Fantasy Horror parenting child loss modern horror

Devil May Care

By Phil Margolies
Jan 2, 2021 · 5,526 words · 21 minutes

View of the sky through the window

Photo by Ruan Richard via Unsplash.

From the author: All it takes is one careless moment, one half-thought regret, one unspoken wish. Why? Because there are rules.


Jacob scampered away, brushing past a pyramid of Campbell's soup cans. Rose lunged over the half-full shopping cart to steady the quivering display. Jacob ignored her, instead advancing toward the closest shelf like a three-year-old Godzilla.

"Jacob, hands off the cans!"

He paused and looked back at his mother. Rose could see the debate behind his eyes:  She’d called him by his full name, not the usual "Jake." Could he push a little further or had Mommy reached her limit? As if to test her tolerance, Jacob fumbled two Healthy Choice cans off the shelf.

Rose squeezed her eyes shut as a headline floated through her thoughts:  Child Topples Soup, Mother Banned From Another Safeway.

The thought threatened to reinvigorate the headache she’d stemmed that morning with a triple dose of Advil, Rose flexed her hand a few times and blew out a slow breath. A terrier would have been easier, she thought, watching Jacob add to his collection of green and white cans--a few "heels," "stays," and a judicious use of treats to keep him in line.

But no, she'd gotten pregnant a year or two before she and Martin had planned to start their family. The edge of her eye twitched.

A healthy and rambunctious child was a blessing, she reminded herself. Still, since he was born she and Martin had not talked about having more kids. She wondered if Martin ever felt guilty about his chides, always delivered with a smile. After all, it took two to conceive. Stepping between Jake and the shelf, litany of "if onlys" flickered through her mind.

Rose pressed her lips together and felt her cheeks flush. A pinch in the back of her skull made her wince. He was a happy, healthy, wondrous child. He was...

"Put those back, Jake," she said, emphasizing each word. "Please."

"Mommy, I want that."

Rose squatted and extricated the cans from Jacob's grasp and began replacing the cans. "Which one, honey?"  She held up the two Healthy Choice soups remaining in her hands.

"This one," Jacob said, pointing to a can of Progresso on the shelf.

"Since when did you start liking Creamy Mushroom soup?"

Jacob's face contorted and his tongue stuck out as if trying to touch the shelf.

"That's what I thought." A smile blossomed across her face as she tugged Jacob to his feet.

"Rosie!"

Rose stopped halfway into the soda aisle and her fists tightened around the cart's handle. Just once she would like to escape the grocery store without running into one of her mother's hackneyed acquaintances.

"Hi, Gladys," said Rose, forcing a friendly tone into her voice. The woman’s overwrought make-up and hairdo, tied to an affable voice, disguised the conceit Rose knew was hidden behind her smile.

Rose glanced back at Jacob, shying away at the back end of the shopping cart.

"How are you? Is Marty still on the road all the time? You two don't get to Shul very often, do you? Your mother says Jacob--there he is--is such a little gentleman."

"Say 'hello' to Mrs. Hersch, Jacob."

Jacob stepped around the cart.

"Hi," he said, offering his hand.

Gladys shook his hand. Just when she thought he was going to be shy and say "no," he swapped personalities. How he could surprise her, Rose thought, a reflexive smile forming on her lips.

Jacob fidgeted as Gladys blathered on about every topic trapped in her fat brain. How could they get to synagogue at all? Not that they went except when her mother dragged them, insisting they were denying Jake his religious heritage. She could see Martin standing behind his mother-in-law, rolling his eyes and mimicking her despite Rose's glower.

With Martin skipping around the country ten days a month and Jacob wearing her out all day, how did she have time for anything else? It was one of those 'family versus money' decisions:  take a job that doubled his salary or remain where he was and spend more time with Rose. The solution had been her idea:  take the job for a couple of years before having kids, save up their money, and then switch to a non-travel job once they started a family. Except Martin never changed jobs once Jacob was born.

Rose sighed between her automatic nods. It was a pain sometimes to drag Jacob to synagogue, to the grocery store, to anywhere, especially with Martin doing nothing more than paying the bills...or rather, making the money for her to pay the bills.

