical challenges. Still, Benjamin was an intelligent man, and understood the importance of his physical health, and so did the little things like walking everywhere on campus and taking the stairs to help out.

He arrived at his car, a luminous white Mercedes, one of his true loves, and put his laptop in the passenger seat before walking around to the driver’s side to get in. He buckled himself in and turned the car on. It hummed to life in its sultry way, and Benjamin sank into the leather bucket seat for a minute before leaving the parking lot.

Once he got outside the campus, he eased down on the gas and let the car take him smoothly to fifty on the four lane road running to the highway, passing people effortlessly and letting the stereo steal him into peace as he listened to Vivaldi’s Summer Overture. He snaked his way into a stretch of empty road, the closest cars behind him about twenty lengths, and maybe a tenth of a mile in front of him without a car. For a moment, the road was his, and he relished it. He looked down at the clock and adjusted the volume of the radio, taking a moment to admire the interior of the car.

His eyes were downward for maybe three seconds or so. When he looked back up, the smoke from the blown tire on the other side of the road drew his eye immediately. As the little cloud of ash and debris rose in the innermost passing lane of the oncoming traffic, it took Benjamin a second to even register what had happened. As the vehicle with the blown tire, a large SUV, started to fishtail, however, the danger of the situation began to dawn on him. He sucked in his breath and could not look away as the vehicle drilled the lip of the median between the eastbound and westbound traffic. The SUV’s front tire gripped the edge of the median tightly, but the rest of the car had nothing to hold onto, and the vehicle began a corkscrew twist through the air across the median and into oncoming traffic.

Something in Benjamin made him aware of the pending outcome of the situation instantly, an insight that any person should be so lucky as to have. Everything happened in slow motion. He exhaled slowly and watched the car spiral toward him. His final thought before the collision was of his mother and father, a picture of them that he had on his desk, smiling at his wedding, the best picture he had ever seen. He shut his eyes and told them, “I love you, and I’m sorry.”

Chapter 2:

Drake Baker opened his eyes and looked around him. He stared at the ceiling of his bedroom, lifted twenty feet over the floor, and put together in eight large triangles, all converging on the same point, making an octagonal dome. His eyes followed the lines of one triangle to the far side of the room, where a large picture of his wife and him hung, a photo originally taken for a Reader’s Digest article. He sat up in bed and admired the image momentarily, noting how beautiful his wife looked. He turned to look at her in bed next to him, sleeping comfortably. She had aged somewhat since that likeness was made eternal. But lying there, breathing softly and slowly, the sun coming in on her back and casting her in a delicate glow, she was exquisite.

He turned himself on the bed and let his feet hang over the edge, watching them dangle for a moment, hovering over his sandals. He stepped down and slid his feet into the sandals. Reaching back and pulling his arms up, he yawned and stretched, letting out a big, happy sigh as he relaxed again. He rubbed his eyes and walked around the bed to the glass doors that were allowing the sun to reach Keri’s back. He opened them up and felt the warm breeze brush past his arms and chest. He walked out on the deck and past the Jacuzzi, letting his fingers cut smoothly through the surface of the water as he passed. He walked to the rail and looked out over the edge. Lifted three stories over the ground and poised at the top of a hill, the view of the Pacific Ocean was nothing short of spectacular. Placed on southern Oahu, just south of Honolulu, he could see the light blue water blend to dark blue as it deepened, and the tributaries feeding into the bay in Honolulu, and, at just the right angle, he could see the high rises of the capital city’s downtown in the distance.

Drake took a deep breath, taking in the warm, salty air. For a solitary moment, a wave of euphoria took him over, as it seemed as though everything in his life was going absolutely perfectly. After the ecstasy wore off, he leaned on the rail and stared at the ocean, his expression turning from bliss to concern. He believed in the scales of life, that everything in one’s life balanced. So any time he felt that feeling of perfection, he was ready for something bad to happen.

With every down, it seemed like, there was always an up coming, just as with every up, there was always a down over the horizon. His life to this point had been somewhat of a dream, when he looked at it from an outsider’s perspective. He was as intelligent as they came, with a unique ability to paint elaborate pictures with his words. After college, he had delved into becoming an agent for athletes almost on a dare from a best friend.

He remembered the conversation he and Luke had that night, over a few beers and a baseball game, three nights before graduation. They talked about what goes through everyone’s mind at least once in life, but few have the eloquence or the boldness to bring it into the open: that what they were bound to do just really wasn’t what they really wanted to do. They would have enjoyed their occupations, surely, but not the way they should have. Not the way anyone should. They were following the path they thought they should take, the right balance of money and fun and ease. But what that led them to was computers.

That fateful night, Drake and Luke posed a question to one another, one they had been asked in high school and laughed off as bullshit at the time. If they had enough money to be comfortable for the rest of their lives, what would they do? The answer, according to their high school counselor, was their “right” job. At the time, they both said the obvious: professional athlete. Drake suspected that more than ninety percent of guys would say either that or actor or rockstar. So of course the counselor got really quiet, not quite sure how to tell them that perhaps they had broken the question’s magic, and maybe they didn’t quite get what the point was. But as of that reaction, both seventeen-year-old boys had decided that the question’s credibility was shot. If there were certain “good” answers and certain “bad” ones, what was the point?

But at the end of their undergraduate years, four years more mature and somewhat less resistant to facing the dilemma of the working man, their answers were significantly different. Drake said sports agent. Luke said photographer. Drake said Luke was an idiot, that he could never make a living as a photographer. Luke said Drake was buying into a technology driven society and that it wasn’t about money. Drake said Luke was taking the easy way out, that anyone could just choose to be a starving artist. Luke said Drake was just being a pansy, and rationalizing his lack of pursuit of his dream because it was “too hard”. Drake said he could last longer as a sports agent than Luke could as a photographer. Luke said it sounded like a challenge. Drake confirmed the metaphorical glove across the face. They faced back-to-back, weapons loaded, took ten paces away from one another, and the world lost two software developers.

