OR SO I READ
Written by Et-Spiritus-Sancti
Based on some situations originated by James Cameron.
Perfect days don’t come often. A few clouds dot the sky; the sun warms the skin, but doesn’t burn. Soft zephyrs play with fallen leaves. A suit is comfortable to wear. Cal doesn’t take notice of any of it. For him, the clouds are a threat of a storm to come. The sun is a beacon set on him and scorching. The gentle wind feels like sandpaper against his face. And the suit is stifling, his tie a noose around his neck. He’s failed. Never have those words lasted but a few seconds in his mind before. Failure. Loss. Disaster. Up until now, in all aspects of his life, he’d won. Every time, over and over. But now he’d been ripped from his pedestal, taken from his high place in the world and thrown into a gutter.
Cal’s grip on the steering wheel tightened. He didn’t even realize he’d been biting his lip until he could taste something warm and metallic. The pain didn’t even register. Caledon Hockley couldn’t feel pain, not anymore. He’d learned to push it away, along with all his other feelings. And that was fine with him. He’d provided for his family, would be able to send his children to the finest schools, give his wife all the most beautiful jewels and clothes she had the energy to shop for. But now, now that was all gone. And the rest of the world hadn’t realized it yet.
No, Cal was one of the few who actually knew what was happening. Thousands would be unemployed; most everything would be too valuable to buy. Chaos. That’s all Cal could foresee. Unmanageable and chaotic. Yet the world still moved. But it was equivalent to watching an accident in slow motion.
Cal slid his Roadster to a stop, his fourth time pulling the car over so he wouldn’t have an accident of his own. This time, he’d happened to halt in front of a park, one of several that were dotted in the city. Screams and shrieks that could only belong to small children filtered over between the trees. Cal glanced in the direction of their play, seeing a few children racing around a man, undoubtedly their father. They were chasing him around the trees, finally toppling the man to the ground. But Cal didn’t note their apparent happiness. Instead, he saw the unwashed hair, the oversized clothes, the patches in their trousers. The dirt on their faces. Filthy. Street rats. Would that be him in a few years? Would all the money he just extracted from his bank account eventually deplete in so short a time? Hockley children grow up poor? Suddenly, the twenty dollars in Cal’s pocket felt immensely valuable. The thought made Cal clench his jaw and lower his head, again bracing his hands on the cool steering wheel.
The embarrassment. The utter foolishness of the whole thing. How could it happen? No, how could it happen to him? Cal couldn’t fathom an answer to these questions. He pulled away from the curb and the happy family.
Cal continued the short distance to his home, pulling over only once more when he realized he’d hit a cat. Cal stopped the car and stared at the reflection in his rearview mirror of the corpse in the road. It held his attention for a full minute, watching the red bloom over its white fur. Damned thing shouldn’t have run out in front of him. Cal knew that if he didn’t reach home soon, he might hit a child next. He should’ve taken a cab home, since in his current rather distressed condition, he’d be equivalent to an oblivious drunk, but Cal maintained too much pride. He’d drive his own damnable car home.
Cal continued through the wealthy neighborhood with its large, Victorian homes, impressive gateways, and enchanting gardens. He saw his massive house at the end of the street. It seemed less than inviting suddenly. Cal had thought that coming home might bring some relief. To see his children, his wife, safe and happy as usual. But a certain trepidation kept Cal from leaving his car immediately.
Instinctively, he turned off the car and reached for the briefcase usually on the passenger seat. When all he felt was the smooth warm interior of the seat, he realized he’d left the office in such a daze that he must have forgotten it. But that didn’t matter anymore.
Cal stepped out of the car, not bothering to take the keys out of the ignition, and walked up onto the massive porch, the grand white pillars towering around him. The front door was unlocked, and Cal had the sudden urge to chastise the help for such a thing, but then after a moment, the door being unlocked didn’t seem very important.
