The Side Unseen
Steve Rogers thought he had hit rock bottom. On a Friday evening he found suitcases crowding his doorway. Elaine told him that she was leaving for good. She had complained that they no longer connected, and her patience was gone. A tear ran down her cheek as she said that she had met someone new. Jerry Harris was a downtown lawyer, rising quickly to prominence. Elaine said he had more to offer, that their marriage had run its course and it was time for her to move on.
Steve stood there and absorbed the news with shock. Eight year-old Tommy and five year-old Jen were already in the car. She gathered her bags and left with the kids before he could respond.
Three months later, Steve found his pit of despair even deeper. He was about to join the ranks of the unemployed. The minute he saw Jack Parker walking toward his workstation, feelings of insecurity washed over him.
"I need to see you in my office, Steve, at 10 a.m. sharp," Jack said.
Steve hoped Jack would overlook his waning performance, given the recent turmoil in his life, but he knew that Champion Health Care would not shoulder the responsibility indefinitely.
It was the third such trip Jack had made to Steve's desk this month. The first had been a gentle scolding for hanging up on a complaining customer. The second came after Steve told a caller she sounded like a constipated moocow. This one had earned him a written warning. Today, Jack's tone and posture were more severe when he approached. He avoided the knowing glances of his fellow employees as he sauntered toward Jack's office. All of them had witnessed at least one of Jack's visits.
Steve gently rapped on Jack's office doorframe. Jack was sitting behind his desk, furiously filling in blanks on a pre-printed form. He did not look up as Steve entered. Steve did not sit, instead stood just inside the doorway, arms folded across his chest.
"You may want to close the door before we get started," Jack said, not looking up.
"Yes, sir," Steve said.
"Steve," Jack began with a sigh, "I went through the call recordings last evening and was less than amused to hear where you told Mr. Burrows to stick his catheter."
Steve said nothing. There was no point in denying a recorded call, and any excuse he came up with would only make matters worse.
"This is your third offense in less than a month," Jack continued. "You are a liability to me and to your peers. The way I see it, I have two choices. I can fire you, or strongly recommend that you resign. Because of your years of service to this company, and our friendship, I have chosen the latter. I figure this will at least give you a fighting chance of getting back on your feet, if you can ever get your act together." Jack pushed the brown clipboard holding a one-page resignation agreement across the desk to Steve. "I strongly recommend that you accept this unconditionally."
Steve stared at the resignation letter, barely able to read the words through the fog in his mind. The reason for leaving leapt off the page: 'personal duress'. Just over six months ago, before Elaine stripped his pride and self-confidence, Steve was a candidate for the job Jack held. Now, he would have to rest his hopes on the Awful Waffle or Burger Barn bypassing background checks if he applied for fry cook. Unable to bear the thought of this humiliation, he resorted to a final plea.
"Jack, I know I've been flying off the handle these last few weeks, but you know me. I was well on my way to being promoted to supervisor a few months ago. I think I jumped back into work too soon after Elaine left me. Let me take a leave of absence, FMLA or something, and I'll be back in a few weeks, good as new. It's just so hard to…"
"Steve, I'm sick to hell of hearing about how hard it is! I'm losing a productivity bonus because of you, and your coworkers out there are scared to be in the same cubicle farm. You're like a time bomb that keeps blowing over and over again!" Jack Parker stood from his leather chair and leaned over the desk toward Steve. "I will tell you one last time. You have ten seconds to sign that resignation and be out of my office. If you refuse, consider yourself fired. Do you understand me?"
Steve looked into Jack's eyes and realized that he was not now and probably never had truly been his friend. Every gesture of friendship Jack had offered after Elaine left seemed meaningless in the face of this. Now that Steve's troubled waters had disturbed Jack's ship, Jack was sailing away. With tears welling up in his eyes, Steve grabbed a pen off the desk, signed his name to the resignation letter, and stormed out of the office.
Steve did not summon the courage to defend his marriage to Elaine when she left him that fateful Friday afternoon. Today, he failed to defend his record at Champion. This was par for the course for him. Steve Rogers was a poster boy for passive/aggressive behavior.