Luke was the one that took the picture of Drake and Keri that hung on Drake’s bedroom wall. Drake had to hand it to Luke: he was a damn good photographer. As it stood, neither one won or lost the bet, but it ended up being the best thing that ever happened to either of them from a career perspective. Luke now traveled all over the world, taking photographs that would make a blind person well up with emotion. Drake became Drew Rosenhaus, minus being a giant asshole. He didn’t make as much money at first because he wasn’t as cutthroat, which meant athletes were wary to sign him, but his reputation for not lying and not going back on his word soon earned him the trust of a number of team owners, who, at last check, were the ones with the enormous pocketbooks, not the athletes. The athletes came running when the owners opened their coffers to him. Clearly, it was good business to be an owner’s friend, not a player’s.

After fifteen years in the business, Drake had cut back his clientele drastically and bought a few houses, his favorite of which was this one in Hawaii. He and Keri stayed there most of the year, but they also had places in London, Egypt, and New York that they enjoyed staying at during certain times of the year. Now he spent much more of his time relaxing, representing only one sport, basketball, and keeping only a few of his closest clients, ones who were willing to let him take his time off now and then.

As he stood there, leaning against the railing, looking at his life from outside his own body, it seemed pretty much the picture of ease and perfection. But as with the most beautiful face on this earth, the woman wearing it is aware of every blemish, discoloration, and scar, no matter how minute. Among the many human frailties is that perfection is a dream only imaginable outside the self. This is an easy thing to see. What is more difficult to absorb is that this frailty is not so called because perfection lies within the self, despite what a therapist is wont to tell you. On the contrary, it is named such because perfection is not more than a dream, within or without the self. Its pursuit is the limit of its envisioning; imagine it is attained and it will wither and die upon closer inspection, never to be reborn again, so ephemeral and delicate is its existence.

Drake shook his head. He was confusing himself. He sounded like his older brother Benjamin, whom he had not seen in a long time. He found it odd that he was thinking like his brother, since they had not even spoken in four months. When he was younger, Benjamin’s knack for deep metaphors and complex human psychology awed Drake, and he would copy his older brother as much as he could, trying to confound his friends with words and concepts that were far beyond the reach of children his age. But over time, Benjamin’s tendency to speak in riddles and unfathomable metaphors increasingly irritated his younger sibling, and over the last five years they had become progressively more distant.

Things finally had come to a head four months prior, when Benjamin came to visit Drake in London. Benjamin was somewhat eccentric, typical of a professor of his caliber in many ways, and his social life and preferences were equally eccentric. He had a penchant for strip clubs and topless bars, which had ruined his first marriage, and was trying his second. This choice of entertainment in and of itself was not particularly eccentric, but his unwillingness to learn from the bitter feelings and pain of a divorce, especially for a man of his intelligence, was peculiar.

Keri and Benjamin had never gotten along because of this; she very much liked his ex-wife, and had never really forgiven Drake’s older brother for forcing her out of the family. She was also wary of Benjamin, afraid that his fraternal influence would guide Drake down the same path to debauchery. Consequently of course, Benjamin was not a fan of Keri, who was outspoken about her feelings, and he seemed to enjoy finding ways of getting under her skin.

That too had always been one of Benjamin’s quirks: he was so fascinated by psychology and sociology and the human brain that he would often conduct experiments on random people in day to day life, for his own narcissistic amusement. He lived his life under the assumption that his aptitude had granted him comprehension beyond that of normal people, so that he could toy with them at will and they would not even be aware that it was happening. But people are not stupid, and while most may never have grasped Benjamin’s ultimate intents, they usually knew that he was playing with them, and since they didn’t understand his purpose, the typical reaction to his little games was anger. Drake was not a scientist or a professor, but he was smart, and he had realized early on from watching Benjamin’s cat and mouse complex that performing experiments should be kept in the lab, not brought into real life.

While Benjamin was in London with Drake and Keri, he decided to go out on the town, losing the cell phone that Drake had provided him in case of emergency, and ending up in jail. When Drake received the 3 a.m. call from the police, he diligently got up, despite his wife’s pleading to leave Benjamin in jail, and paid the bail to set him free. When they returned home, Keri was livid. She told Benjamin that she was done with his antics, and if he was ever going to be their guest again, he would have to stay with Drake at all times. This of course opened the door for Benjamin to play a game with Keri, and his arrogance and lack of a sense of bad timing prevented him from leaving it alone. He replied that such a fate was not a terrible thing; he would just take Drake along to the nude bars next time, so that he could be alongside his brother while they together enjoyed the finer things in life. Keri exploded. She stormed from the room, leaving Drake and Benjamin in an uncomfortable silence. After giving his older brother a look intended to melt his soul, Drake pursued his wife to try to calm her.

Her ultimatum in their ensuing conversation was pretty blunt. Either Benjamin went, or she did. Forced to choose between his brother and his wife, Drake did what any husband would do if he was trapped in a room with a furious spouse: he agreed with his wife. But once his fairly forced decision had been made, he had to stick with it or look like a vacillating, untrustworthy husband. So he kicked Benjamin out of the house and told him that they would not talk again until he got his life under control. Benjamin had booked a hotel room in London for at least one night, and then Drake was unable to keep tabs on him from that time on.

Keri was perfectly happy with that, and would be thrilled if Drake never spoke with his brother again. But brothers have a bond that one could argue runs deeper than love, and therefore takes precedence over any marriage, no matter how strong. Over the past four months, Drake was feeling the strength of that bond nag at him, even after all the wrong that Benjamin had done to him and his wife. And what was eternally frustrating was that it was really difficult for Drake to tell whether or not Benjamin felt that same tug in return. And yet still, as hard as it was for him to find redeeming features in Benjamin, and despite there being no guarantee that Benjamin even cared at all, Drake missed his brother.

