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Professional )Grief(ers

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Professional )Grief(ers

It’s a typical Friday night in—except I’m in alone. Try as I might, I’ve failed in my fatherly duty to find a baby sitter for the kids. To be fair, I didn’t try that hard. And why should I? Gerard is always out, training or…pressing buttons, whatever-the-fuck it is he does to practice for these UFC fights. It isn’t as though I don’t enjoy watching the fights; as I reach for the remote once I know Miles and the girls are out and the television almost switches itself to the robo-Sports channel, I realize just how much I enjoy watching him fight.

Just…not with me.

Alright, maybe I started it. Hell, maybe I always fucking start it. But for Pete’s sake, he knew that when he married me. This UFC bullshit adds a whole new dimension of possible battle arenas. Who’s gunna pick up the twins from preschool? Miles has to go to the pediatrician for a checkup! Christ almighty, Bandit has a goddamn rash—I mean, it’s nonstop when you have kids, especially so many, so young.

Again, we knew what we were getting into…or at least, we were prepared to adjust. Sometimes, it feels like I’m the only one adjusting. The television blares with the hideous announcer, Mike Goldberg’s voice. It always amuses me how much more of a fighter that dude looks like than my Gerard. He’s escorted into the control dome by a couple of security guys who each have at least a head on him. God, he looks so confident, so fucking hot…

I groan and slide down so my back is on the couch cushion. Even his stupid, gorgeous, pouty face isn’t going to make me forgive him. We are still having a chat when he gets home tonight—if he gets home tonight. After a fight like this, it’s not uncommon for Gerard not to come home at all. Just one more fucking piece of the pain puzzle we’ve been flinging together the past few months.

The commentators are talking about how if he wins—his Dome name, G3rard flashes on screen and I can’t fight a smile—he’ll be the fastest grand champion seed in the history of the sport. Then, they introduce the reigning champion, a scrawny, tattooed guy by the name of Joel Zimmerman. His Dome name: Deadmau5.

It’s the biggest match of the season, the champion and creator of the sport versus my going-to-get-an-earful-when-he-gets-home husband. I force my jaw to stay tight, which is a lot easier when it’s Zimmerman onscreen and not his opponent. I don’t wonder what the appeal is in this sport—it’s every man’s wet fucking dream. The control dome is surrounded by cheering fans; they’re pressed in on all sides by gorgeous women and heralded as the equivalent of war heroes. The sound of screaming and metal on metal, servos whirring, and sparks flying—that is their symphony. So yes, I do understand why Gerard is drawn to this and, subsequently, away from me.

Fiddling with my wedding band, I find myself sitting up straight and leaning forward as the first round commences. It’s a wonder the cameras around the Dome and the rest of the arena can pick up anything but shouting and cheering. I guess that’s the wonder of sound editing and real-time scrubbing. The distinct creak and groan of massive robotic joints intones with the squeal of metal grating on itself as the big red beast—5ofi, it’s called—slams a massive fist into the challenger. I wince with the impact, as if Gerard himself has been slapped. I have to remind myself I’m pissed with him and if he does get slapped by a giant robot mouse, he fucking deserves it.

Asshole.

Deadmau5’s strategy is all aggression and almost no tactics. For now, it looks like it’s taking my—taking G3rard off his guard. His blue mousebot, affectionately dubbed D3stroya, has gone down to its knees signaling a quick end to round 1. The camera pans to his angelic face and I have to look away. He’s annoyed. You can see it in the quirk of one brow over those ridiculous, round sunglasses I got him as a joke. His jaw flexes and those lips of his flatten and thin to a hard line.

He’s pissed and rethinking his strategy; I know the body language, the facial twitches. He gets that look when we fight—and when we make love. I suck my teeth in sheer annoyance at myself and hop up with an irate flourish to grab a beer as the network switches to a commercial. I fume all the way to the kitchen, though I’m careful to keep the stomping to a minimum as the girls are light sleepers and their room is just one door down.

I take a second to peer down the dark hallway to our room, mine and Gerard’s. Miles is asleep in there—if he wasn’t, I’d be the first to know. The baby monitor is set up right next to the fridge and it’s indicating no activity. Good…I can’t deal with that right now. Snagging a beer, my rare mothering instincts kick in and I grab the monitor, intent on setting it up closer to where I actually am in the house.