"Well, I don't want to keep you, Rose. You and Marty should come to services more often, especially for Jacob's sake. Say 'Hi' to your mother for me. Bu-bye, Jacob."

Jacob sagged on the back-end of the cart and glanced away.

"Say goodbye, Jacob."

Silence. He squeezed Rose’s leg. She gave Gladys a half-cocked smile, but she could tell the older woman’s smiling eyes disguised a patronizing glare that said, "Some people just shouldn’t have children."

"Bye, Rosie." Gladys ambled by and vanished around the corner toward the racks of overpriced meat and nearly expired chicken. Rose’s eye twitched and she rubbed it hard. Her contact slid off center for a moment, but two blinks brought it back.

Rose drove her cart to next the aisle, and then peeked back to see Gladys targeting another victim. She glared at Jacob who was intent on wrapping his fingers around the cart’s metal bars. Sometimes...

Her chest ached until she remembered to breath.

"She really likes devil's food cake," Jacob announced, tugging on her sweater as they reached the checkout end of the soda aisle.

The devil may care, but I sure don't. "Why do you say that, honey?"

"She said she was going to make it again 'cause it never turns out before. She's a perfectness."

"Perfectionist."

"Per-fec-son-niz."

"Close enough." The pressure in Rose’s chest lifted. She tousled Jake's hair and enjoyed the smile that blossomed on his face. Parenthood was definitely worth the stress.

Rose sidled the cart toward the checkouts, passing a half-dozen lanes before choosing the line before the self-checkouts. The shortest line, but probably the slowest. As they waited behind an 80-something dawdler, Jacob struggled to grab a glass bottle over the lip of the basket in a futile effort to help her. Handing him an unbreakable item for every three she placed on the conveyor, Rose had the cart empty just as the dawdler decided to balance her checkbook as the bagger finishing re-stuffing her purchases just the way she liked them.

"Now you can just wait, honey," the dawdler said with a grandmotherly smirk pointed toward Jacob. "You have all the time in the world."

"Mommy, can I have a soda?"  Jacob laid his palms on the case between checkout lines.

"No."

"I wanna soda."

"No, Jake, you don't need a soda. We'll be out of here before Tuesday, I hope." The dawdler began inspecting her bags even as the cashier started scanning Rose's items.

Jacob stomped his foot on the cart's frame making it jump and bang the floor.

"Jacob," she hissed. Rose sensed several pairs of eyes pointed in her direction.

"I want this."

And I don’t want a scene, or at least a bigger scene. Rose bit her lip.

"Okay, since you've been basically good."  Rose opened the case and scanned the bottles of Coke, Diet Coke, and myriad bottles of other carbonated beverages. Nothing kid friendly.

"I want this." He stretched a hand into the case and tried to grab a bottle she had not noticed. Rose pulled it from the case. Anything, as long as it's not soda.

"Devil May Care?"  A cartoon devil stood for the central 'a.'  She rolled the bottle in her hand and studied the label. No calories, half the sodium of the diet colas, and all natural ingredients...the kind of drink even her mother would approve of. The buzz of the florescent lights high above made her head ache.

"Okay." She stuck it in with their groceries.

"I want it now, Mommy."

"We need to pay for it first."

"Why?"

"Because there are rules. You have to pay for things that you want. You can have it when we leave the store." By which time, I hope you'll be onto the next thing and completely forget about it. Her shoulders tensed. She'd broken her rule of parenting by reneging on her "no." But then, devising rules as a 26-year-old newlywed was different than sticking to them as the harried mother of a three-year-old.

Rose guided the cart out of the store. Jacob followed, clutching his unopened drink like an Oscar.

Rose set the still unopened bottle on the counter beside her keys and the Advil she’d been too hurried to stick on the high shelf before they’d left that morning. Opening the freezer door to study the over packed shelves, she pondered how to shove in the brisket. Martin was almost vegetarian, but she liked to indulge every so often. She paused and listened to vrooming cars and bashing trucks in the living room. That was a rule she'd learned from her mother:  When they're really loud or quiet, that's when you worry.

