I’m upstairs in Ben’s room counting the old plastic stars stuck to the ceiling when the phone rings. It’s past midnight, but not as late as it could’ve been, and when Ben speaks he doesn’t sound too drunk.
‘Hey, Dad. You’re still awake?’
‘Any chance of a lift?’
‘Just tell me where you are.’ This is a dad-shaped hole, and I slot into it, no square-pegging.
‘I’ve got someone with me,’ says Ben. ‘A girl.’
I stop on the stairs, thinking of when Ben was born, how I worried his chin was too small, that he had no eyebrows. I think of standing in the hospital carpark, chaining menthol cigarettes, exhaling smoky paranoia.
‘No problem,’ I say. ‘We’ll give her a lift home too.’
It’s been raining — the roads slippery and beautiful like wet skin — and I’m driving over the bridge, thinking about the man who jumped last week. His photograph was in the paper: a thin face, eyes like a startled horse. He was, he said, happy to have a future, that he was a different man entirely to the one who jumped, that he was sorry.
There’s a song on the radio about the end of the world, and I’m tapping the steering-wheel, singing along. The Saturday-night-Sunday-morning streets are full of people, couples joined together like paper dolls, bullish men in t-shirts with tattooed necks. I try to remember being seventeen, but it’s like I’ve been forty-three my whole life, a permanent state of exhaustion, uncertainty and the need to buy multipacks of coat-hangers from supermarkets.
I turn into Dean Street, and there’s Ben, leaning against the wall of the club, hands in his pockets, a girl standing next to him holding a pair of red shoes, one in each hand. She’s in black jeans, a yellow t-shirt; Ben’s in a suit like he’s mourning a distant relative, like he’s serious about a whole lot of things.
Ben holds up a hand. The girl smiles, points at the car, and I see that although she’s drunk, she’s almost certainly not drunk enough for me to have to carry her up to her parents’ front door wearing a sad and sorry expression. I finally understand that there is a benevolent God who loves me, and I pull into the curb.
‘So,’ I say into the rear-view mirror. ‘You don’t like taxis, Caitlin?’ The car smells of wine and cigarettes. Caitlin’s resting her head on Ben’s shoulder, his hand is on her thigh, and I’m thinking: This is my son, who is able now, somehow, to place his hand nonchalantly on the denimed leg of a beautiful girl.
‘Taxi drivers drive too fast,’ she says. ‘You know how in video games, when a fatal crash is an inconvenience at best?’ Her voice is high and a little desperate, like a red balloon drifting up into a blue sky.
‘Tell him about the star-sign thing,’ says Ben. ‘The serial killers.’
She sits up straight, says, ‘Oh, everyone knows about that already.’
I see that the words on her T-shirt say ‘Heroes not heroin,’ and that it’s too big for her, like it’s her dad’s. ‘I don’t know a thing about serial killers,’ I say. ‘Or star-signs.’
‘This is totally true, right, Dad?’ says Ben. ‘But you won’t believe it. I know you won’t.’
‘Try me,’ I say, and I smile into the mirror like a chat-show host, like a fat uncle at a wedding.
‘Okay,’ says Caitlin. ‘What would you say if I told you the top twenty-five serial killers of all time had the same four star-signs?’ She cocks her head like a curious ostrich. ‘What on earth would you say to that?’
I laugh at her mock-gravitas, this girl in a yellow T-shirt with my son’s hand on her thigh; I laugh at the strangeness of living, of star signs, of violent death and coincidence.
In the back seat, Caitlin is counting on her fingers one-by-one: ‘Sagittarius. Virgo. Gemini. Pisces,’ she says. ‘There’s no arguing with the facts.’ She leans her head back onto Ben’s shoulder, and he smiles down at her, lifts his hand from her thigh, smooths her hair out of her face. Her eyes are closed tight, like a mole’s. Like a child, pretending.
‘Isn’t that ridiculous?’ says Ben.
‘Ridiculous,’ I say, smiling, because it really is.
We’re driving over the bridge. I want to turn to them, tell them there’s nothing other than dumb luck in this world that can save any of us, but I don’t say anything, I just drive, wondering how it’s possible that the stars on a kid’s bedroom ceiling can be even more beautiful than the real thing.
About the Author:
Jason Jackson’s prize-winning fiction appears regularly in print and online, most recently at Fractured Lit, Craft Literary and the charity anthology You Are Not Alone. Jason’s story Mess of Love was placed 3rd in the 2020 Retreat West Short Story Competition and his flash In my dream I see my son features in Best Microfictions 2020. His prose/photography piece The Unit is published by A3 Press. Follow Jason on Twitter @jj_fiction