Pulling into his driveway, Ethan shut off the car and sat in darkness for a moment. There was no valid excuse for his ghastly appearance or hours that he was unaccounted for, short of claiming he had been kidnapped.
Immediately after shutting the front door, he expected to hear Maria’s voice within a few seconds, and not in a pleasant tone. Of course, he was correct.
“Where the hell have you been?” Maria asked, shooting up from the living room couch. Her infuriation was obvious because she didn’t bother pausing her on the home renovation show that she watched religiously. It only took one moment before she noticed the damage to his face. “Oh my God, what the hell happened to you?”
“Calm down, it’s really not as bad as it looks.” However, it felt exactly as bad as it looked. His head was pounding, cheek throbbing, and his stomach was painful to the touch.
He already knew what his face looked like because he had looked in the rear-view mirror as soon as he returned to his car. His eye socket did not swell up, but it did morph into shades of black and blue. His cheek was red and swollen, while his nose remained intact. The metallic flavor in his mouth had not gone away as blood continued to seep out of his lower lip, ever since he regained consciousness at the storage building.
“I’ll calm down when you tell me what you’ve been up to? You’ve been gone for several hours, and now you’ve returned looking like someone tried to kill you. Are you going to be on the news again?” she said, pointing at the television.
Renee was leaning over the back of the couch with a concerned look on her face. He could only imagine what she was thinking, seeing her father battered and bruised. He walked over and gave her a big hug.
“Are you okay, Papi?” Renee asked.
“Yes, honey. I’m alright. Don’t be scared.”
“You can change the channel and watch cartoons if you like, Renee. Your father and I need to talk for a moment,” Maria said.
Ethan released Renee from his grip, kissing her on the forehead and sitting her back down on the couch. He then followed Maria, who marched anxiously into their bedroom.
Once in the bedroom, he held Maria’s hands in his and looked sympathetically into her eyes. He wanted to downplay the situation, but couldn’t lie to her either. “Okay. I didn’t go to the office today. I went out to follow a man named Roger Williams. I first witnessed this guy leaving the home of that teenage girl who was pimped out by her mother. Turns out, this is the same guy that dated Kathy’s mother. He helped Thomas kidnap her and confessed to me that he is a serial, child rapist.”
She expressed her confusion and anger by pulling her hands away from his grasp. She sat on the bed, bewildered. “You’re saying you confronted this man? Why not call the police, Ethan? You’re not a cop.”
“I know, but, I don’t trust the system. I’ve seen day in and day out how the system works. Sometimes justice is served, but most of the time it isn’t. I just couldn’t live with myself if this creep were to only receive a few years in prison. He’s committed several crimes that he most likely would not even confess to if arrested. Those children and families that he has tainted deserve justice just as much as anyone else. I knew that I could get him to confess.”
“Wait, so what are you telling me? Are you saying that you attacked him?” She stood up from the bed and threw her hands up into the air. “He could have killed you. Don’t you think Renee and I are more important than some selfish vendetta?”
He became angry because she wasn’t seeing the situation in the same way that he did. “Of course you two are more important, but you don’t know exactly what this guy has done. You haven’t heard him talk about the crimes he’s committed. He shows zero remorse, and on top of that, he takes so much damn pleasure in it. Once I saw him in person, I couldn’t resist bringing him pain. Shit, his existence in itself is causing many people pain. Most of them children.”
“Look, Ethan, I can understand what you’re thinking. But please come back to reality for a second. Despite your intentions, you’re talking about attempted murder. A crime. Not to mention, did you forget that you have killed two men already?” Maria began to tear up, which she tried to hide by placing her hands over her face. “I’m scared about what’s happening to you, Ethan. I married a man that wanted to save lives and families, not to commit crimes and kill human beings. You’ve gone too far. This job is tearing you apart, which will inevitably end up tearing this family apart.”
He knew exactly what she was talking about as he had realized the same thing before. He had let his emotions control him. He couldn’t handle the atrocities he had to witness as a social worker anymore, at least not in a logical and lawful manner.
She dropped her hands, revealing tears running down her cheeks. “What happened to him?”
“He got away from me. But he won’t say anything about what happened because he knows I can connect him to Thomas and Kathy.”
“What the hell, Ethan! Are you telling me this sociopath is out there holding a grudge against you? You put our family in danger!”
Ethan raised one finger to his lips. “Keep quiet, dear. We don’t want Renee to get upset. Everything is alright. I’m going to explain everything to agent Ramsey tomorrow. I’m going to take care of this. I don’t want to lose you two. You’re both my reason for living.”