Groceries away, she started to fold the plastic bags just like Mom insisted--God, how did I ever picked up that habit? Balling them up, she jammed the bags into a plastic bin beside the trash can.

Rose stepped into the living room in time to see a dump truck rear end a Porsche.

"Time for a nap, okay, Jake?"

"No, I want to play."

Rose exaggerated a stretch and a yawn.

"Mommy's tired. I wonder where I can find a good boy to help mommy take a nap."

"Me! Me!"  He jumped up and hugged her leg.

"Good, come on, Honey."

They snuggled on the twin bed in Jacob's room. Jacob curled against her as she draped the purple knit blanket over them. The sun had just crested the high point. An hour or so and its rays would fall on them. Nature's perfect alarm clock.

A dust mote tickled Rose's nose. She woke, but kept her eyes shut, letting the sunshine caress her face. Rolling her shoulders, she reached to cuddle Jacob, but she was alone.

Despite the sunlight and the blanket, a chill swirled up her shoulders beneath her sweater.

Rose blinked. The world was hazy through dry contacts. Rubbing her eyes, she felt an unseen palm pressed on her chest. A deep breath and slow exhale relaxed the pressure. He was probably in the living room with his trucks. Had she been that tired?  She listened, but heard nothing.

"Jake?"  There was no answer. The palm curled into a fist that squeezed her chest. "Jake!  Jacob?"

She found him curled in a fetal position on the living room floor clutching his stomach. White tablets dotted a trail to the spilled bottle of ibuprofen.

"Jacob!"

She shook him and he moaned. She rolled him onto his back. He was breathing steadily with his eyes squeezed shut.

She scanned the pills. How many had there been in the bottle? How had he gotten it open? Had she not closed it tight enough?

"Jacob, honey, did you take these pills?"

She counted a dozen tablets on the floor. A shake of the bottle told her about the same number was left. How many had there been?

"Jacob, open your eyes, honey," she said, her voice scarily calm. He looked at her, his eyes full of tears. His cheeks twitched.

"Jacob, how many pills did you take?"

"My tummy hurt."

"Your tummy hurts now?"

He nodded, whimpering.

"Take deep breaths and lie still. I'm going to call Poison Control."

Jacob groaned and squeezed his eyes shut again. He whined and his face kept puffing up, like he wanted to cry, but couldn't. She jammed a throw pillow under his head, hesitated a moment, then shoved it under his feet instead. That was the right thing to do, wasn't it?

Rose scrambled to the phone in the kitchen, nearly tripping over a chair shoved sideways against the counter. She gaped blankly at the keypad, the number for Poison Control lost in the jumble of her mind.  Martin programmed it in, didn't he?  Oh God, I hope he did.

She exhaled as the number popped up as she scrolled thumbed through the address book. 

"National Capital Poison Center," a bored male voice answered after two rings.

"My son--he's three--he...he may have swallowed a dozen extra-strength Advil. He's lying on the floor, clutching his stomach and moaning."

"Is he having trouble breathing?"

"No, he just looks like he's in a lot of pain."

"Okay, ma'am, I need to ask you some standard questions."

"Okay." Her heart eased to the pace of a brisk jog.

The only response was a click and then silence. Rose stared at the phone. Maybe another more critical call had come in, but why did he just hang up on her? Wasn't Jacob just as critical? She glimpsed her son, lying like he was asleep. His chest rose and fell slow but steady. He was going to be okay.

While she waited, she poured out the pills left in the bottle and counted. Fifteen. After inspecting the lid, she pressed it back on tight. He couldn't have gotten--  It was her fault. Too hurried to take a split second to--

A voice spoke in her ear. "If you'd like to make a call, please hang up and dial again." Damned phone lady.

Rose thumbed the call button twice, replacing the woman’s recorded voice with a dial tone.

"National Capital Poison Center." A woman this time.

"I was talking to somebody there, a man, and we got cut off."

"Hold on, please." Again, there was a click and silence. Oh God, thought Rose, not again. But this time, the man's voice came on.