Points for you, Frank, you’re not a totally shitty parent.

Wandering back through the house in my stocking feet, I have to remind myself how angry I am at my husband that I even have to think about moving the baby monitor because I’m not out there with him. The beer sweats onto my hand and the coffee table as I set it down and go hunting for the appropriate socket. I’m ass in the air under a decorative side-table as the match comes back on. In my hurry to extract myself, I manage to bang my elbow something fierce—and that makes me cuss, loudly.

Funny how one thing after another can pile up and make one stupid, self-induced injury just that much more painful. I feel the throbbing heat in my face and the tingle as my arm goes numb. If Gerard was here, he’d be making fun of me, probably making a comment about how, despite its humorous moniker, the funny bone isn’t so funny after all.

But he’s not fucking here, now is he?

I’m beginning to crave something stronger than beer. Limping overdramatically back to the couch, I plop my ass down and snag the malt beverage viciously. Lifting the cold, sweating bottle to my lips, I force almost a third of the contents down my throat. My eyes won’t peel themselves from the screen as a buxom woman announces with an appropriate hunk of plastic that it is the beginning of round 2.

Gerard is in his element, that of steel, electricity, energy; he’s always said that he likes the sound of the broken pieces. You can see it in his face, his body; everything about him has shifted. Zimmerman thinks he can win, is so very sure of it that I’m almost smiling—almost. He’s arrogant, and in a way he has a right to be since he created the game. But he doesn’t know who he’s up against. It is that element of surprise and underestimation that’s going to win this for Gerard and his beloved D3stroya.

The smile spreading across the challenger’s lips forces one to mine. He leans forward and slaps a button on the large console before him, leaning back to watch the magic happen. The camera pans up to the two mousebots. The blue behemoth takes a swing, then another and another at the red, knocking 5ofi backward.

Zimmerman’s getting pissed, frustrated, leaning forward, smashing buttons on his controller, on the console, anywhere to keep his ‘bot vertical. Gee leans back and makes a mock yawning gesture, those painful, olive eyes of his fixed on his opponent, just to see his reaction. Things are getting rowdy as Zimmerman points something out to Goldberg. The announcer shakes his head, indicating whatever just happened was legal by the rules of the game.

I have to fight punching the air. Instead, I cross my arms and pretend so hard that I’m being objective, and that it’s not my husband out there kicking the UFC creator’s ass. Suddenly, the tattooed man stands from his console and gestures sharply toward Gerard, who has stood in return and is responding with gestures of his own. God, I wish I could hear what’s actually going on. My man has a mouth on him; I maintain he picked that shit up from me.

Suddenly, Zimmerman is lunging forward. He’s got Gerard around the neck in a headlock. Whatever’s been said, it’s got them both riled. Goldberg flails his arms in the flamboyant way only a UFC ring announcer can and allows them to rough house for a moment, if only for the ratings. I’m leaning forward, chewing my lower lip, fuming and sure the only reason Zimmerman’s getting away with this is that he’s the guy who invented the fucking sport.

Man, fuck that guy.

Golberg grabs my husband under the armpits after he’s just about yanked Zimmerman’s stupid-ass Nyan Cat t-shirt up over his head. I force myself back into the soft cradle of the couch, snagging my beer on the way and promising myself that I will have a talk with Gerard when he gets back. I can almost smell the circuitry and oil, the press of bodies and the snap of ozone. God, what I wouldn’t give to be there.

Gerard replaces his goofy shades—fuck, those things are stupid-looking—and reclaims his seat. He’s got the man known as Deadmau5 riled beyond rational thought. He’ll fuck up left and right now and then D3stroya will do what it was built to do. 5ofi corrects itself and moves forward but it’s too late. Gerard is leaning back, inputting commands almost casually and D3stroya delivers another flurry of punches, one-two, one-two. WHAM!

The red bot is down and the challenger’s arms are in the air, hailing the crowd.

After another agonizing commercial break, round 3 opens with a vicious headbutt from the red mouse. Golberg comments on how this is a tried and true strategy for Deadmau5. It’s too bad he’s not prepared for what D3stroya can dish out. With Gerard behind the controls, there’s no way the battered blue ‘bot can lose. A camera pans to Zimmerman’s face, making the ugliest smirk I’ve ever seen. It’s a full-on guffaw by the time he realizes that D3stroya has engaged a leaping, rotary punch and all but tackled 5ofi to the dirt.