He gazed out over the ocean from his deck, and wondered if his brother’s thoughts ever strayed to him as his did to Benjamin. He wondered how his older brother was doing. He wondered if Benjamin was meeting his deadlines. He thought about calling Zach, not to talk to his kinder, more generous brother, but to find out if he knew anything more about Benjamin than Drake did. Drake loved Zach terribly, but he was never concerned about his eldest brother; he could take care of himself, and consistently did. The truth was, Drake was concerned about Benjamin. The middle brother of the three was hard enough to reign in under the influence of the two other musketeers. With only Zach’s squeaky-clean personality to try to control Benjamin, Drake was apprehensive about the level of success that would be attained. Drake understood his brother, and consequently Benjamin listened more readily to him than to Zach. Well, there was that and the tension, verging on violence, that the two of them had had when… footsteps on the deck behind him shook Drake from his thoughts. He knew from the softness and grace of the steps that it was Keri, and he let her approach him without turning.

His wife wrapped her arms around him from behind, stroking his chest with one hand and his arm with the other. Drake shut his eyes, absorbing the moment and sinking into it, temporarily distracted from his distressed thoughts. He felt Keri’s face melt into the muscle in his back, and he lifted the arm she was not caressing to put his hand on hers, pressing it down on his heart. He felt her smile against him, and he breathed in and out deeply so she could feel his heart beat rhythmically. She sighed against him in response, perhaps trying to make him feel her own heart against his back. He could not, but he would not tell her that if she asked. He looked up at the sky for a moment, pretending he was looking at God, but not really knowing what to say or ask or think even if he was. Then he gently pushed Keri back just enough to create separation for him to turn around in her embrace. He leaned against the railing, letting it support he and his wife’s weight as she leaned against him, resting her head on his chest. “Mmm, good morning, baby,” she breathed onto his skin.

“Good morning honey,” he replied. He looked down at her slightly, running his hand through her mouse-colored, straight hair, pulling strands lightly with his fingers and admiring it as it shone in the morning sun. He sighed and pressed her face gently into his chest. She complied for a moment, and then broke his grasp and looked up at him, her chin against the center of his ribcage.

“What’s wrong baby? I thought you were going to sleep in today.” He grimaced slightly, staring straight ahead into their bedroom, not looking at her.

“I thought about it,” he said, knowing how absurd it sounded as he was saying it. How in the hell could someone think about sleeping late while they were sleeping? He realized he had paused and could feel Keri still looking up at him expectantly, so he continued, shaking his head slightly to himself. “The sun woke me up.” Another poor excuse.

“Honey, you know I don’t believe that. We live in Hawaii. The sun comes into our bedroom every morning of the year. What’s bothering you? You can tell me.” Those were famous last words, most often, he found, exchanged from wife to husband. Drake struggled to find something to tell her other than the truth, which would of course upset her. It irritated him that she was so willing to invite pain upon herself. She knew that the only reason he wouldn’t tell her was because she wouldn’t like the answer. Why did women always assume that it would be a man’s lies that hurt her the most? Why couldn’t they simply accept that sometimes men lied to try to keep them from harm, not bring it upon them?

The phone started to ring inside the bedroom, startling both of them. Drake eagerly took the opportunity to leave the conversation where it was, and gently put Keri against the railing before striding into the bedroom to answer the phone. Keri watched her husband move into the bedroom, lean over the bed, and pick up the phone. She watched his head bob up and down slightly from behind as he gave his salutation. She liked watching him when he didn’t know she was watching him. His natural way of going about his life was beautiful. She furrowed her brow after a moment. He was doing a lot of listening. If someone was selling him something, he would have cut them off immediately. If someone was telling him a story, he usually paced around the room he was in; it helped him concentrate on their words. Something was wrong.

She began to walk slowly across the deck toward the bedroom, and her pace quickened as Drake started to waver on his feet. Keri cried out and broke into a run as she watched her husband collapse forward against the bed. “Oh my God! Baby? Baby? What’s happening? What’s wrong?” She reached him, her heart in her throat, to find him leaning against the bed. Her heart started to beat again when she saw that he was conscious. He was against the bed, his body heaving in deep, hyperventilating breaths. She clutched his head to her breasts, rocking back and forth. “What’s happening? What’s happening?” Finally safe against his wife, Drake’s emotion finally released, and he began to sob uncontrollably. Still not understanding, she tried her best to comfort him. “It’s okay. Shh. It’s okay.” For a few moments, they stayed there like that because Drake could not speak. Finally he was able to gasp words out between breaths. “It’s not okay, Keri. Benjamin is dead.”

Chapter 3:

“That’s okay, I can get it,” Keri said to the flight attendant, trying to be the good flier and cause as little hassle as possible, despite the fact that she was holding up the line of people in the aisle while she tried to force her carry-on into the overhead bin. Drake sat in the window seat, his mind in other places. He shook his head and returned to the world around him as his wife was finishing her struggle. He put his arm out, pretending to offer his help, even though it was obvious that he had already missed his opportunity to aid her. He lowered it, and stared at her as she sat quickly to get out of the way of the others before they got any more irritated. She did her seatbelt, sitting in the aisle seat, the same setup that they always had when they flew commercially.

Keri hated to fly on private aircraft; she felt that it was a phenomenal waste of money and that such a display of arrogance would weigh one down with bad luck. So whenever she flew with Drake, they flew commercially, always reserving the entire row of seats. She preferred the aisle, he the window, and they left any seats in between empty, often serving as a good place for laptops, DVD players, and other miscellaneous pieces of entertainment brought along to attempt to enjoy the flight.