"I'm sorry, ma'am, somehow we got cut off," he said in a voice that tried too hard to comfort her. "I was going to ask you some questions. First, how is your son now?"

Jacob clutched his stomach, occasional mews slipping from his lips.

"He looks like his stomach hurts."

"Is he breathing okay?"

"Yes, it's steady."

"Good. How much does your son weigh?"

"About 38 pounds."

"Does he have any medical problems or allergies?"

"You mean besides OD'ing on Advil?" Rose snapped. "Sorry."

"I know you're stressed right now, Ma'am, but I need these answers to best help your son."

Click and silence again.

Rose glared at the phone.

What is wrong with the goddamned phone?  It was not out of charge--Martin had drilled into her to keep them in their cradles.  Damn cheap things Martin is always buying to save a few bucks.

Jacob moaned and his face twitched. A blue tinge crept into his lips. Ibuprofen shouldn't do this, she told herself.

Her thumb went for the redial button again, but she recalled there was another poison center. The number was on that brochure Martin had downloaded, wasn't it? Rose dashed to the kitchen and scanned the fridge. The brochure was there, but she'd never written in the number. And Martin had torn off the "Mr. Yuck" sticker when he put the number on speed dial. More efficient, he had claimed.

A glint on the counter caught her attention. The Devil May Care bottle lay on its side, a pool of thick red liquid glistening on the counter.

She snatched the bottle and spun it around. What she had thought was a smiling devil was really a stylized skull and crossbones. A crimson banner wrapped around the bottle declared in oversized, bold letters "Not for Internal Use." How could she have mistaken it? What idiot stuck it in the soft drink case?

Rose sniffed the bottle and pain flared into her sinuses. She grabbed the counter to steady herself.

"Mommy, Mommy," Jacob whined. Keys suddenly in her hand, Rose lurched to the living room and fell to her knees at his side.

"Jake, Jacob, Honey, did you drink this?" Her voice rose from a simple question to a panicked screech as she spoke. Shaking his shoulder, she waved the bottle before him. His eyelids crouched open.

"Uh-huh."

"It tasted yucky?"

"No."

Rose gasped. "Yummy?"

"Uh-huh."

She touched the rim to her lips, but a sting shot along her jaw. Her head and shoulders tensed. The bottle landed on the carpet and a blood-red stain wicked up the piles. She rocked back onto the floor, the room twisting almost as much as her stomach. The keys slipped from her hand.

"Did it hurt your tummy?" She forced down rising bile, her fists clenching the carpet.

"Uh-huh."

"And that's why you took the..." The white things. Spilled on the carpet "...the medi-- the pills?"

"Mommy, my tummy hurts a lot."

Smart boy. She grabbed the bottle, studying it. What were those ingredients? There was a 900 number, right after 'If Accidentally Ingested.'

She could call the poison center again, or the black numbers hovering over a crimson label. She had to find out what the stuff was. Jacob quieted, his breaths shallow but steady, his lips fading back to red.

Rose dialed, sitting back and drawing her legs up to her chest.

"Does the devil care? We'll let you know," a shrill-voiced woman said after three rings. Rose imagined her as a stubby lady three feet tall, her feet dangling off a stool, an oversized headset covering her ears and arched over her pudgy round head. What a weird way to answer the phone. Probably one of those yuppie companies like the juice guys in Nantucket. She shook the thought from her mind.

"My son drank your product by accident."

"How much did he drink?"

Whether she was concerned or curious, Rose couldn't tell.

"Maybe half, I think."

"Important to know. How old is your son?"  Rose glanced at Jacob, his eyes now shut.

"He's three. He took handful of Advil afterward, too. I think he's fallen asleep."

"That really doesn't matter. He'll be fine. He fought hard, but he can rest now."

Rose stared at the phone, her brow cringing. What the hell--

"Look, what is this stuff? Jake was in a lot of pain after he drank your product. Why would it be in the soda case?"  Should we sue the store?  Her eyes went wide.  What a crazy thought when her son was lying on the floor deathly ill.  That's so Martin.