Gerard’s gaze turns to Zimmerman, in a sort of “did you fucking see that, loser?” look that I’ve come to adore and hate all at once. He can win an argument with a few words and that glance but Jesus, Mary and Joseph I want to punch that beautiful mouth of his. He’s sucking in his lower lip and his fingers are moving faster than before. D3stroya lays into 5ofi with another flurry of punches.

Zimmerman is pissed, off balance. He smashes buttons on the console and jams just about everything on that controller of his. His ‘bot performs a jumping, downward punch—something like a haymaker for these machines—and knocks the blue one to its knees. The camera zips back to Gerard. I’m leaning forward again, clutching the bottle so hard it’s just about giving me carpal tunnel. He’s just got to get the fuck up, uppercut this asshat and finish the match.

For fuck’s sake, Gee, c’mon!

I take another swig, downing about half of what’s left. D3stroya isn’t moving. It’s clearly still operational but it simply isn’t moving. From the zoomed-out angle on the dome, I can’t really see what’s going on behind Gerard’s console but I’m sure it’s not good. When the skycams finally switch out with a Dome-side camera, it’s clear something’s wrong with the console itself. He’s slapping his controller—the way we used to when we’d play our 360 together—hoping the jarring will reactivate the signal.

It does nothing and 5ofi strikes the final blow. As D3stroya lays in the dust, inactive, the red bot stalks up and grabs one arm, twisting it free of mousebot’s body, cruelly beating Gerard’s baby with it. The sparks fly, the fans cheer and my husband sinks back into himself, numb. D3stroya drops to the ground, making the control dome shake.

He tosses his controller and leans back, limp and listless. The challenger is still the challenger, champion still champion and the status quo has been maintained. The word “sabotage” creeps into my mind but I shake it off, trying hard to refocus on the main point here.

***

I’ve gotta go, Frankie,” he calls to me. I’m at the sink, Miles playing near my feet, burbling incoherently as all infants do. The twins are in their room, watching Bandit dress her dolls or something.

Yeah.”

He leans his head in, giving an apologetic smile. “Hey, maybe…another time?”

It’s not like he’s canceled anything on me. This match has been scheduled since the beginning of the season. We just never imagined it would be his match. Gerard is good at this game, almost too good, but it’s always been less of a living and more of a hobby.

Maybe,” I grunt, not looking up. I can feel his hands on my waist now, sliding down to my hips, his chin on my shoulder.

Hey, c’mon babe—look, I know…I know you wanna be there…”

No,” I snap. “I want you to be here.”

My back is stiff, my jaw tight, a grimace etched firmly across my features. I don’t move or say a word as his warmth recedes from me and from the house. The plate in my grasp is cleaner than clean by the time I relent my savage scrubbing tactics.

***

The fight replays itself. As I sit back, watching the television go on and on about Zimmerman’s merits and how he was playing the underdog for the crowd the entire time, I realize that the whole fight was just stupid—as most of them are. I dig around for my phone, intent on calling—or at least texting—my husband to let him know I’m going to stop being a fuckwad.

And then the unthinkable happens.

As 5ofi stands, a victory trophy in and of herself, something about her angle shifts. The ‘bot is actually leaning toward the dome. The beer falls from my hand and off the coffee table as the red mousebot topples toward the control dome, a strange, green glow infesting the crevasses. Zimmerman’s almost out of the vicinity, safe, when the camera snaps to Gerard.

What a cruel goddamn thing life is sometimes. He whips off his glasses and mouths something the auto-scrubbers censor out but I recognize as “holy fuck” as the ‘bot’s huge bulk careens toward the safety of the control dome. But the structure won’t handle that impact; it’s made to withstand debris, not entire bodies. I am paralyzed.

The last thing I see of my husband is fear. He covers himself with his arms—useless at this point as the crowd runs, screaming. The camera doesn’t know which way to go and, eventually, cuts out. A “disconnected” message flashes red in the place of the image but the sound of straining, groaning, bent steel still echoes in my ears.