It was unlikely that either one would find this flight enjoyable. People find out a lot about themselves when someone very close to them dies. How an individual handles true adversity, how one’s body responds to traumatic emotional pain, how much time must pass before recovery can begin, all of these things can be gleaned from a brother’s untimely death. Drake was learning a lot about himself, although he didn’t know it, or much care to analyze himself in his current state.

Keri looked across the seats at him. He was still staring at her, his gaze locked, looking at her but not really looking at anything. The glazed look in his eyes scared her. “Drake, honey?” she tried. After a moment more of nothingness, Drake’s brain finally started up again, and his eyes refocused. He realized that he was staring at her, and he tried a brief, tight-lipped half smile in a feeble attempt to comfort the concern written on the lines in her face, and then turned to look out the window, embarrassed. Keri blinked, lines of worry still on her face, and then finally turned back to stare at the seatback in front of her. Usually she enjoyed people-watching, and would pass the pre-flight minutes by watching each person file onto the plane, everyone with a different life, a different agenda, a different path to take, and yet all of them converging in one place at one time. There was something oddly magical about the unique claustrophobia of a full plane flight. But today, there was little magic in it.

She glanced over at Drake, hopeful that maybe he would be looking at her again and she could break the tension between them. He was still staring out the window. In the Hawaiian sun coming in through the little pane, his face glowed, displaying each tiny wrinkle or change in the surface of his skin. As she watched, it also displayed a tear that started slowly, glowing defiantly, across the tiny flat surface of his eye socket, and then, upon overcoming its obstacle, slid smoothly down his cheek and to his jawbone before disappearing down below his chin. Tears began to well up in Keri’s eyes as she watched her husband’s pain, and she turned and put her head in her hands to try to wipe her eyes inconspicuously. Suddenly self-conscious, she automatically looked up at the people walking by the aisle, hoping that they were too absorbed in their own endeavors to notice what was happening in row six.

But of course this was not the case. It seemed like every person that walked by was looking at either Keri or her suddenly vulnerable husband, their eyes drawn to them by the lethal combination of beauty and anguish. Keri was used to being looked at; she was used to her husband being looked at as well. Both of them were blessed with a natural beauty that cannot be recreated by Hollywood or cosmetics or surgery. Natural beauty has a purity that is so untainted that it is untouchable by any artificial form, no matter how much a jealous and forever discontent America strives to duplicate it. That beauty draws eyes like no other, and thus Keri was accustomed to attention, and to her husband receiving the same. But watching suffering is a curious addiction of the human mind, perhaps one that even surpasses watching beauty, and when the two are combined, rarely can a human walk by without taking notice. Keri struggled to compose herself, embarrassed by the people slowing as they walked by, each one of them secretly wanting to be courageous enough to offer consolation to the beautiful couple, but none of them spontaneous or bold enough to actually do so. So instead they would whisper to one another as they passed, which only made things worse for Keri. She stared at the seat in front of her again, suddenly wishing that she had not chosen to look hopefully at Drake at all.

Drake was in another world, although perhaps a personal hell would be a better description. Still, however it was defined, he was not without thought, despite his distant appearance. It seemed like, in his grief, every emotion he had was amplified a hundred times. Sadness, anger, frustration, pain, hopelessness, confusion, all of them magnified in the turmoil that was his brain. He found himself suddenly not interested in how wonderful his own life was. He was doing what all humans naturally do when something bad happens: he was second-guessing his every action leading up to the incident. The fact that the accident was just that, a freak occurrence of nature that no one, not even his brother, could have ever done anything about, seemed to go completely unnoticed in Drake’s mind.

Keri, sitting next to him, was acutely aware of this. She had experienced the lethal nature of Drake’s pain almost as soon as they found out Benjamin was dead. While Drake arranged with his older brother for funeral plans, and with the airline for flights, he had spoken not more than about five words to his wife. Once he was off the phone in the late morning, he had shut himself in his office, refusing to talk to Keri until he emerged at dinnertime. Keri had respected his privacy, and was overjoyed to see him finally appear, a happiness that lasted all of about ten minutes. When she tried to engage him in conversation, he had exploded at her.

His brutal words and accusations ran through her mind as she sat waiting for the plane to take off. He had blamed Benjamin’s deteriorating mental state on her and her lack of patience with his brother, telling her that she stole Benjamin from him, and all but telling her that his death was on her conscience. He had refused to sleep with her that night, and locked himself inside the bedroom, forcing her to spend the first night of her life kicked out of the bedroom, rather than the other way around. She had kicked boyfriends, and even Drake a few times, out of her bedroom in a fit of anger and forced them to sleep elsewhere, but this was the first time she had ever felt the loneliness and despondence that she had caused them. She had fallen into a fitful sleep sobbing on the bed in one of the guest bedrooms. Early the next morning, they had left for the airport. Keri had expected Drake to have slept off his anger, and kept waiting for him to apologize on the trip to the airport. No apology had come. Drake said nothing to her until they were stepping out of the car, and then the only thing he had said was a reminder to get her carry-on bag from the trunk of the car.

The flight attendants were giving their safety briefing. Keri was staring at them dutifully, but not watching or absorbing. She kept thinking about Drake. She wondered if he would ever speak to her again. She wondered if the next thing he would say to her would be to tell her they were getting divorced. She wondered if he still loved her. She wondered if he would ever realize that this wasn’t her fault.

“Right?” she asked herself. “There is no way that I really am responsible for this. Right? Just because I told Drake he couldn’t talk to his brother didn’t mean that anyone could have stopped or changed what happened. It’s not like Benjamin killed himself, right? I mean, Benjamin did all of this to himself. It was his fault that they weren’t talking. And Drake hadn’t even mentioned him hardly at all. He probably didn’t even think of Benjamin while they weren’t talking. Right? He’ll get over this. He’s got to. He loves me. He’ll see through it; he’s just in pain, so he’s angry at everything right now. Right?” She shut her eyes and leaned back against her seat as she felt the plane start to move toward the runway, trying to force herself to relax. She cringed as memories of Drake’s angry voice from the night before cut through her smoke screen of relaxation. The doubts about their future together were not going to go away.