"Ja-cob," the woman said as if writing it down. "Our product doesn't mix with pain killers very well."

"What is your product?"

"Devil May Care."  Spoken with a rising lilt like a happy jingle.

Rose hissed. "I know that. What's in it?"

"I'm sorry, but those are trade secrets. Now, let's take care of the details."

Rose shook her head and rubbed her face. The conversation had lulled her into a fog. Details?

"Getting your son to the hospital, of course. I know I said everything was going to be okay, but you ought to take him to the hospital."

Rose grabbed for her keys.

"Not right yet," the woman said. Rose paused, halfway up, the phone cradled against her shoulder. "We need to take care of the details first."

"I'm confused. He needs to get to the hospital, but not right away?"

"We don't need to take your son yet. You can get him to the hospital when you're ready."

"But--"

"I can dispatch an ambulance, if you'd prefer. There, they're on their way. Why don't you just sit back and watch your son while you can."

"What?"  Some thought danced in the shadows of her consciousness, but she couldn't focus on it. Rose found herself cradling her son and rocking back and forth. He looked like such a little angel. The furnace kicked on and Rose felt warm air brush her face.

Jacob would turn four in June, and too soon he'd be a teenager. Then college, married, kids of his own, growing almost as old as she would be.

She gazed down at him. Jacob's lips were dark blue and his face the color of fireplace embers, their flame long extinguished. Sharp, pained breaths darted in and out of his lungs. Rose called his name, but got no response.

Three thuds of the doorknocker blasted the fog away.

Rose shifted Jacob to the floor and dashed for the front door. She flipped the deadbolt and jerked the door open. The autumn chill swirled around her and she shivered.

"Come--  Help--  Jake!"  She gestured toward the living room.

A young man in a jacket emblazoned with "Chevy Chase Rescue Squad" pushed past her and knelt beside Jacob. Rose followed, the fog pressing back against her eyes.

"Ma'am?" came from another voice behind her. A hand fell onto Rose's shoulder. "Ma'am, why don't you come with me?"  A police officer, female, no older than she, guided her into the kitchen. Rose sagged into the chair against the counter, folding her arms around her chest. It was going to be okay now, the paramedics were here. They'd rush Jacob to the ER and the doctors would save him.

"What happened?"

Rose massaged her eyes and felt her head clear. "My son, Jacob, he somehow got a bottle of pain killers open and took a bunch."

"Just pain killers?"

There was something else, something in the haze that confined her thoughts to a narrow valley. Something else in a bottle. In the kitchen? Rose scanned the room, but nothing struck her as out of the ordinary. Still...

"There was something else. A bottle of...something. I bought it--"

"Where is the bottle?"

Rose glanced around the cop toward the living room. On the floor beside Jacob, there was nothing but a long-dried wine stain, the kind that never came out, no matter how hard you scrubbed.

The paramedic popped into the doorway.

"We need to get your son to the hospital. I got the ibuprofen bottle, but where's the other one?"

It had been on the counter, Rose was sure. She reached back, her hand falling in a sticky puddle. She'd picked it up and carried out of the kitchen. She had showed it Jacob. The world cleared again.

"The living room," said Rose. She dashed past the cop and the paramedic. "I had it in my hand, I asked Jacob if he drank some. He said 'yeah.'"  She turned to the cop. "I thought it was a kid's drink when I bought it. It was in with the sodas."

The paramedics rolled in a stretcher and lifted Jacob onto it. Rose finally noticed her son. A line trailed from his arm and a tube jutted from his mouth. White pads dotted his tiny chest.

"Where is the bottle now?" the cop asked.

"It's right--"  Only the paramedic's bags sat on the carpet. The spilled pills, both bottles, were gone. What had she done with the bottle? She'd shown it to Jacob, read the 900 number off it, and then...

Rose glanced at the cop, who stared back at her with a look of what? Concern? Accusation?

Was she a mother herself? Have a three-year-old? A continuously absent husband?

Did she think Rose poisoned Jacob?

"We need to find it, Ma'am. Maybe you moved it when you called 911?"

