Faith Spencer glanced at the ribs, slaw, and diminishing pile of fries on Sam’s untouched dinner plate for what seemed like the thousandth time.
“Stop it, Faith. Just stop it.” Dan tapped his fingers against the table.
“What?” She reached over and took another of Sam’s fries even though she had a plate full of them.
“You know exactly what I mean.” Dan didn’t know what he’d do if she did it again. He was ready to explode. Damn it to hell, how had he managed to screw everything up so bad? His silence had condemned Sam to a lifetime of misery.
“He didn’t even stay for dinner.” She put Sam’s fry back on his plate. “Sorry. I’m just worried. He didn’t seem himself.”
“Don’t take it so personally. He’s sixteen.” Faith could never know the truth about him and certainly not about Sam. She would never understand. Dan felt nauseous it had come to this. He’d thought he could put his past behind him. For years, he’d done just that. Then Faith, his nagging, interfering wife, enrolled Sam at Camp Sacquenuckot. That’s all it took to shatter his elaborate illusion, a registration slip and a stray white cat.
He’d been dreading this day ever he’d sent Sam off for his Badger year. Each year since then, Dan’s summers became more and more unbearable, not knowing if this was the year he’d look into Sam’s eyes and see himself staring back. He could have taken Sam out of danger at any time the past seven years by breaking his silence, but even after so many years and with his son’s life at stake, he couldn’t.
Faith nibbled on one of her fries. “I just don’t understand, Dan. It’s his first night home. We haven’t seen him for two months and, I know it sounds petty, but he’s been with Kevin every night at camp. Why did you let him go?”
“I mean, really! You know how much I’ve missed him. Christ, I talk about it every day. How could you not know? Did he seem different to you? He seemed different to me. Do you think he’s okay?”
Dan polished off the last of his ribs. If he concentrated on the sound of his chewing, he could almost drown her out. “Mmghgf,” he mumbled. Let her noodle on that instead of Sam.
She leaned forward in her chair, like a harpy spreading her wings, a sure sign she was getting angry. “Are you even listening to me? I swear to God, you have to stop drinking. I mean, it’s like you’re not even here most of the time.”
To show his contempt for her nagging, Dan downed the last of the beer and went to the fridge for another. Usually, he tuned her out. Tonight, she was getting under his skin. He had to calm her down. The last thing he needed was Faith peppering Sam with questions when he came home. “Give him some space. He doesn’t want his parents smothering him.”
“Smothering? I’m his mother. You call one dinner after a two month absence smothering? I don’t ask for much, Dan. Sure, I want a safer car, and I can’t wait to move out of this dump, but all I really want right now is to have dinner with my son and make sure he’s all right.”
He resumed his place at the table and emptied half the bottle in a single swig. Dan knew exactly why Sam had bolted for the Lowrys. He’d known the moment he’d looked into his son’s eyes. He didn’t blame Sam for a second. When he’d been in Sam’s shoes, he’d run to Adam. Truthfully, he was glad that Sam wasn’t here.
Dan thought he’d prepared well for this day. He had answers for every question Sam might ask and some that he wouldn’t, after practicing the conversation in his head dozens of times. He’d come to envision this day as his epiphany, the day he confessed his sins to Sam and was absolved of them. But now that the day had arrived, he couldn’t face his son with the truth. It had all gone terribly off script. His guilt was immense, far worse than he’d expected. Knowing that something had actually happened made for infinitely worse guilt than worrying about something that might happen.
“Dan! Dan, I’m talking to you.”
Faith’s voice sounded like the buzzing drone of a toy airplane. “Shut up, Faith. Please, can’t you just shut up?”
She aimed her finger of death at him. “How dare you talk to me like that, Dan Spencer. I’m your wife. You will not address me in that tone.”
He guzzled down the rest of his beer, pushed his plate away, folded his arms on the table and laid down his head sideways, facing away from her. “Whatever. A little quiet, PLEASE.”
She slammed her fist against the table hard enough for Dan to feel it rattle through his arms. “Look at me, Dan Spencer. You want a little quiet, fine. You just call up Adam and tell him to send Sam home the moment he gets there. Something’s going on with him. If you weren’t so drunk, you’d have noticed. This family needs some open communication time.”
“Leave it alone, Faith.” He said without looking in her direction.
“Are you out of your mind? Something’s wrong with Sam. We need to talk about it, to work it out. Like we always used to, before … things got so bad. Why did you ever hit that man, Dan? Why? If you hadn’t, things could have been so different.”
He lifted his head, a little angry now. “You just can’t help getting your digs in.”
“What happened to the man I married? You used to be so … gallant. And look at you now. Such a loser, you can’t even get it up for your hot wife.” She undid two buttons on her blouse, daring him to take her.
The shame from his childhood rushed back like a hurricane. A gust of memory carried Dan back to Camp Suck my Dick’s stables. No one else was there, just him, Skunkface Bob and cats, dozens and dozens of cats, stalking the rafters, like shadows in the night. Some perched on bales of hay, golden-eyed gargoyles, stone and uncaring to the vilest of deeds. Dan remembered strong arms enveloping him, straw scratching the back of his neck, and most of all, the haunting caterwauling that echoed through the stables like a soundtrack for a horrific romance. Mr. Quivers, a huge hulk of a Siamese not yet grown into his full size, conducted the vulgar symphony of Dan’s shame not more than two feet from Dan’s head, watching everything with unfeeling eyes of amber.
That night rippled through Dan’s life, buried in every choice, every decision he made. The path he carved in the world, his family, his career, everything, it all hinged on that night with Skunkface Bob. He’d been a boy that night, but what happened defined him as a man. Trying to escape it was like running on a treadmill. That night would always be with him. Shame had swallowed him like a net. Shame that he’d allowed it to happen. Shame that he’d liked it. The more he sought to escape, the tighter his shame ensnared him.
In sending Sam to camp, his shame turned to guilt. He could live with his shame. He’d proven he could take his secrets to the grave, but allowing Sam to relive his shame was unforgiveable. The thought of Sam spending time in the stable with Skunkface Bob, with all those cats, with Mr. Quivers watching, drove Dan to rage. He had to kill all Sam’s cats. They were sacrifices to expunge his guilt. The one time he fought the urges; he punched O’Donoghue and nearly lost his job. He ran over Tiger that very afternoon. On purpose.
“You’re pathetic, Dan. I thought you might care, since this is about Sam, but you don’t even care about him. Do you care about anything, Dan?” She stuck her tongue out.
It was as if she’d zapped him with a cattle prod. Dan leapt out of his chair. He grabbed the cleaver he’d used to cut the ribs with both hands and waved it at Faith. He felt the veins on his neck throbbing. “Shut up, goddamnit. Just shut the fuck up.”
Faith’s eyes went wide. “Dan, put that down. You’re scaring me.”
She’d ruin everything. She’d let all their secrets out and ruin everything. He couldn’t let her do that. He had to protect Sam. She was just another cat. “You goddamn better be scared.”