Chapter 4:

Zach Baker stared at his brother. His brother stared back at him, making the silence uncomfortable. There was little to say, and yet there were a million words that he wished they could share. Some in retrospect, and some forward-looking. None of them would be shared now. Benjamin’s dead, glassy eyes gazed, empty, at his brother with a permanence only found in eternity. Zach suddenly felt sick as he looked at his brother’s face, realizing spontaneously what he was really staring at.

The coffin at the wake had been specially cut so that only the top portion of it would open, enough to reveal only Benjamin’s head, neck, and a small portion of his shoulders. The rest of his body had been maimed beyond repair, even by the best of embalmers. Pieces of him could not even be found; they had disintegrated to nothing in the terrible blast that had occurred when the two vehicles collided with enough force do drive the SUV’s hot engine compartment right through the white Mercedes and into its gas tank. Somehow, the frightened expression on Benjamin’s face was allowed to remain, his head narrowly missing metal part after metal part and enough of the fireball to be recognizable after significant embalming repair. He wore the same expression at the wake; the embalmer claimed that trying to reform the countenance would render the skin broken beyond repair. And so Benjamin’s last moment was encapsulated here, for his brothers, his family, and what few friends he could maintain, to see.

That expression was exactly the reason that Zach was still standing there, staring at his brother, after almost everyone else had left. The mortician had even come over about half an hour previously to ask if he and Drake would be at the home much longer; it was time to close for the night. A firm hand on Zach’s shoulder broke his lock on Benjamin’s face. He turned to look at Drake. It suddenly occurred to him that this represented the last time that the three of them would ever be together. It seems so easy each day to justify delaying a call or a trip to see someone you care about. There’s always tomorrow. Well, until something like this happens, and then you realize that there comes a time when not only is there not always tomorrow, there is never tomorrow. Zach shook his head, dropping his eyelids to try to keep back tears.

“This is it, isn’t it?” Drake’s voice seemed loud as it penetrated a silence that had settled on the room since the mortician left thirty minutes prior. “We’re never going to be together again. The three of us, I mean.” Drake’s voice cracked when he said the last sentence, and he fell silent again for a minute, composing himself.

“Yes.” That was all Zach could muster.

“Things are never going to be the same?” The youngest brother by twelve years was searching for his elder’s confident help, as if they were six and eighteen instead of thirty-nine and fifty-one. But the fifty-one year old felt again like he was eighteen, unsure of the road ahead and unable to be totally confident.

“Yes,” he attempted. He looked at Drake, but it was unclear if he had accepted the effort. So he continued trying. “I suppose they won’t. I don’t know exactly how they’ll change, and I’m not sure anyone does. Hopefully things will improve over time; Benjamin would have wanted that.”

“They’re not going to get better with time. You know that Zach.” Drake’s hard stare glanced toward Benjamin, and then returned, a motion so tiny that only a brother could detect it. Zach held his face in his hands for a moment before sighing and rubbing his face and eyes.

“I know. I feel really bad admitting this, especially now, but…” Drake interrupted, reading his brother’s mind and finishing his sentence for him.

“You’re scared. It’s alright Zach, I am too. I don’t know what to do. I wish we could predict this and prevent it.” Drake turned to Benjamin, speaking to his lifeless body. “God damnit Benjamin, what did you begin?”

“Drake, watch your language,” Zach chastised half-heartedly. He understood his brother’s anger and distress. For their dead brother, time stood still. But for Drake and Zach, time was of the essence, and the urgency was so unknown that it made their stomachs turn. Zach turned to follow Drake’s gaze. Benjamin stared up at both of them, unblinking.

“What are you trying to tell us, Benjamin? What is about to happen?” Benjamin did not answer his older brother’s hopeful question. Drake’s expression turned pained.

“I feel like I’m staring at the Mona Lisa, trying to figure out what she’s trying to say. It shouldn’t be like this, Zach. This is our brother. We should be grieving for him right now. How could he do this to us? Why couldn’t he just leave this world in peace?” Zach looked from brother to brother.

“He didn’t expect to be leaving now, Drake. He expected to have more time. Not that that would have necessarily solved things.”

“How soon do you think things will start to fall apart?” Drake looked hopefully at his older brother again. This time the look was more desperate. But Zach was not going to lie to his brother for the sake of pacifying him.

“I don’t think we’ll even get to the funeral before we start to feel Benjamin’s pain. I’m just terrified to know how many people are going to be sorry.” Drake crossed his arms, his unmoving brother’s gaze enveloping him and locking his eyes. He thought about Keri. Sudden sadness overwhelmed him. He could barely keep himself together as he spoke again.

“You’re right. It’s already started.” Drake had not discussed Keri with Zach, save to tell him that she would not be attending the wake. Zach likely assumed that this was because of Keri’s strained relationship with Benjamin. Only Keri and Drake knew how much deeper it was than that.

Benjamin’s expression, the source of all the anxiety, remained unchanged. Whether or not he had intended to send his brothers a warning was now permanently moot. The fact remained that the only undying part of his body was telling Drake and Zach something loudly, more loudly than even the most emphatic scream. For written on Benjamin’s expression when he died was terror. And to most, the assumption was that he wore that visage because he was staring at his own impending death. But his brothers, sharing the eternal bond that brothers did, knew better. Benjamin was never scared of death; his psychological stance alone was evidence of that. The countenance of terror he wore was not fear of his being wrenched from this world, it was fear of what he was leaving behind. And although only he knew exactly what had written such a permanent horror on his face, his brothers knew enough to know that he was not easily scared. Whatever it was, it was going to be big, and it was going to hurt.