He entered his house silently to be greeted by the ticking of a grandfather clock and blissful quiet. One of the demands Cal had was silence in his home. No running about and stomping feet on the floor, no shouts or cries and most certainly no sound of playing that could reach his ears. To anyone who entered his household, it was the abode of one or two adults. Except now, the silence seemed stifling and Cal craved some sign of life. He stood alone in the foyer, taking in all that his money paid for. The grand Persian rugs, reflecting marble, glistening crown molding. A sound interrupted him and Cal turned his head towards a soft humming. A door to the parlor was ajar and he recognized his child’s voice. Stepping to the room, he stayed at the door to see in through the aperture.
Gemma sat alone in the room, back ramrod straight, feet barely touching the floor, her small body dwarfed even more since she sat in such a large armchair. The black hair that belonged to her mother cascaded in waves down to her waist. She concentrated fully on the embroidery in her lap, curling in her bottom lip. She hummed an unrecognizable tune, simply a meaningless babble of notes that eventually formed a melody. Cal had gone into the room, drawn to the little girl.
She ceased her song and looked up, brown eyes widening at the sight of him. "Daddy, are you all right?"
The question startled him. For a moment, he thought she knew, or perhaps sensed the immense danger they were all in. But then it was apparent she meant his disposition. His tie was crooked and the knot hung loosely. One look in the mirror over the fireplace and he saw where he’d run his hand through his usually supremely kept hair. Several sleepless nights finally caught up with him and dark, purple circles had formed under his eyes. He glanced back at his daughter.
"I’m fine, sweetheart," he murmured, knowing his voice would sound raspy from all the yelling he’d done not an hour ago. The twelve-year-old studied him carefully through narrowed eyes. She didn’t believe him.
Cal fixed his tie, straightening his collar and smoothing his hair over quickly in a last resort to convince her. She stared at him sadly, then lowered her eyes to her embroidery.
"I know—I wouldn’t understand anyway." She continued to sew, weaving the thread with practiced ease. When Cal didn’t move to leave, though, she stopped and looked up again, her big brown eyes curious and frightened. "Did I do something wrong?"
The innocence in her question nearly made him laugh. His mind could barely form a coherent thought and this little girl was certain he came in here to reprimand her.
"No, sweetheart, you did nothing wrong." The relief in her face signaled to him that she indeed might have done something and thought she’d been caught. But that didn’t much matter to him now. He gestured to her project. "What are you embroidering?"
He expected her surprise at the inquiry. His usual daily involvement in his daughter’s life consisted of asking about her schoolwork and informing her she wasn’t sitting up straight enough. This new question confused her. Cal came to her and sat on his heels next to the chair, looking at her lap. Without saying a thing, Gemma moved her hand away so he could see. It was then he noticed the book under the embroidery, which didn’t have much of anything save a tree on it. Cal frowned, knowing what the book was. Gemma spoke first.
"I’m sorry, Daddy." Her voice turned hollow and trembled a tad, possible tears forming. "I know you don’t want me to draw. But I had a dream last night and I wanted to draw it so I wouldn’t forget." She finally turned to him, her eyes wet. "It was such a wonderful dream, Daddy. And I can’t write well. I had to draw it."
Cal knew why she was near tears. The last time he’d found her sketching, he’d gone into such a rage that he tore the artwork to pieces. Gemma didn’t speak to him for two weeks. Neither did his wife. He’d never explained to his wife why he detested artwork. And he never would. That was something he’d take to his grave.
Cal swallowed the lump in his throat. Indeed, he was angry she’d disobeyed him again, but the anger was dull and suppressed. It didn’t matter anymore.
"May I see it?"
Gemma fearfully tightened her thin fingers around the edge of the sketchbook. But when she saw no fury in his features, her grip relaxed, and ever so hesitantly, she put the sewing aside and handed him the book. Cal was at first surprised at her skill. Obviously she’d continued drawing for a while, most likely at the encouragement of her mother. Next what intrigued him was the pure imagination. The sketch showed herself riding a horse with massive wings flying her around a mountainside, stars and the moon shining down on her. Gemma’s dress was like that of a fairy, elaborate robes fluttering around her, flattering her figure, making her appear to be years older than she was. Her raven hair was wild and liberated of any clasps or hair-things. She was the epitome of freedom.
Cal finally tore his eyes away, immediately noticing the trail of tears on Gemma’s smooth, ivory cheeks. "It’s magnificent."