He laid his head on the top of hers while giving her a hug, noticing very little reciprocation. “We don’t want to lose you either, honey. You need to do something about your job,” she said.
“What am I supposed to do otherwise? You want me to quit and go back to school?”
“I want you to be normal again. I want you to stop surrounding yourself with all the tragedy and suffering.”
He squeezed her tighter. “I will. I’ll figure something out. I promise things will get better.”
Maria pulled away from him and hurried into the bathroom. “Your dinner is in the microwave. Go eat and make sure Renee is alright. She’s been wanting to see you all day. I’ll be out in a minute.”
Walking into the kitchen, he could hear Renee cracking up while watching silly cartoons. She hadn’t even noticed she was alone in the room. “What are you laughing at, goofball?” he rhetorically asked.
She was so engaged with the television that she didn’t even hear him.
“Earth to Renee! The stinky girl sitting on the couch!”
She finally heard him and turned with a frown on her face. “I don’t stink, thank you very much!”
He laughed and set the cooking timer on the microwave. While waiting for his food to heat up, his cell phone began to ring. Picking it up, he noticed that Chase was calling. Having forgot, he finally remembered calling to report Roger earlier in the day. “This is Ethan,” he said when answering the phone.
“Mr. Harper. Sorry to disturb you in the evening, but I just wanted to ask if you could come down to the precinct tomorrow and tell me about your new information? Sorry about not getting back to you earlier, but I was busy with another raid that took place this morning,” Chase said.
“Oh, yeah. It would be no problem. I’ve got some business in the morning, but I’ll try and swing by just before lunch.”
“Sounds good, Mr. Harper. We’ll talk tomorrow then. I can’t wait,” Chase said, sounding unenthusiastic.
As he put the phone down, the microwave beeped. He didn’t notice the beeping sound because his nerves were shaken as he began questioning what he would tell Chase. He had no idea how lenient the agent was, and guessed that the FBI didn’t mess around.”
“Are you going to get that, dad?” Renee said, pointing to the beeping microwave.
“Oh, yeah. Thanks, honey.” He reached for the microwave and pulled out a plate of Chile Verde. The aromatic steam emanating from the plate entered his nostrils, kick starting his appetite. He didn’t bother to sit down before shoveling the food into his watering mouth.
While inhaling his dinner, he tried to maneuver the food along the right side of his mouth in an effort to minimize the amount of pain caused to his split lip and the shredded cheek. It took all the enjoyment out of his wife’s cooking.
He had cleaned his plate within a few minutes, followed by taking two pain relieving pills. To prevent upsetting Maria further, he washed the dishes and cleaned the kitchen. During which, he noticed Renee’s eyes slowly closing as they became heavy from drowsiness.
Once finished in the kitchen, he sat down next to Renee and placed her on his lap. He wrapped his arms around her and squeezed tight. “I missed you today, sweetie.”
“I missed you too, Papi. What happened to you? Are you alright?”
“Of course, honey. I just got into a little fight with someone at work. Everything is okay now.”
“I wish you didn’t have to work tomorrow. I’ve been waiting to play Memory with you all day.”
He ran his hand across her forehead, then slid his fingers through her hair. “I missed you, too. We can play when I get home from work tomorrow. And I was also thinking, we should go see that Disney movie that just came out. You know, that one you’ve been wanting to see, right?”
Her eyes stayed closed as he massaged her scalp. “I would like that, Papi,” she said, voice trailing off as her brain began powering down into sleep mode. “I love you, Papi.”
He leaned over and kissed her smooth forehead. “I love you too, Mooshoo.”
Shutting out the background noise from the television, he looked down at her, admiring his adorable daughter that he felt so grateful to have. Despite all the ugly, dark evil in the world, her angelic innocence could wipe it all away from his mind temporarily. Sitting with her put him at ease, making him feel invincible.
He began to envision the upcoming holiday season. While two months away, Christmas would be upon them in no time and he already couldn’t wait to see her face light up on Christmas morning. The excitement she experienced impatiently waiting for that morning, followed by the magical belief that Santa had visited while she slept.
He always felt that the possibly single most important benefit of being a parent, is seeing the world through your child’s eyes. He shared her emotions, vicariously reliving his own memories through her. Good fortune being that he was able to provide her with a memorable childhood while re-experiencing his own past, when life was much more simple.
The only unfortunate aspect is that while every child is in a hurry to grow up, every parent equally longs to be young and naive again. He could only do his best to help her enjoy and appreciate how precious childhood is.