Chapter 5:

Keri stared at Benjamin’s attorney. She could not think of words. She wanted to look at her husband, who was sitting next to her, but her brain would not function enough to allow her to break her stare. She just simply was having trouble processing what she had just heard. The attorney looked distressed, squirming awkwardly in his chair. Apparently she was not the only person giving him a stunned, blank stare. Finally, he composed himself, and repeated the line that had left everyone so shocked.

“And, finally, I leave all my other assets to my lover, Casey Jones. I love you Casey, and continue our work.” He looked around at everyone across the desk from him, hoping, although clearly unconvinced, that the second reading would sink in and reanimate his audience. It did, although if he had to do it all over again, he would have wished that it didn’t.

Keri was finally broken from her gaze when she heard Benjamin’s wife, Tera, let out a choked sob. The two of them had shared a pretty intense conversation just before the reading of the will. Tera was much more Benjamin’s type than his first wife had been; Keri had always considered her to be somewhat of a gold-digger. Earlier that morning, Keri’s suspicion had been confirmed in a tearful and apprehensive confession. Apparently, Tera had been laid off from her prior job in a greater downsizing effort almost a year before, and she had found it difficult to find work from that point. She was relying heavily on Benjamin at the time of his death. She had been secretly hoping since Benjamin’s death that she would receive enough from him to keep herself afloat. Instead, she received nothing but Benjamin’s precious Mercedes, which had been utterly annihilated in the accident, and on which Benjamin did not have proper insurance, a fact he never admitted to her.

Keri became more and more angry with her husband’s dead brother the more she contemplated it. Much as Keri was not thrilled about Tera as a person, she still felt bad at how Benjamin had left her with nothing. And the woman Keri really cared about, Benjamin’s first wife Francisca, had not even been invited to the reading, as she was receiving nothing. Keri looked at Drake. At first, she thought he was staring off into the distance, but as she looked more closely at him, she realized his gaze was too angry for him to be staring at nothing. She followed his fuming stare to a pretty girl across the room, who had a look on her face like she would give anything to not be there. That must have been Casey Jones. She could not have been more than half Benjamin’s age. Keri spent the next few moments trying to determine whether she wanted to think Benjamin was an asshole for being with her, or Casey was a slut. Benjamin was much easier to hate, so she decided to give Casey the benefit of the doubt. It was clear, however, that Drake did not agree. She had never seen so much anger in his face before.

The attorney, sensing that his audience was verging on exploding, decided to truncate the proceedings. He kept Drake, Zach, Casey, and Tera for signatures and further description of asset monetary amounts. Everyone else was asked to leave. Keri waited outside the office for Drake to come out. Everyone else who was in the room was too stunned to stick around, and left slowly, wandering to their cars or into the lobby or to the bathroom.

Tera was the first to leave. She had held it together until she exited, but as soon as the door closed she collapsed in tears. Keri was the only one around, so she did her best to comfort her, every few seconds glancing at the door to see who would be next. After about ten minutes, Tera had found her way to the bathroom to compose herself, and still there was no sign of anyone else. Keri looked both ways down the hallway. She was alone. She debated about whether or not to put her ear to the door to try to eavesdrop. She was still deciding when the door creaked open again, startling her. She tried to compose herself quickly as Zach’s handsome face appeared. He caught her stare, and spoke up, his voice hushed.

“Hey Keri, sweetie, I’m glad you’re still here. I think you should go ahead back to the hotel, okay? I will drive Drake back when we’re done here. I’m all done, but I don’t want to leave him alone with her in there. He and I need to have a talk and a drive to calm him down I think. Is it alright if you take your car back and I’ll take him?” Keri swallowed hard. She could not remember feeling so many emotions at once. Pain and sadness that Drake would not look to her for help like he always used to. Anger at Benjamin for causing this. Anxiety about what would happen when she left. Embarrassment that Zach was allowed to see the turmoil she was experiencing.

She quickly tried to shrug all of it off, and brokenly acquiesced to Zach’s request. She walked slowly down the hallway, thinking about whether or not she was doing the right thing, and it wasn’t until she had arrived at the door to the lobby that she finally heard the door to the attorney’s office creak closed again. Keri stopped in front of the lobby door, looking through the glass at various people on the other side, some of them members of the Baker family, some married into it, and a few were waiting on other lawyers of the firm or on Benjamin’s lawyer’s next appointment. She pursed her lips, and committed herself to following Zach’s orders. She opened the door to the lobby, and proceeded through it without making eye contact with any of the others in the room, though she could feel all of their eyes on her as she passed through.

Once out of the building, she got into the rental car in a daze. She could not even recall the drive back to the hotel. She was concerned for Drake and her marriage and her future and so many other things all at once. She blinked at the hotel room around her, trying to regain her focus. It did not work. She decided that she needed to lie down, and perhaps take a nap. It had been a long morning. It had been a long week. She set herself down on the bed and shut her eyes. As she lay there, all that she had been through in the last week finally broke her mind’s ardent hold on her body. She embraced the darkness as it closed around her, encompassing her in a protective orb of nothing, eternity wrapping itself around her being. For the first time since before Benjamin’s death, Keri slept.

Chapter 6:

Drake walked into the hotel room without saying a word. Keri stared at him, trying to read his face, but it was either without expression or suppressed to the point that it was completely stoic. The hotel room was a grand suite, something the pair of them could easily afford, and gave them most of the amenities of home while they were here. There was a loft and a full kitchen, living and dining rooms, and two bedrooms. The one part of his emotion that Drake did give away was his exhaustion. He looked like he was ready to collapse. It was to be expected; he had been through a lot today alone, notwithstanding everything else of the past week. Keri hoped that he would simply fall asleep next to her so that she could finally care for her husband again. She was searching for any way possible to try to win him back.