Her eyes shot to him in shock. After a moment, they narrowed in suspicion, as if perhaps he was playing a trick on her and the second she spoke in thanks, he would become furious. Without another word, Cal handed the drawing back to her. Gemma took it eagerly, closing the book and hiding it under the embroidery again.
With slight hesitation, Cal covered her small, cold hand with his own larger one. The gesture was simple, yet it was something he never did. Cal couldn’t quite remember the last time he’d shown affection to Gemma, though she tried nearly tirelessly to snatch his attention if even for a moment each day. Her hand tightened under his and she hiccupped, her tears not all gone.
"S-something’s happened," she said without question. She stared at him through reddened eyes now. Even a child could sense danger.
Cal sighed and got to his feet, not letting go of her hand. Then, stooping over her, he planted a soft kiss on her ebony tresses. He didn’t need to tell her he loved her. She knew now. With a certain amount of pain, he removed his hand from hers and stepped swiftly away from her. His next stop would be upstairs, two doors down the hall from his bedroom.
Peter would be napping now. Cal entered the nursery and quietly shut the door behind him. The room was dark. Heavy drapes were pulled in front of the windows. Cal waited for his eyes to adjust. Toys and children’s books were scattered all over the room, no doubt all taken out the last time his two-year-old was awake. Cal carefully maneuvered around them, but still ended up stepping on some stuffed animal that squeaked in protest. If the maid knew he was coming home, she would have cleaned this up long ago. But again, such a petty thing didn’t bother him much now.
Cal eventually reached the crib unscathed. He scowled every time he saw the crib. Peter was much too old for it. But his mother was convinced he’d roll right off a mattress. Cal hadn’t woken the boy, thankfully. This would be easier if he was asleep. Placing his hands on the dark wood railing, Cal peered at the sleeping form tangled in a blue blanket. The boy’s unmanageable brown hair jutted out in all directions and impulsively, Cal reached out to smooth it down. Peter shifted and murmured something incoherent. He was sleeping sprawled out on his stomach, one chubby cheek pushed into the pillow, his little round face angelic and cherub-like. The perfect child.
This little boy would grow up to be just like him. At least, that’s what everyone always said. His resemblance to Cal was uncanny. Same thick chocolate hair and intense brown eyes. Once the boy lost his puppy fat and stopped playing with toys, he’d be a virtual copy of his father. The thought suddenly frightened Cal. Did he want this child to be like him? He was already demonstrating quite the bad temper, even for a two-year-old. But of course, if his mother raised him carefully, he might come out decent.
Cal realized he’d been gently stroking the boy’s head. His son. His heir. The proud carrier of the Hockley name. "Make as much money as you can," Cal found himself whispering. "Life is so easy with money."
Peter’s brow furrowed. For a moment, Cal thought he’d heard him, but then the boy’s face relaxed and his mouth stretched into a crooked smile as he snuggled his head into the pillow. Cal forced himself to remove his hand and walk away.
Cal returned to the bright, sunlit hallway, nearly colliding with the nanny. She stared at him in horror. "M-Mr. Hockley. I didn’t expect you home so soon. I was just about to clean up Peter’s room—"
Cal held up a hand to silence her. "Go home, Abigail." Normally, the older woman would protest, but his tone of voice and appearance was probably enough to convince her there was no room for negotiation. She clamped her small mouth shut and nodded once, stepping out of his way towards the stairs.
"Abigail, where’s my wife?" Cal asked before she was gone.
She nodded her graying head at the bedroom door. "Mrs. Hockley complained of a headache and she’s resting."
A headache. Yes, she’d been suffering from many of those lately. Ever since she’d learned that there could be money problems she’d suffered from headaches. But it was necessary that Cal speak with her.
He entered their chamber to find her on the large bed under the thick coverlet, her back to him. It occurred to him that she’d never left bed that day. She was still in her nightgown, her long black hair tied in a loose braid. She hadn’t heard him come in and he could hear her sniffling. He came slowly around the bed and she eventually noticed him out of the corner of her eye. She gasped softly and sat up in the bed.
