At two-eighteen p.m. on the fourteenth of that month, Eva Barlow fell dead of a heart attack. Aged forty-three, she’d been ignoring her high cholesterol count for too long, and that disregard along with a heavy smoking habit must have contributed to her sudden death. She pitched face forward in her living room and on the way down bumped her head against a wooden coffee table. The impact of her skull against the oak created bleeding, but make no mistake, the heart attack itself was a massive one and this alone took her life. The wound in her forehead looked serious, but it had no bearing on her final condition.
Sean, her two year old, playing in his bedroom, heard the crashing sound in the living room. Startled by the noise, he jumped up from his blocks to see what had happened. He came running with short, rapid steps and nearly tripped over his mother, catching himself by grabbing one leg of the coffee table. What he saw was his mother lying face down, immobile, a crimson wetness under her face. At this point, whether from shock or utter bafflement, pudgy, dark-haired Sean sat down, or plopped down to be more precise; he bent at the waist and tipped backwards and landed smack on his rear end. With all the baby fat there he felt nothing when he hit, and there for at least two hours he sat, his legs extended on the hardwood floor, his eyes on his mother, his face a blank.
Around four, using his keys, Leo let himself into the apartment. In his high singsong voice he announced to his mother that he was home. He wriggled his shoulders and dumped his school backpack on the floor. Without unzipping his coat, he stepped from the entrance hall into the bathroom and relieved himself as he needed to. Strange that his mother had not said hello to him in return, and after he flushed, he stepped across the hall and through the archway into the living room. That’s when he saw his mother on her face and his brother on his backside, each of them completely still.
Leo somehow knew at once that to call for an ambulance or the police would accomplish nothing. He didn’t know exactly what had occurred, but whatever it was, however it had come to pass, he blamed his brother. He blamed Sean just as he held Sean accountable for everything that annoyed him in the house. To cite one example, he hated how his brother got to watch kiddie shows on the big TV in the living room, limiting his access to flat screen viewing. And what about all the toys his parents would bring home for Sean, toys bought with money that could have been spent on him? While he had his homework and house chores to do, his brother played and ate all day, and most of all he resented the attention his parents gave his brother. His parents loved him – he knew that – or at least his mother did, but he couldn’t stand sharing things with Sean; for eleven years he’d had his mother and her attention to himself.
Enraged at the scene, Leo presumed that Sean must have caused the accident. Because what else could have happened here? Sean had done something to distract his mother, to make her get her feet all tangled. Perhaps she’d been chasing him for something, and then she’d fallen and hit her head on the coffee table. Why did he have to be born, Leo thought, and still with his jacket zipped-up to his neck, he dashed across the length of the room and plucked Sean up by his arms. Before his brother could make much noise, Leo established a grip on his legs and slammed his head against the floor, and hardly had Sean uttered a cry before he pile drove him again. Sean became limp in his hands, but Leo didn’t stop smashing him down until his brother had to be dead, to judge from the blood and his glazed open eyes.
Leo dropped Sean and stepped away. In this case, the blunt force trauma to the skull, repeated of course, was the cause of death.
So now two bodies lay in a sticky red pool on the floor, and call it shock or lack of affect, but Leo finally unzipped his jacket and went to play his Xbox. Seated on his rug, the controller in his hands, he lost himself in his FIFA 2013 soccer game, the most realistic soccer video game on the market.
It was here, at his Xbox, that Leo’s stepfather found Leo when he arrived home from work. Carl, a city employee with a manager’s title, who supervised a staff of twelve, had endured a frustrating day at the office. Meeting had followed meeting, and at none of these meetings had anything been achieved or solved, only words exchanged, verbiage spouted. Then the subway ride home had been miserable, with three long halts between stations. One of those days he wanted to forget, an evening in which he felt relief the second he entered his own house and put the outside world behind him, and what did he find but his wife and boy lying dead on the living room floor, both pale-white from blood loss.
Across the living room, through the doorway to Leo’s room, he could see his stepson on the floor playing Xbox. He could hear the soccer game’s sound effects, the announcer and the cheering all quite realistic. To see this skinny kid looking so loose and free, so unconcerned, so caught up with the damned game system he regretted having bought him in the first place (nearly every spare moment the kid now got he played Xbox; he never read a book and had no other hobbies; even when he was supposed to be doing homework, he would sneak in as much time as he could playing a game on his Xbox), pushed Carl over the edge. He didn’t conclude from the bloody sight before him that Leo had killed his brother and mother, but in Carl’s mind Leo somehow was at fault for this catastrophe. Five years earlier, before marrying Eva, Carl had thought that he and Eva’s son could become close. The kid was eight when they wed and Leo’s real father had taken off a long time ago. He could help mold him, he’d thought, and if they couldn’t be as close as a natural father and son, they could at least bond.
Wrong on all counts, he discovered, and the dawning of Leo’s adolescence only increased the difficulties. Leo resisted almost everything he said and went out of his way to antagonize him by frequently teasing his real son, the little brother Leo resented. It seemed to Carl that in a household of three, life would be so much more pleasant. Stress in the house would drop without Leo to deal with: his poor grades, his wise-ass attitude, the lip he gave his mother when she told him to wash the dishes or clean his room. Sometimes Leo’s stubbornness, the arguments it provoked in the house, dominated their life. Whether a night proved calm or explosive hinged too often on Leo’s mood, and Carl found this infuriating.
The result: that evening, his self-control gone, Carl took a softball bat from his closet and marched into Leo’s room swinging. Leo was concentrating on his game and never bothered to glance up. Though he’d heard Carl enter the apartment, he hadn’t let that distract him from his playing. Soccer on his mind, he didn’t see the first blow coming, and by the time he was trying to protect himself by raising his arms and ducking away, another blow had landed and consciousness was fading. He wilted to the floor. Blackness descended over the teenager and the soccer figures on his TV screen were the last images he ever saw.
Later, after Carl had regained his composure, after he’d turned himself in, saying what he’d done and what he thought had transpired before he came home, the string of questions began, the reporters asking why, why, why, what had caused it, what was going on in that house.
Carl couldn’t bear to hear it.
“There’s no huge mystery to this,” he said, when brought into court for a hearing on his mental state.
“Yes, there is,” somebody shouted. “It’s inexplicable.”
“Cut a fucking family some slack, people. What happened with us could happen anywhere.”
“No, it couldn’t.”
“It’s not like I’m proud,” Carl said. “Our family just had a really bad day.”
Scott Adlerberg lives in New York City. He is the author of the Martinique-set crime novel SPIDERS AND FLIES, and his short fiction has appeared in THUGLIT. He contributes pieces regularly for the Criminal Element website and blogs about books, movies, and writing at Scott Adlerberg’s Mysterious Island (http://scottadlerberg.blogspot.com/). Each summer, he co-hosts the Word for Word Reel Talks film commentary series at the HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival in Manhattan.