I scramble over the coffee table and grab the television, praying it will give me answers but the screen stays blank, fucking useless. There is a warmth, a wetness trailing down my cheeks as my shaking hands make their way to the manual dials of the set, forcing it to a news station. Someone has to know something. I dig my phone out of my pocket and plop uselessly back on my ass to watch the screen.

The phone rings.

Gerard answers.

“Yeah, babe?” He responds; his voice is strained, quiet. “K-kinda busy…right now.”

I cannot speak. My heart pounds in my chest. Is it all going to turn out okay? Something tells me, with my oh-so-vast life experience of 32 years, that nothing is ever okay, nothing turns out alright, and Fate rarely plays to our advantage.

“Babe…?” Gee’s tone is barely above a whisper. “Frankie?”

“…yeah…” It’s not a response; it’s a gasp, a wheeze for hope and a prayer for mercy. “I’m here, Gee. I’m here…”

“Listen,” he mumbles. “I might be…a little late…tonight…”

“Are you hurt…?” I query tentatively, heedless of the spilled beer and the baby monitor crackling with Miles’s crocodile tears. The news is telling me nothing yet, save a flashing ribbon that indicates a mousebot has collapsed on a control dome. Thanks a fucking lot, like I didn’t know that already.

“I’m…” Gerard hesitates. “I’m not sure…I can’t feel…oh, god, Frankie, I can’t feel my legs…a-and it’s hard to…” He pauses, gathering himself. “Breathe.”

Oh god, no. No, that’s not how this story ends. He’s too young. 37 is too fucking young for this shit. He’s not a soldier, not a construction worker, not a guy in a particularly high-risk situation, so why this? Why now?

“You’d better fucking come home you selfish piece of shit,” I hiss, if only to cover my tears which are even now choking me. “You’re in a…a shitload of trouble—”

“I know,” he manages. “I fucked up…a lot…and I…”

I don’t want to hear “I’m sorry” right now. Anything else is preferable to “I’m sorry.” Even through the static, I can hear him lick his lips, as if formulating what to say next. After all, what the fuck is appropriate in this situation? Instead, I speak first:

“I love you, G-way.”

The sentence is hissed to mask the corrosive tears streaming from my eyes. “Come back to me…” The baby monitor crackles audibly this time. “Come back to us.”

“…I love you, too…Frankieroway…”

The connection hasn’t cut out; he’s just finished speaking. Forever. I can hear the sounds of a helicopter and what could be a rescue team—and then a wet, throaty rattle.

For the first time that evening, a sound louder than an annoyed grunt or stifled laughter escapes my mouth and I shriek. The sound is high pitched, a keening wail of pure, soul rending agony. I throw myself forward, grasping my hair hard and pulling at it, as if doing so will yank my treacherous head to pieces. Maybe if I scream hard enough, he’ll hear and come back to me.

The baby monitor squeals to life and the girls’ door cracks open; I can hear the muffled creak of the hinges. I force myself to my feet, abandoning my phone, the television, and taking leave of my senses beyond that of fatherhood. Bandit has her head peeked out the crack of the door.

“Go to sleep, baby,” I mumble, shuffling past the portal. I don’t hear it close. I don’t care. Miles is up and crying like a banshee. He’s doing what I want to, what I can’t. I enter our room and pull him out of the crib, leaving as quickly as I can, avoiding laying eyes on the bed. I’m not sure where I’m going—but the girls’ room seems appropriate.

There’s no goddamn way the cops are going to come to my door and tell my family they’ll never see their dad again. No, that’s my job. I flip the light on with my elbow, bobbing Miles. Settling myself on B’s bed, I take a second—maybe five minutes—to compose myself, to let the tears dry on my cheeks. Miles stops crying and begins to stare; the twins join him and Bandit pulls herself up next to me.

“Girls…” As if I don’t have their attention already. The twins are 3, and Bandit is 5; they will understand—it will take time but they will understand, and better that they hear it from me. Cherry has her arms wrapped around Lily’s body, both sets of huge eyes drilling into me, into my soul, my empty, hollow soul.

“Whassit, daddy?” Bandit chimes in finally. I can almost feel her little gut twisting with the cold fear of what I’m about to say. She doesn’t know what’s happened but, like all children, she can feel it. B reads it in my body language, my stiffness, and the way I’m holding the silent Miles. He’s not even a year old but he feels something is amiss.