But instead of coming up the stairs to the loft bedroom, she watched through the railing as he made his way into the kitchen. There was some clattering for a moment, as though he was trying to lift something heavy from a high cupboard. Keri decided to let him know that she was awake. “Baby, are you okay? Do you need some help?” There was no answer. She waited a few more seconds. “Hon? What are you doing?”

Drake reappeared at the kitchen entrance before she had to try again. Keri’s heart went into her throat. In his hand was a large carving knife, about eight inches of shining steel blade. She looked at Drake. His face had twisted into one of rage, the same one she had seen in the lawyer’s office. Her mouth fell open. She moved it open and closed, hoping that words would be produced, but nothing came out. Drake looked down at the knife, studying it. Keri found her voice. She spoke in a panicked whisper. “Drake, why do you have that knife? What is going on?” Drake looked up at her, his expression terrifying. For a moment she glanced desperately around for a window or some other means of escape, her breath coming in short bursts as her brain went through all of the horrible things that a knife of that size could do. Drake just stared at her for another moment, and then turned toward the door to the hotel room.

Keri’s natural survival instinct told her to relax because the threat was no longer to her, but within a split second she knew what was happening, as unbelievable as it seemed. She could not let Drake go out that door. “Drake, stop! Please, Drake! Don’t do this! You’re scaring me!” Drake’s hand hesitated at the door handle while Keri jumped out of the bed and rushed down the stairs. “Drake, I love you, don’t do this. Don’t do this.” Tears were freely flowing down her cheeks as she neared him. Still fighting the demons inside him, Drake’s fingers were on the door handle but unable to pull it down. Keri tugged at his arm, pleading desperately with him. “Drake, please stop… please stop.” She started to throw out every persuasion she could, hoping frantically that one of them would hit home. “This isn’t her fault. Benjamin wanted it this way. Your brother, Drake. This is what he wanted. You don’t need to do this. She’s not worth it, Drake. She’s not worth it.” Drake’s muscular arm was tensed inside her grasp. She knew as she held it that despite her periodic playful talk over the dinner table with him about how she could take him in a fight, she would not even be able to faze him should he decide to leave.

He pondered her arguments for a moment while she continued to release them at a mile a minute. Finally he decided that his original decision was final. He pulled down the door handle and pulled himself from her grasp to leave. She lunged at him again to grab his arm and try to stop him, futile as it was. Aggravated, Drake waved his arm hard to shrug her off and said in a low, irritated voice, “Leave me alone, Keri.”

The motion seemed minor. The blade was very sharp. Keri felt almost nothing; no pain, just a little pressure under her ribcage. Drake did not even seem to notice. He shoved his way out the door and disappeared down the hallway. Keri stood there for a moment, wavering. She breathed in, and her breath caught. She coughed quickly into her hand, trying to clear the catch. Her next breath caught again. She looked at her hand. Speckles of blood were flecked on her palm and down her wrist. The illusion that everything was okay was shattered. Pain set in. She fell to her knees and winced as she put her hand to her abdomen. The wound was only as wide as the knife, and felt razor thin, but she could feel blood pouring out over her hand, warm and slightly sticky in between her fingers. Breathing was rapidly becoming more difficult. She looked around for a phone. The nearest one was in the kitchen. Clutching her stomach, she tried to get up. The pain was increasing staggeringly swiftly. She could not stand. Every movement was now wracked with agony. Her breathing labored, she crawled slowly on one hand and her knees toward the kitchen, her other hand pressed to the gash.

Stars started appearing in her vision as the arrived at the kitchen entrance, where the phone was hanging against the wall. She struggled against the wall to stand, finally getting herself to a doubled-over standing position. She could barely breathe now. She grabbed the portable phone off of its receiver as she collapsed to the floor again. She got her hand in position to dial 911 when she heard the door open again. She looked as Drake came rushing in. Her eyes were fading; the colors of his face and the room around him were not right. He approached her quickly and knelt down next to her. She assumed he must have seen the blood on the knife and realized what happened. She nudged the phone toward him so that he could call for help. He did not take it. She looked at him, her eyes pleading. He moved his face close to her ear to whisper to her. “I’m sorry Keri. Now I have to finish what I’ve started.” He raised the blade above her head and prepared to send it plunging into her.

Keri woke up with a shout, covered in sweat. She sat bolt upright in the bed, her breath faster than she could ever remember it, her heart feeling like it was going to explode. She pushed both hands against her abdomen just below her breast, feeling frenetically around for a wound. Her negligee was whole. There was no gash. She waited in the same position, panting, trying to get her heart to slow down. As it finally started to slow, she heard the door to the hotel room open, and her heart leapt back to a hysterical pace. She turned her head to watch Drake enter the room, following his every movement as he walked across the living room, trying in a panic to read him. Finally she caught a glimpse of his face as he neared the stairs to the loft. His expression was as readable as she’d ever seen it. Every line and crevice in his face wore fatigue, and his eyes were bloodshot from tears and insomnia. He was a shell of the man that he was a week prior. He slowly made his way up the stairs. Keri’s mind was trying its best to tell her body to relax. She watched him as he approached the bed. He raised his eyes to meet hers. His mouth opened, closed again, and then finally spoke. “Keri, I…” he couldn’t find the words. “I’m…” he tried again. Frustrated, he took a deep breath and gathered himself. “I’m so sorry. I’m in so much pain. I’m hurting so badly baby.”

He fell face-first onto the bed next to her. His body heaved as he sobbed into the blankets. Tears in her eyes, both from his opening up to her and his pain, Keri put her arms around him and laid on his back, her face pressed into his strong shoulders.