He sat alone at the same barstool he had occupied nearly every night for three months. He had never been much of drinker before, but could no longer stand being in his home every evening without numbing the pain for a few hours at Guber's Pub. After pouring half a dozen bourbon and cokes over his heartache, Steve slapped thirty dollars on the bar and headed for the door.
Steve entered his house planning to go straight to bed. As he walked through the living room, the blinking red light on the answering machine caught his eye. He pressed the "play" button, hoping Jack had reconsidered his forced resignation. He was disappointed to hear Elaine's voice instead.
"Steve, I really need to talk to you as soon as possible. It's about the kids. Meet me at Rita's downtown at five-thirty tomorrow. Call if you can't make it."
The comfortable numbness he brought home from Guber's vanished in an instant. Steve was wrought with anticipation, but resisted the urge to pick up the phone and call her that moment. What could she possibly want to talk about? Taking turns each week with the kids was the only thing they had been able to agree on the night of the break up. Steve paced in his living room for a few minutes, and finally decided against calling her at all. He needed time to prepare for whatever she had in store for him. Exhausted from another day of heartache, Steve went upstairs and fell asleep instantly, fully clothed in the guest bedroom.
A distant alarm was blaring, and he was overcome with confusion when he opened his eyes. Steve looked around, realizing he was in the guest room. He rose and started down the hall to turn the alarm off and shower. Suddenly, he remembered that he had nothing to wake up for anyway, no job to get ready for. The hopelessness numbed by Southern Comfort the night before returned with full intensity. He felt as though he had not slept at all. Mornings were rougher since he had taken up drinking, but this was far worse than usual. Steve turned his alarm to the radio setting and collapsed on his own bed. The freedom to sleep in was one of the few fruits of unemployment, and he figured he might as well indulge.
The morning news began just as Steve was crossing the threshold from consciousness to sleep. He heard the name Jack Parker in the lead story and was instantly reeled back in to the world of the cognizant. Steve bolted upright in bed, staring at the clock radio in disbelief as the report continued.
"…In a tragic development, local businessman Jack Parker
and his wife Laura were found dead in their Mydland home early this
morning by their seven year-old daughter.
Preliminary reports indicate that they were both sedated and their
throats slashed. The motive
for the killings is unknown at this time and there are no known suspects.
According to police, there are no signs of a break in at the Parker
home and nothing appears to have been stolen.
The Parker children are currently in police custody for questioning
and will be released later today to relatives.
Mr. Parker was employed as a personnel manager at Champion Health
Care, where he…"
Steve felt hairs rise on the nape of his neck.
A ringing in his ears was steadily growing louder.
His breath came out in short, quick gasps.
Yesterday, Jack Parker had forced him to sign away his career.
Hours later, Jack's children no longer had parents.
While the two events had no connection, the irony was thick as
Thoughts and questions continued to swim through his mind. Steve spent the rest of the morning on his sofa, staring at the muted television and listening to local radio, eagerly awaiting updates on the double murder. He could not shake the uneasy feeling that he was indirectly responsible for this. He kept reliving yesterday's events in his mind, trying to think of a time when he may have wished ill fate on Jack. While he had been frustrated beyond imagination, Steve could not recall one moment when he had blamed Jack for firing him. He knew that he had no one to blame but himself. Jack could have waited a little longer, given him "one more chance," but Steve had used up his three strikes and was deservedly out. To delay his firing would have only prolonged the inevitable.
After hours of mentally beating himself up, Steve finally resolved that even if he had cursed Jack's name to the heavens and pricked a little Jack voodoo doll with pins and needles, the outcome would have still been the same. If someone was going to murder Jack and his wife in their sleep, nothing Steve wished for, good or bad, was going to change that. He decided that he had to let go of this ridiculous guilt and mourn just as any other friend would.