"But I--  No, I don't think I did. Look, I need to get to the hospital with my son."

"Let's look for the bottle, first. The doctors will need it to help your son. Then, I'll take you to the hospital."

Rose shook her head. "No, we need to go now." Her pulse throbbed under her ears and the fog burned away. She had to go with Jacob, had to call her parents, to call Martin. How could she let this happen?

"Rose?"  Her neighbor, Mrs. Schwab, appeared in the hall. "I saw the ambulance. Is Jacob hurt?"

Rose scurried to her neighbor and grasped her hands. "Mrs. Schwab, thank you for being here. He’s very sick. They're taking him to the hospital."

"Oh no!  Poor Jacob, poor you." Mrs. Schwab drew Rose's hands to her chest. "Is there anything I can do to help?"

"Can you stay here and search for a bottle with a little devil on it? Bring it to the hospital when you find it." Rose scurried out the door, the officer close behind her. Police officers milled about. They didn't think she hurt Jacob deliberately, did they?

The cop caught up and directed Rose to a squad car just as the ambulance screeched around a corner, sirens blaring, and vanished. Neighbors congregated on their front porches and lawns, whispering, pointing, and staring. Rose ducked into front seat and they pulled away from her house, her neighbors gawking at her. It was her fault, they would gossip. She had poisoned her own son. Martin was right to stay away as much as he did. She was not cut out for motherhood. It would not have mattered if they had waited two or ten more years.

Rose fought to settle her shoulders against the seat. The belt squeezed her gut. It was not fair. She was a good mother. It was not easy to raise a child, especially with a husband gone half the time each month. She would never do anything to harm Jacob, and would do anything to save him. It was not her fault.

The fault belonged to that anonymous stranger who had stuck a bottle of poison in the soda case. She should have paid more attention, read the label more carefully.

The fault belonged to the damn company that manufactured it. If only she had...

Rose pressed her face in her hands.

"It's like a hurricane, you know. The calm in the middle of the storm."

Her eyes flickered open. Rose couldn't locate the shrill voice, but too easily knew its owner.

"Excuse me?" Rose heard herself respond.

"You're calming down now, but it's not over yet. The hardest part is yet to come." The seat belt restrained her as she tried to turn around. She could sense the woman leaning between the headrests; her stubby feet dangling off the back seat.

"Where's the bottle?"

"Recycled."

"Why Jacob?"

"Why not?"

"Because..." Lightning thoughts crackled across her mind, but none reached her mouth.

"C'est la vie. But let's take care of those pesky details. Simply put, the cost of his life is his soul and the price of his soul is his life. It’s your choice to make, of course, Mommy."

Rose could see her pudgy face break into a sardonic smile.

A void cracked open in Rose's gut and icy water poured in flooding her belly. The chilled torrent spilled into her legs and raced up her spine. Goosebumps erupted up on her skin and her muscles tensed. The deluge broke at her neck.

"What about my life or my soul for his?"  What was she saying? What kind of nightmare was this? She was not sure if the words came out or if the cop--where was she--heard her.

The woman's lip twitched and her smile turned down. "You'd think it would work that way, but no: his life, his soul. You can always get that terrier you wanted."

"Why?"

"Because there are rules."

This is a dream, Rose told herself. The stubby woman was not there, the lady cop was. Her eyes were closed, she could feel it, could sense the cop's presence in the driver's seat. Radio noise crackled into her ears. She could feel every vibration as the cruiser chased after the ambulance.

Suburban is the best trauma center around, Rose told herself. The best doctors... They can fly him to Children's if they need to.

His life for his soul or his soul for his life kept reverberating in her mind. It was no choice at all. Either way, she would lose, Jacob would lose. There was only one choice to make.

"No. I'm not going to bargain away my son's life or his soul. I put my faith in doctors, in medicine."

"Ma'am?" said the cop.

Rose's eyes fluttered. The car slowed as they pulled into the hospital's driveway.

Rose flung the door open before the cruiser stopped. She stumbled, caught herself, and twisted hard to make it through the ambulance entrance as they slid open. There was only one curtain drawn shut with people scurrying in and out. A nurse, tall, burly, a bouncer in another life, caught her halfway there.