“It’s okay, Drake. It’s going to be okay. Time will pass and things will get better. I will help you through this.” He did not respond, just continued to cry. But his arm came up past his head and back over his shoulder to gently grab a few locks of her hair and hold them. They stayed like that for what seemed like an eternity, until Drake finally could not cry any more. He turned over under her, and she lay on his chest, listening to him breath, feeling his chest move rhythmically up and down. The motion was so relaxing, so comforting. She watched Drake’s eyes droop and finally close, and she forgot about her nightmare. It was so nice to have things back at least somewhat to how they had been before. She stroked her husband’s chest as she shut her eyes and fell asleep again. This time she would be able to sleep through the night.

Chapter 7:

Casey glanced behind her nervously. It was unlike her to be paranoid, but her instinct told her it was a good idea. Ever since the reading of the will two days ago, rumors had spread like wildfire on campus of her relationship with Dr. Baker. She vehemently denied all the accusations that she had sexual relations of any kind with him, telling anyone who pointed the finger at her that he imagined their interaction to be much more than it really was, that she didn’t know why he had made those statements in the will. Still, she felt like there was a target on her. The school was investigating and had warned her that she might be dismissed, her friends claimed to be behind her but she could see hints of doubt everywhere. The other students looked at her inheritance as tainted, both out of jealousy and beliefs.

The street was empty, as it always was at this time of night. She had just completed her normal Thursday evening ritual, trying desperately to add some normalcy back to her life, of staying and researching at a local coffee shop until it closed. In the glow of one of the light posts that lined the street, she glanced at her watch, trying to calm herself. Ten after two.

She peeked from side to side as she sped up her walk toward her apartment complex. The big buildings of fraternity row rose on both sides of the road. She saw the huge letters of the Sigma Phi Epsilon house to her left. The Sig Eps were quiet tonight; usually they had some sort of Thursday night festivity going on. Across the street, the Pikes of Pi Kappa Alpha were having a large enough party for both of them. Cars filled their parking lot, and she could see lights on in all the rooms and hear loud voices and music emanating from the huge three-story house. She smiled to herself, remembering the time when she was an undergraduate and hadn’t yet grown out of such revelry. She tried to lose herself in the memories, crossing the street to be closer to the party so that she felt a little safer alone in the dark.

She passed the Pike house and approached the familiar lettering of Delta Tau Delta’s house. It was always the last house she passed before entering the big gates of her apartment complex. She hurried past the house, knowing that she would feel much better once she was off the road and into the apartments. Her ears reacted to every sound, making her jump again and again, but finally she found her way into the complex, and soon the apartment building she called home for the year was in sight.

She reached into her bag to hunt down her keys. Her hand felt around the bottom of the bag, feeling for them in the darkness, as she focused her eyes on her third-floor apartment. Finally she found the end of one of her keys, pinched it, and pulled them out of the bag. The force of pulling them out of the bag threw them from her grasp, and they fell to the ground at her feet, clinking for a moment before settling. Audibly chastising herself for her clumsiness, partly because she was truly upset at herself and partly to make herself feel better by hearing her voice, she bent at the knees to pick up the keys, still focused upward at her building. She felt around for a second before getting a firm grip on her keys, snatched them up and stood again. A twig snapped behind her. She spun, her heart in her throat. Breathing short and hard, she squinted into the bushes that lined the parking lot to the complex, trying urgently to give herself night vision and see what had caused the noise. She could make out nothing.

Finally she turned again quickly and started to walk as fast as she could toward the apartment building. She stared at the window of her room, seeing the outline of her lamp in the dark room, trying to make herself feel better by reminding herself that she could get inside and lock the door and be sure she was safe and alone in her apartment. The lamp looked welcoming even though the room was dark; its outline represented a known quantity, something that was part of home to her. She kept her focus on it as she quickly approached the building.

About ten yards away from the building, she caught her breath. “Oh my god,” she murmured to herself. The light in her apartment had gone on. She put her hand over her mouth and stared at the window, terrified. She tried hard to see a figure in the light of the lamp, but she could not see anything other than the lamp and the ceiling inside her apartment. Tears welled up in her eyes suddenly as she shut them, trying hard to prevent the terrifying scenarios from running through her mind. They came anyway. Images of a man sitting on her couch and jumping at her when she came in the door, of a man with a weapon sneaking up behind her when she entered her room and killing her, of walking into the apartment to find Benjamin’s body on her bed when she walked into her bedroom.

She was crying in fear when she opened her eyes again. She wiped them and looked up at the apartment, feeling like she had nowhere to go anymore. The light was off. She blinked, and stared hard at the window. The light remained off. The window to the apartment next to hers, separated by just a wall, was on, and had not been before. She stared into that window, and saw Richard, the graduate student who lived in the apartment, talking on his cell phone, with a toothbrush in his hand. She looked from his window to hers, noticing that his furnished apartment had the same lamp in the window. Her heart settled suddenly, and she breathed out deeply. She had been looking at his window accidentally, and mistaken it for hers. Her mind was tired from researching, and she was emotionally exhausted from the last two days; it was expected that she would have some tired moments.

She finally relaxed and walked toward the apartment building, climbing the well lit staircase and feeling much more comfortable. She walked down the hallway, and arrived at her door, finding the key on her key ring. She hesitated just for a moment before she put the key in the door, a moment of fear returning to her. Chastising herself again, she put the key in and turned it, opening the door. Light from the hallway poured into the apartment, and she quickly found the light switch and flicked it up, turning on the overhead lights. She held the door open, her body halfway in halfway out, just in case, and she looked around the apartment. Everything seemed clear. Breathing a sigh of relief, she walked into the living room, pushing the door shut behind her. She set her bag down on the couch and looked for the television remote, which she found hiding between the couch cushions. She turned around and sat on the couch, about to turn on the TV for some noise. The remote fell out of her hands, and her breath stopped. A voice hissed from behind the door where it had been hiding. “Hello, Casey.”