Every time he allowed his mind to wander, unpleasant thoughts were sure to materialize. He began to imagine all the children that didn’t get to have a childhood. The ones that were forced to experience adult situations that no child should ever have to, like all Roger’s victims. Those children were never given a chance to enjoy childhood, and would be scarred for life because of it.
But even more heartbreaking, were the children lost to the world. The ones that were mistreated and abused to the point of no return. They didn’t just lose a childhood, but an entire life of moments and memories that define existence. The most painful losses bared by loving parents that had their child taken from them.
Ethan thought back to an elementary school shooting that had happened earlier in the year, where several young children were mercilessly murdered for no logical reason at all. He imagined how their parents must feel, not just around the holidays, but every day of their lives. The thought must cross every parent’s mind, how they were robbed of witnessing their child grow an inch taller, feeling the warm embrace of a loving hug, listening to a child’s bellowing laughter, or the comfort that comes from cuddling their peacefully sleeping youngster.
The thought was so painful to imagine, tears began to pour from his eyes, dripping on the top of Renee’s head. He squeezed her tighter and looked up toward the heavens, praying to God that nothing bad would ever happen to his baby girl. Of all the emotions he had dealt with, the loss of his own child would be truly unbearable. He could not imagine how parents even survived after such an ordeal?
Becoming aware of his surroundings, he looked over and saw Maria standing next to the couch. He looked into her eyes, conveying that he understood what was most important. As much as he wanted to be a savior to every endangered child, he refused to continue down the same aggressive path that he had been travelling at the expense of his own family.
“I’m so sorry, honey,” Ethan said.
Maria sat down and wrapped her arms around them both. “I love you both so much, I don’t want anything to happen to you.”
“I know. I can’t keep doing this to myself anymore, either. It’s too painful. I’ll tell Lin tomorrow that I need to put in my notice, until I figure out what I’m going to do instead. I love you, Maria. I’m truly sorry.”
She wiped his tears away with her thumbs. “I know you are. I love you too. With all my heart. Let’s go to bed, honey.”
Ethan carefully carried Renee to her bed and gently placed her down. Pulling the covers up to her neck, he leaned over and kissed her forehead. “Goodnight my precious girl. Sweet dreams, and don’t let the bed bugs bite.”
After brushing his teeth, he climbed into bed next to Maria. She lightly kissed his lips, attempting to avoid causing him any unnecessary pain. “Good night, honey. I love you.”
“Goodnight, babe. I love you, too,” he said while pressing his head back into a memory-foam pillow. The pain in his face and head finally began to subside as the relievers took action. As far as he could tell, he became completely unconscious within a minute.
Ethan had a vivid nightmare as he slept. He found himself watching television while Maria and Renee were in the back yard planting some flowers. The sun shone brightly and the greenery was as vibrant as ever. He questioned his motives for sitting inside alone.
Maria looked equally gorgeous and sexy in a white, lace trimmed dress that flowed above her knees as elegantly as her hair flowed in the breeze. Renee was adorable in her favorite yellow dress while planting a yellow daisy in the planter. They were both quite angelic.
His greatest fear commandeered the dream as Roger jumped over the brick wall that separated their backyard from the street outside of their neighborhood. Roger had a knife in his hand that he used to reach over Maria’s shoulder and stab her in the heart. Blood dramatically squirted from her wound as she fell to the ground.
He struggled desperately to get up from the couch and run to their aid, but he was moving in slow motion. Even his screams were muted to a low humming sound. He was forced to watch helplessly as Roger picked up Renee, who screamed for her Papi to rescue her, and leaped back over the wall. By the time he reached the wall, they were nowhere in sight.
Feeling helpless and devastated, he broke down crying. Looking over at the ground, he noticed Maria’s body had completely disappeared. Unable to make any sense of what had just happened, he was traumatized by the lack of control he had. All that he could think about was how his family was gone forever because he had strayed from common sense to start a war with Roger. It was all his fault.
As Ethan’s mind transitioned into a lucid state, he became aware that he was asleep in the dream. Begging to put an end to the painful fantasy, he pinched himself and closed his eyes in an effort to wake himself. Nothing worked, so he could not exit the dream no matter how hard he tried.
What seemed like an eternity in the dream world, was only an hour into his sleep. He finally awoke in his bed, skin clammy and sheets damp from perspiration. He looked over at Maria sleeping beside him and sighed in relief at the realization that he had been dreaming.
Lying in bed, he prayed that nothing bad would happen to his family in reality. He swore to himself that he would not let anything happen to them and that he would do whatever it took to put Roger away for good—even if that meant accepting the fate that Chase would decide for him.