Plainfield, Illinois - 1986
“How are we going to pay this bill?” she asked.
“I don’t know, Martha,” he responded, his forehead furrowing.
Five-year-old Michael stood silently at the door of the kitchen, concentrating on the ticking of the clock hanging above the refrigerator. He could feel that something was wrong—lately, a lot seemed wrong. His parents were fighting. They were fighting about money. He walked over to the table where they were talking. A loaf of bread in the middle of the table separated them. His mother had the habit of baking when she was worried. It calmed her. Michael climbed onto his mother’s lap. He didn’t say a word, but his mother knew that he was here to comfort her.
Billy ran his hands through his hair, “I’ll try to find a way to pay the debts.”
He was the breadwinner of the family, working as a day laborer, taking whatever job he could get, mostly at construction sites. He was never able to keep a job for long, but he dreamed of being able to provide more stability to his family.
“I could try gambling.”
“No.” Her reply was quick, sharp.
“We’ll lose the house otherwise,” he said, looking at her, then at Michael, “Hey, little soldier, why don’t ya go and watch some TV?”
“Go, Michael,” Martha said gently.
Michael slid off his mother’s lap.
Once he was out of earshot, Martha turned back to her husband. “You know exactly what can happen if you gamble.”
“I wouldn’t play roulette.”
“How can you be so sure? The temptation will be strong.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve resisted it before.” He shuffled his feet.
She was silent. Sighing, Billy pulled his chair next to her and laid his hands over hers.
“You know this is the only way for us to keep the house. I’m not doing it for me. I’m doing it for you and Michael.” He looked at his wife and tried again. “I promise I won’t play roulette.” His voice was soothing.
She closed her eyes and nodded reluctantly. He leaned forward to kiss her forehead.
Days passed, and it seemed as if they moved on from their fight that night. Life went back to normal, with Billy leaving for work and coming back at his usual time.
* * *
But tonight, something was different—Martha felt it. Billy did not come home at his usual time. Martha wasn’t concerned about whether her husband was safe. She knew exactly where he was and what he was doing. Her only worry was that he might not keep his promise, cursing them all with the pain generations of his family had suffered. For more than three decades now, Billy had been able to resist his gift, to resist causing pain to his loved ones, and to allow them to lead a mostly happy, normal life.
The hours passed. It was now past midnight. Martha was just about to doze off when a sound at the front door startled her. She jumped out of bed, slid her feet into her slippers, and rushed down the stairs, hastily wrapping a dressing gown over her body.
Billy was half way through the door.
“Did you?” She said looking down at him from the stairs.
He was pale. He looked at her, silently, but his face told her what she feared most. He turned away, avoiding her eyes, hung his jacket on the coat rack, and walked into the living room, leaving her standing alone in front of the open door.
* * *
A loud cry pulled Michael out of his deep slumber. His room was dark, but slivers of moonlight crept through the closed blinds. He looked up at the ceiling, wondering for a minute what woke him before remembering the scream. He listened carefully, but hearing nothing else, he relaxed again and closed his eyes.
Another cry suddenly pierced the night.
Michael quickly sat up in his bed, scared. He recognized that voice; it was his father. He had never heard him sound so anguished. His heart raced. He jumped out of bed and ran to the bedroom door. He opened it slowly and peeked through the crack, too scared to run outside.
Billy was kneeling on the floor. His back was to Michael.
“I should have never done it. Why did I do it?” Billy muttered, rocking back and forth.
Michael could see his mother’s legs, motionless on the floor.
Michael hesitantly stepped out of his bedroom. The door squeaked. Billy looked up, his eyes red and swollen. His father was cradling her head in his arms. Michael could see her face. She looked asleep.
“Michael, don’t look.”
Billy picked him up and tucked him back into bed.
“Go to sleep,” he said gently. “Everything will be fine.”
Billy straightened up and walked out of Michael’s bedroom, closing the door without another word.