"Where were you?"
Darien regrets the shape of the question as it forms, tries to negate the unintended implication. "Did that spring squall affect traffic?" Accusation seems to dance at the corner of his words, no matter his intention. Men lack a talent for backtracking, he thinks.
Naria hangs her jacket on the stand by the door, her spine as straight and stiff as the post and peg receiving her coat.
"Yes," she says as he closes the front door for her. The ornate rectangle of mahogany and leaded glass resists. He lifts up on the knob, forcing the door into an angle that matches the frame.
She must hear how clipped her voice sounds. She tries for a more conversational tone. "It only snowed hard for about ten minutes, but it was enough to cause an accident and put the interstate at a standstill for nearly an hour."
"Sorry," he says, not certain to which of the things the apology belongs.
She brushes his shoulder with a hand. Like a game of tag, it transfers the role of victim back to him. The place they both feel it belongs.
She disappears into the office to check email or chat with friends. He opens the front door again, swings it back and forth. He wonders where he and Naria are on their own personal road -- stuck behind an accident, unable to move forward, or still tangled in the collision of her affair?
He examines the top of the door, thinking a loose hinge might make it hang off true. The top hinge isn't loose. It's not there at all. The door is held by a frayed piece of rope, running through holes where the hinge should be, tied in the middle in a messy knot.
"I got back early," he says loudly enough for her to hear. He doesn’t mention the absent hinge, the odd rope. They both need a respite from him uncovering hidden things. He'll fix it later, when she’s out. "My auto theft client decided to take the plea at the last minute. I went ahead and got dinner ready. I hope steak is okay."
"Sure. That’s great." Her voice drifts to him from the other room, distant.
Jayden entered the house quietly. His seventeenth birthday last month and school letting out for summer a week ago had earned him some latitude, but staying out all night would never fly. He hoped he could sneak upstairs, pretend he’d gotten home hours ago. If not, it was still worth the fallout to avoid the artificial chit-chat over his father’s new Sunday morning family brunch. Worth getting blazed with friends he wouldn’t normally have hung with. Worth sleeping it off in the woods at the edge of the suburb.
"Jayden?" His father’s voice.
His dad came out of the kitchen and leaned in the doorway. He’d shed weight lately, enough to look a bit lost in his sweatshirt and jeans. His casual posture couldn’t disguise the tense lines of worry; the uncertainty of how to discipline without causing further distance.
"You didn’t call. I thought we had an agreement about that."
"Sorry. I forgot. Travis and I were gaming pretty late. I stayed over there." He hoped his father wouldn’t come closer, smell the pot or alcohol, see dirt or pine needles on his clothes.
"Did you forget to answer your phone too?"
"Guess I didn’t hear it. We had the volume up pretty loud."
His dad nodded. The gesture seemed shallow, resigned.
Darien pushes off the doorframe, watches his son vanish upstairs. One of the cherry wood boards in the floor shifts just as he turns to climb the wide staircase. Jayden doesn’t notice, but Darien sees the tail of it lift.
Two months ago the front door started listing. Last month a faucet came off in his hand. A week ago, he discovered plaster broken around the dining room chandelier, the light hanging askew, cords showing.
Darien kneels by the board, works to pry it up with his fingernails and fails. Retrieving a knife from the kitchen, he tries again and the board lifts easily. Looking for a loose nail in the tongue, he finds none. He looks for dried glue or a groove where it might snap into the adjoining board. Again, nothing. He tugs on the next board and it lifts without resistance. He replaces them both, adding it to his ‘to do’ list.
Naria wondered how summer could be half over already. For months now she’s thought of planning a family outing or vacation, but never seems to get around to it. Jayden wants less each day to spend time with them. And Darien... he’s tried so hard for so long that he’s forgotten how to be natural with her, has choked any hint of spontaneity out of their conversations.
She wanted to blame him for all of it. His hours, his irritability, his inattention... they’d been the root cause. But her wrong had been bigger, more wrong than his, and so they both blamed her. Funny. She’d hurt him because she loved him. He loved her enough to say he forgave her. And yet, all that love hadn’t been able to rescue them now that they need it most.
She heard the rubber feet of the coffee maker squeak against the counter downstairs, a cupboard door as it thumped shut, the click of the coffee machine lid flipping down. Getting up, she slipped into a bathrobe and headed downstairs. She’d do it, suggest going to the pizza place tonight that had a live band on Saturdays. Jayden rarely turned down pizza and she and Darien hadn’t danced in ages.
Reaching the bottom of the stairs, she watched Darien’s back as he slid the patio door open and walked outside with his cup of coffee. He turned to close the door, keeping the bugs out as she’d asked. The door wobbled in its track. He looked down, pushing at it with his toe. Seeing her he raised his coffee cup, gave her a smile, and pointed to the coffee pot.
He took a seat on the patio, his back to her. The barriers -- whether his or her own -- defeated her yet again. She poured herself a cup of coffee and went back upstairs.
Fall leaves need raking, Darien thinks, but too many things need fixing. He tried to keep up with it all, but there was too much, it got away from him. Summer had been too busy at work, too hard at home. The things falling apart around the house too strange and exponential: the banister base lifting up to reveal a mish-mash of paper clips and small dowels holding it on. Corners on the tile floors crushing to dust if he wears anything but stocking feet. Interior walls warping with no sign of water damage.
The wind kicks up. Branches sway and leaves swirl. He walks out front to find the real estate sign blown over again, and pushes the metal legs back into the ground.
Naria never looked at his list of items disintegrating around them. Too wrapped up in divorce proceedings to see the strangest damage for herself she’d told him to sell the house 'as-is' and be done with it. It doesn’t matter anymore if she believes him; her moving van will be here in an hour. Jayden is at a friend’s house most of the time, but promises to stay in school until early graduation in December.
Climbing the front steps, Darien sees the broken glass of the front window has mostly fallen out now. The window frame is covered top to bottom and side to side with cobwebs.
He looks away and shoulders the front door open. The entropy has won. Time for him to stop trying to fix things.
This story originally appeared in Daily Science Fiction.