Steve was in awe that a gruesome double murder in an upscale suburb garnered so little media attention. WCVX, the local talk station, stuck to its regular lineup all morning and into the afternoon, devoting only about 15 seconds during each top-of-the-hour news break to the Parker murders. Steve was on the edge of his seat each time the topic was raised, hoping for insight as to why it happened. So far, the only new items were confirmation that no valuables were missing, and that their throats had been cut two inches deep, ear to ear. Steve sat through three agonizing hours of Dr. Linda's ill-conceived advice to pathetic callers just to pick up these new tidbits of information. By the end of this marathon of worthless drivel, Steve was tempted to call about his little predicament. "Hi Dr. Linda. My wife walked out on me for another man three months ago, yesterday I lost my job, and someone slashed by boss and his wife from ear to ear last night. What’s your advice?" Bet she wouldn't respond to that one without pause.
The local TV news at noon gave the Parkers two minutes more coverage than the hourly radio broadcasts. The story remained the same: two dead, nothing stolen, no suspects. The Parkers would have probably lain in their bloody bed for a few more hours if their daughter Sandra hadn't snuck into their room after awaking from a nightmare. More like waking up to a nightmare, Steve thought. Police were baffled by what seemed to be the perfect crime. No evidence was found at the scene, no one had seen or heard anything unusual in the neighborhood that night, and no one could imagine who would want to kill those lovely people.
Steve surfed through the channels, hoping to find a network that would offer further insight into the gruesome slayings. Around two P.M., his doorbell rang. Still not showered or shaven and wearing his clothes from the day before, Steve walked to the window to see who it was. A police cruiser was in his driveway and two men stood on his front doorstep. One wore a police uniform, the other a polyester suit.
Suddenly nervous, Steve opened the front door and greeted the officers.
"Mr. Rogers?" the taller policeman said. "My name is Detective Brooks and this is Deputy Barnes. We were wonderin' if we could have a moment of your time. It concerns the Parker murders."
Steve cordially welcomed the officers into his living room and all three men took a seat. He hoped the visit was routine. In the eyes of his coworkers at Champion, he was probably the closest thing Jack had to an enemy. The cops might smell a motive, and the last thing he needed was a false accusation for murder to augment his problems.
Detective Brooks cut right to the chase. "Mr. Rogers, we need to ask you a few questions. We won't take up much of your time. Standard procedure, I'm sure you understand."
"You are a former employee of Champion Health Care?"
"You worked for Mr. Parker up until yesterday morning, is that correct?"
"Yes it is." Brooks paused, and Steve felt compelled to continue. "I was asked to resign yesterday morning. My wife left me recently, and it affected my job performance. He didn't have much choice but to let me go. I'd have done the same thing in his shoes."
"You weren’t angry at him for getting rid of you, Mr. Rogers?"
Steve could tell this was headed in a bad direction. This was certainly not one of those 'how well did you know him, who might want him dead' visits. Brooks's tone was more accusatory with each question. "No sir. I was disappointed, but as I said, if I had been in his position, I'd have done the same thing."
"Where were you last night? Especially during the early morning hours?"
"Right here. Asleep."
"I don't guess there's anyone around to back up that statement, what with your wife leavin' you and all."
Brooks was trying to hit a nerve, get him to show a temper. The deputy was sitting beside him like a good little sidekick, nodding in all the right places. Steve dreaded an interrogation in his own living room, and things were quickly turning that way. He was becoming more and more uncomfortable, and it was beginning to show.
"I was alone last night, Detective," Steve said, wringing his hands together. "I got in around eleven and didn't wake up until around six-thirty. If you're suggesting that I had something to do with what happened to the Parkers, I assure you that I did not."
"You willin' to say that to a lie detector?" Brooks was smug, looked sideways at Steve.
"If I have to, yes."
Detective Brooks sat back on the couch, relaxed a little. "Listen Mr. Rogers, I'll level with you. We've talked to the Parker's kids, neighbors, and friends, and no one knew of anybody that could have done this. Some of my boys spent the morning at Champion questioning your former colleagues. They were just as clueless, but your name came up more than once. A few of them said there was tension between you two for weeks leading up to your firing. One even said she wouldn't put it past you to do something like this." Brooks leaned forward again, staring straight into Steve's eyes. The deputy leaned forward and glared as well, like a delayed shadow. "Look, I'm not saying I think you did it," Brooks continued. "I've got no reason to. You got no priors, and most people said you two got along fine. But I've narrowed it down to two possible scenarios here: a random loon, or you. Right now I got my money on the random loon, but I'm going to ask that if you leave the area in the next few days, you let me know. Just 'till this all blows over. Think you can handle that?"