“Papa’s not…he’s not going to be able to come home to us,” the words come between choked sobs that I’m swallowing so hard it feels like there’s a hunk of pressing heat in my throat. It’s as if I’ve swallowed an egg. If it doesn’t break, I’ll asphyxiate; if it does, I’ll drown in my own tears. “Girls, your…father is...” I can’t say the word. Saying it makes it real.

And then there is a knock on our front door.

With Miles still in my arms, I stand. Bandit follows and the twins roll of their bed to trail her. What a sorry sight this must be. Lily is dragging her blanket and Cherry has a thumb in her mouth. They’re both tired, dead tired—and so am I. But something compels them to follow me like ducklings. And why shouldn’t they? I’m all they have left.

There’s no need to stand on my tiptoes to look out the peephole. I know who it is. I can see the flash of red and blue lights on the back wall of our home. The front window is awash with it, those cold, ugly, evil colors. I pull the door open, my wedding band clinking on the metal of the knob. Two stoic officers stand before the screen door, hats in their hands, eyes anywhere but mine.

This is as close as they’re allowed to get.

“Mister Way?” The taller of the two speaks first. “I’m Sergeant Brad Anthony; this is my partner, Sergeant Cecil Davis. May we come in?”

“No,” I shake my head minutely. They shift, uncomfortable with the message they’re bearing.

“Sir, we’ve…there’s been an accident,” Anthony hesitates, eyeing my tattoos and the child in my arms. His partner interjects with a stronger tone, gentle but firm. He’s done this before.

“We’d like you to come with us to identify a body, Mr. Way.”

“Frank,” I grunt.

“I beg your pardon?” Davis responds.

“My name is Frank—and I’m a widower.”

I back out of the jamb, closing the solid oak door that will separate us. As it closes, I slide down against it, Miles still in my arms. The girls crowd around me. They are silent, wide-eyed, cold. I am shaking, eyes closed, sobs jarring my whole body, head to toe. The twins might not understand right away, but Bandit gets it. Her tears fall like rain, soaking into the shoulder of my t-shirt as she clutches at me.

***

The sun is impossibly bright, high in the sky as they lower him into the earth. Our girls crowd around my knees, Miles ever in his position in my arms. I have spoken not a word this morning, not at the funeral itself nor at the graveside service. I see the roses—they think I need to smile—falling on his casket. People file by, one by one to offer hollow condolences.

We stand with him ‘til he is gone, ‘til the preacher leaves and everyone has given up trying to make us smile. We stay because we are his family. My lover, my best friend, my husband, father of my kids, my closest confidant and partner in crime is gone, and will not be returning. I stand like a statue, a silent tribute to what he was and what he should have been.

A hand on my shoulder yanks me savagely out of my abyssal contemplation. I turn, slowly due to the children hanging on my pant legs. Standing before me is the man who accidentally murdered my husband. He swallows hard, meeting my eyes. “Frank Way,” he mutters. “I’m…”

“I know who you are, Deadmau5.”

My response is flat, as toneless as I can manage. If I put any feeling into anything, I will not make it out of this cemetery on my own power.

“Don’t…please don’t call me that—I’m…” He shakes his head, pinching the bridge of his prominent nose. Removing the baseball cap he’s always wearing, Joel Zimmerman bows his head. “I’m done with it, with all of it. That wasn’t…supposed to happen. None of that…we didn’t…I didn’t…”

My first instinct is to shriek at him about making excuses. But that’s not what he’s doing. This is a man who is unused to apologies of any kind, from his own lips or directed toward him. He’s led a hard life; that much I can tell. Zimmerman is trying to express regret, guilt, sorrow and sympathy, all at once and it’s tearing him up.

Without a word, my body acting on its own, I step forward and wrap my unused arm around him. He gasps a little, probably not expecting that reaction but, truth be told, I couldn’t have anticipated it either. Miles is pushed between us, though not crushed and he makes a little squeak of protest as the guy formerly known as Deadmau5 wraps his arms around me in return.

I fit under his chin and, for a second—though I swear it’s because I’m wearing one of his coats—I can feel Gerard or smell him or something. It is, for an iota of a moment, my husband holding me, comforting me, telling me not to worry, that I’m strong enough to make it, not to be afraid to keep on living, that I can walk this world alone.