"You're the mother?"

Rose tried to juke her way around him.

"I know you're upset, but the doctors can't do their best to save your son if you're in there."

"I'll stay out of the way."

He corralled her into the waiting area and the cop joined them. Rose sat, feeling sand pile up around her, suffocating her. She had to escape, had to move, had to get to Jacob.  The nurse and the cop pestered her with questions and responses came from Rose's mouth, but she heard nothing. Her eyelids threatened to collapse, but she kept her focus on the doors that led to the emergency room. The doctors were doing their best. What were a dozen pills and half a bottle of soda against an experienced medical team? They would save Jacob and then everything would be all right.

A doctor appeared before her, and Rose stared at his moving lips. Only two words penetrated her skull: "I'm sorry."

Rose huddled, legs drawn up on the plastic seat and shivered in the warm room. White-shrouded ghosts scuttled past, babbling to each other; to Rose it was all just variations on the constant background noise. A man sat next to her.

"Rose? I'm Father Stephen."

His words cracked her world and the buzz of florescent lights drew her into the here and now. Her eyes ached as if she had worn her contacts to bed all week.

"I'm Jewish."

A pastoral smile traced his lips. "I know," he said, barely loud enough for her to hear. "Rabbi Simmons is on his way. I thought you might not want to be alone."

Alone. Where were her parents? Where was Martin? Chicago, or Seattle? She stared past the priest, toward the curtain-drawn room where Jacob lay. He must be so cold.

Her spine quivered and her shoulders twitched. Jacob's body was there, but she knew--wished...hoped--his soul was someplace better. But where? She'd made her decision, hadn't she? Was the conversation in the cop car with the stubby woman herself just a dream born of stress and exhaustion?

Father Stephen set a hand on her shoulder.

"Would you like to go somewhere less hectic?"

"No!"  Rose flinched. He was just trying to help. "Sorry, I'm sorry, I-- I don't want to leave him alone."

Rose studied the priest's face. He was at least a dozen years older than she, and the edges of his peppery hair were speckled with white, giving him the respectability of age. He was a Catholic, but God was God no matter what path one took to reach Him, right? Rabbi What's-his-name was not there, her parents were not there, and Martin was God-knows where when she needed him the most.

Had it been her fault? Could she have saved Jacob? If she had not gone to the store, had not bought him that damned drink, not fallen asleep, not wished they had waited another two years.

But Jacob wasn't a mistake, he was a blessing. Was. The stubby woman had presented a Catch-22. Rose outwitted her, taking a third road, putting her faith in the doctors. In God. And now...

She had to tell him.

"Can we go somewhere quiet?"

Father Stephen nodded and Rose followed him down the hall, away from Jacob. Her heart reached back, but her legs marched onward. The priest slowed a step to walk beside her.

"Your neighbor, Mrs. Schwab, called your parents, but she couldn't reach them. She said that your husband was in Tulsa. Would you like me or Rabbi Simmons to call him?"

Rose stopped cold.

"How can I tell him? Our son died. How can I burden him with that when he's a thousand of miles away?"

"Don't blame yourself, Rose."

The priest led her through a long, brightly lit hallway passed a gallery of probing faces to a dark room labeled "Chapel." He flipped the lights on and Rose sank into the chair, swabbing away her tears. Father Stephen sat beside her.

Rose opened her mouth and in her mind it all came out:  the bottle, disconnects with Poison Control, the 900 number, the stubby woman, the conversation in the police car, and her fateful decision.

She clenched her jaw. How could she tell him? It was a crazy nightmare, it had to be.  And, it and would only be made worse by divulging it. Rose bit her lip and turned away.

He studied her face for an eternity that must have been seven whole seconds. She did not blink, did not twitch, did not move.

"Why?"  The word escaped her throat as a hoarse whisper.

"Because there are rules."

This story originally appeared in Ghostlight (Winter 2016).


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Phil Margolies

Phil Margolies writes science fiction and fantasy, and dabbles in horror.