"Yes sir. I don't plan on going anywhere, but if I do, I'll call."
"Fair enough." Brooks stood and motioned to the deputy that it was time to go. He stuck out his hand to Steve, who was shaking so badly that he could not stand up. "Pleasure meeting you. We'll see ourselves out." Steve took his hand in a noodle grip and forced a thin smile. The officers left through the front door, leaving Steve Rogers trembling.
Steve spent the rest of the afternoon on his loveseat in a fetal position. He got up only once, to run to the bathroom when the butterflies in his stomach pushed his lunch the surface. Could he really be a suspect for murder? When it came right down to it, he had no way to prove that he had been at home last night. Still, the cops had no reason to point a finger aside from not having other suspects. He was in the unfortunate position of being the last person Jack Parker pissed off before his throat was slashed. Just after five o'clock, Steve suddenly remembered that he was supposed to meet his estranged wife downtown in less than thirty minutes. Now going on 36 hours without a shower, shave, or change of clothes, Steve grabbed his car keys and headed out the door.
Nearly every night for three months, Steve had driven home with no fewer than half a dozen liquor drinks pumping through his veins. Stone sober, he had less business driving now than on any of those nights. The fear of being accused of Jack and Laura Parkers' murders was distracting. Add his anxiety about meeting with Elaine, and the resulting cloud of emotion was intoxicating. Still, he managed to make it to Rita's Lounge without mishap and with five minutes to spare. He pulled into a metered spot, deposited thirty cents, and went inside.
When Elaine Rogers, soon to be Elaine McCall, arrived at Rita's ten minutes later, Steve was well into his second gin and tonic. He was staring intently at the front door, anxiously awaiting her arrival. He bolted upright the moment she walked in. Elaine spotted him and hurried toward his table.
"Steve, I heard about Jack and Laura. God, it's unthinkable. How could anyone…"
Steve cut her off immediately. "You didn't even bother to call me! Do you have any idea what I've gone through today? The cops actually consider me a suspect! How could you not call me on the day my ex-boss is murdered?"
"I tried to call you all day at work, Steve. I must've left a dozen messages on your voicemail. And what do you mean ex-boss?"
It had not occurred to Steve that Elaine had no way of knowing he had been fired. He leaned back in his chair and flashed her an apologetic glance. "I was fired yesterday morning. Jack said he couldn't excuse my behavior anymore and sent me packing. That's why the cops think I might have done it. I was the last person he pissed off, and no one else can vouch for my whereabouts."
"Oh, Steve." Elaine reached out her hand toward his. "You were at home last night?"
"Guber's, then home."
They sat in silence for several moments. Finally, Steve pulled his hand away from hers. "OK, let's hear it. Why are we here?"
"It hardly seems important after all of this. We can talk about it some other time."
"No, no, I came all the way here. I've been anxiously waiting to hear what you have to say. Let's talk about it now."
Steve, really its…"
"Now!" Surprised by his sudden burst of aggression, he turned his gin and tonic up and polished it off. He motioned for a waiter to bring him another.
Elaine leaned back, folded her arms.
"Jerry has been looking to get out of Mydland for a while now.
He just got an offer from a firm in
A tall, lanky waiter brought Steve a fresh gin and tonic. He was about to ask Elaine if she would like anything, but sensing the tension in their conversation, decided against it and hurried away.
"So, you're leaving town, huh?" Steve said, beginning to slur his words a little. "I guess you want my blessing? I don't see where I have much say in what you do anymore."
"It's not your blessing I'm after, Steve. It's about Tommy and Jen."
about them? Believe me,
they'll do me a world of good.
Elaine gently bit her bottom lip and looked down at her folded hands. "That's not exactly what I had in mind. I want to take them with me."
Steve nearly sprayed her with gin and tonic. "You what?"
"I think it would be better for them."
"Better for them or you? Jesus, Elaine, you walk out on me, and now you want to take my kids away to?"
"I'm not taking them away from you, Steve. I just think it would be better for them if they have…"
"Have what? You for a role model? Give me a break."
"Better they have a loving couple to take care of them than a drunk that can't even keep his job!" Elaine gasped, shocked that she had uttered those words aloud. "I'm sorry. Look, this isn't the best time to talk about this. You’ve been drinking, and with what happened to Jack and Linda…I think we should continue this discussion at a better time."
"There will never be a better time, Elaine."
"Well, then it will have to be another time." With that, she got up from the table and walked out as quickly as she had walked in.
Steve left Rita's soon after Elaine and headed straight to his barstool at Guber's. That night, he had far more drinks than usual. After sharing the latest events of his rapidly unfolding life with Jake the bartender, he polished off his final bourbon, paid his tab, and left for the evening. It was well past midnight when Steve finally arrived home. He went straight to bed.
sat at a round table in a bright but otherwise empty room with Jack and
Elaine. He calmly explained
how their recent actions and decisions impacted his life, and Jack and
Elaine nodded with understanding, showed signs of remorse.
Steve proposed an arrangement that would satisfy their desires and
needs while allowing him to go on with his life.
He agreed to divorce Elaine, but insisted on joint custody of Tommy
and Jen. She agreed.
Steve asked Jack to allow him to return to work, but to move him
into a role that did not require direct interaction with customers.
Jack said that would be acceptable and promised to set things in
motion immediately. Suddenly,
a phone began ringing. The
three of them looked around for the source of the disturbance, but there
was nothing in sight but white walls and each other.
The ringing grew louder and louder…
Steve Rogers snapped awake, instantly forgetting what his dream had been about. While he could not recall the details, he felt more at peace than he had in months. The phone was ringing by his bed. He picked it up, and his sense of peace vanished instantly.
"Daddy? Daddy!" Tommy was on the other line, so hysterical he could barely speak between sobs.
"Son, what? It's five-thirty in the morning. What is it?"
"Daddy, It's Mommy. Mommy and Jerry. They're not moving and there's blood all over the place. I think they're dead, Daddy! Please, come over quick!"
Steve drove frantically to the Northeast neighborhood where Jerry Harris lived, his wife's new home. During the twenty-minute drive, he cried aloud and prayed to God that the call from his son was caused by some mistake. He drove twenty miles-per-hour over the speed limit, weaving all over the road. Passers by probably thought him to be in a drunken rage. Luckily, they were far and few between as morning rush hour had not yet begun. As he sped into Lakewood Downs, Steve realized he didn't even know which house was Jerry's. After rounding the first bend in the subdivision, he did.
Jerry Harris lived in a large, two-story brick home on over an acre of professionally landscaped property. This description did not set his house apart from others in the neighborhood, but this morning the Harris home stuck out like a sore thumb. Two ambulances and three police cruisers lined his driveway and front curb. Flashing lights illuminated the yard and yellow tape surrounded the property. Several neighbors filtered out into the street to size up the commotion. Some still wore robes and sleepwear. All faces were painted with shock, fear, and anger.
Steve pulled up to the curb and jumped out of his car, leaving the door open and engine running. He pushed past the looky-loos and raced toward the front door of the Harris home. Two sheriff's deputies stopped him in his tracks. He tried to push through them, but they held his small frame in place with ease.
"Where the hell do you think you're going?" one of them asked. "Can't you see this is a crime scene?"
"What happened?" Steve pleaded. What the hell happened here?"
"Sir, who are you anyway?"
"Steve, Steve Rogers. My wife lives here. Is she OK?"
The deputies shot each other a grim, knowing glance. Steve immediately knew the answer to his question. He fell to the ground, faint for the first time in his life. His eyes were sour with tears. He pulled his knees to his chest and cried aloud. The deputies stood over him with somber faces. They were experienced at cleaning up crime scene messes. The mess of a grown man grieving was out of their league.
Steve Roger's pit of despair was deeper still, seemingly endless. Two fixtures in his life, murdered within twenty-four hours. Was someone out to hurt him by picking off those he cared for one by one? Like Jack, Steve did not have enemies, not that he knew of anyway. But what were the chances that two people close to him, not to mention the people they shared a bed with, could be brutally murdered on consecutive nights?
He lay there crying and trembling in anguish for what seemed like hours, but was only a couple of minutes. His only comfort was that his children were unharmed. He yearned to hold them. Finally, he removed his hands from his face. Detective Brooks was standing over him. His face bore no signs of sympathy.
"Didn't expect to see you again so soon, boy," Brooks said, chewing loudly on a stick of gum. He leaned down and got right in Steve's face. "Let me guess. You don't know nothin' about this one either do ya?"
Steve was too mortified to answer. He just stared back at Brooks, mouthing words that never came out.
Brooks began yelling. "You expect me to believe that someone offed your boss and your wife in two straight nights and you got nothing to do with it? What kind of a dumb ass do you take me for? Whoever did this one did the Parkers last night. Same M.O. Throats slashed ear to ear. Betcha my ass bone there's nothin' missin' from the house."
Steve winced in pain. He could not bear the thought of Elaine suffering. He felt sure he was going to vomit.
"The way I see it, either you're doing this, you hired it out, or some nut job is out with your address book lookin' for people to kill. I got nothin' solid to arrest you for yet, but we're gonna take a trip downtown. Deputy Biggs'll escort you to the station." He grabbed Steve by the shirt collar, was inches from his face. "I'll be seein' you shortly."
Steve spent the entire day at the police station being grilled by officer after officer, culminating with a verbal bout with Brooks himself. Brooks was convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that Steve was responsible for the murders. He had Steve plugged up to a polygraph and questioned him repeatedly about his whereabouts the last two nights, if he had hired a hit man, and anything else he could think of to prompt Steve to tip his hand. Much to Brooks' disdain, Steve passed the test with flying colors. Unable to hold a man based on his own opinions, Brooks had no choice but to send Steve home.
Detective Brooks was not alone in his assumption of Steve's guilt. Elaine's parents picked Steve's children up at the station while he was being interrogated and had taken them to their house. They did not explicitly say that Steve was guilty, but reading between the lines of the message they left for him at the station, it was pretty obvious what they were thinking.
We picked the kids up this afternoon. With all that's happened, it's best for them to be with us right now. Perhaps they can see you after we know more. I will have them call you tomorrow.
Dan and Judy
Although Steve longed to be with his kids, the interrogation marathon at the police station had left him too exhausted to fight another battle. He would worry about calming his former in-laws and getting his children back tomorrow. He went straight home, bypassing his nightly stopover at Guber's.
Steve sat in his bed for over an hour staring at his favorite family photo. It was taken almost two years ago, during a family picnic at the lake. This had become his favorite because Elaine had not quite been ready when the picture was taken. Instead of looking into the camera, she was looking dreamily at him. The photo was proof that at one time, she had truly loved him.
He had been exhausted for hours, but feared that sleep might bring another tragedy, as it had the past two nights. He turned off his bedside lamp, rolled onto his back, and cried. At two A.M, his tortured mind finally gave in to sleep.
Around five A.M, Steve awoke with a sharp pain in the pit of his stomach. He moved his hand over the sore area and felt warm liquid oozing out. He sat upright in bed and froze when he looked in the dresser mirror. He saw the silhouette of a man standing beside his bed. He turned toward the intruder and was horrified to see his own face staring back at him. The face was undeniably his, but the eyes were much sharper, filled with aggression and mischief. The man grinned widely and motioned for Steve to look down. He did so and saw a river of blood pouring out of his stomach. The man kneeled down and placed his hands on the sides of Steve's face. Steve was unable to resist, frozen with pain and terror. The man leaned forward and whispered in his ear.
"We've been good for a long time, Stevie. Now, we're going to do things my way for a while."
Steve looked deeply into the mad eyes.
Suddenly, it all made sense. Steve's
horror turned to contentment. He
let out a sigh of relief and looked up toward the ceiling, smiling
peacefully. He did not flinch
as the knife slit his throat from ear to ear.
He fell back on the bed, still wearing a peaceful grin.
As his final breath passed from him, everything became clear.
The weight of denial was lifted from his shoulders as he finally
accepted the truth. He knew it
was him all along.