"Cal, you—you’re home early." She was trying desperately to keep her voice steady, but it was obvious she’d been crying for some time. Her eyes were enormous and bloodshot. At one time, those blue orbs sparkled magically. But years of unhappiness had dulled their vibrancy and made them pale and washed out. Black tendrils clung to her neck and her lips were dry and pallid. Something he’d usually say when he would find her in such a state was along the lines of, "You look dreadful. Clean yourself up." He could tell she was expecting it.
"What’s wrong?" he asked flatly.
She blinked in surprise. But then her expression went deadpan and she held up a tiny sock. A baby’s sock. "Do you know what today is?" she asked shakily.
She closed her slim fingers around the sock, squeezing it. "He would have been five today, Cal. Nathan is five."
This could easily be called the worst day of his life. Every year, Cal tried to forget the anniversary, but of course she had to dig up bad memories all over again. On October 29, 1924, Nathan Caledon Hockley II came into the world stillborn. To this day, Cal resented such a powerful name to be given to a human being that entered the world dead. It should’ve been Peter’s name. But it was their first son, and his wife wouldn’t have any other name for him.
"Why do you do this, Ellen?" Again, he posed this question. The fifth time. "Why do you do this to yourself—to us?"
Her lip trembled and she turned away, throwing herself back onto the sheets. Ridiculous. She was a grown woman, thirty-one and acting like some blubbering child.
"You don’t care." Her tiny voice was muffled, but heard. "You’ve never cared about me."
How dare she—how dare she stoop so low as to say something like that? Never cared for her? Who gave her this house, those children, those clothes, her jewels, her damned upper class friends?
Cal clenched and unclenched his hands. His jaw was set so tight he thought for a moment his teeth might crack. Hesitantly, Ellen glanced up from the pillow, her face going ashen when she saw his expression of fury. She had no idea what he experienced today. No idea the stress he endured, the fear.
"I don’t care?" Cal repeated the statement as he came around the bed to stand in front of her. He expected her to cower, snivel an apology, and beg for his forgiveness. Instead, she glared at him, the sock still clutched in her white hand. Haltingly, she sat up in the bed, bringing her bare feet to the floor. Fighting back tears, she pointed a trembling finger at him.
"I’m tired, Cal. I’m tired of you breaking me down, forcing me to be afraid." She lowered her voice dangerously, a tactic Cal had used on her many a time. "I’m tired of not knowing what will set you into a rampage, or when you’ll be the perfect gentleman. I’m sick of you, Cal. You make me sick, you unimaginable bastard."
He could have killed her. It would have been so easy. The pillow would’ve been the quietest way. She was too weak to fight him. But all he could do was stand there and feel as if he’d been pulled back in time. It had been years since he’d been insulted in such a way. Yet he remembered it clearly. He remembered the fire in her eyes, the complete loathing she’d felt towards him. The knife in his gut when she chose to die for a gutter rat. The entire scene came rushing back to him, and suddenly Rose was sitting on his bed, the same blue-hot fire in her eyes, hair limp, her cheeks flushed.
Cal blinked and she was gone, replaced by the woman he’d stood next to for the last thirteen years. For a moment, he wasn’t even sure if she’d actually called him an unimaginable bastard. All he could hear was Rose’s voice.
What had he done? How could one human being completely break down another? Cal demanded little from his spouse. A wife obeys her husband. She respects him, reveres him because he keeps her alive. If she disobeys him, he has the right to punish her. These rules had been drilled into him from early on. They were the most sacred beliefs of his father. And his parents had a long, successful marriage. Where had he gone wrong?
The question was answered by the sudden flashback to events over the years. He’d hit her, yes. Rarely, but it did happen. It was her own fault. She chose to defy him. A particular night came into startlingly clear focus. An important business deal had flopped without warning. He came home late, seething with rage. She’d said something stupid, that he shouldn’t yell, lest he wake Gemma. Now it did not seem like such a defying thing to say, but at the time, it was just the thing to hit his very last nerve. He couldn’t remember if he’d punched or slapped her. He just recalled watching her head snap to the side, her body stumble backwards, hair whipping about with the force of the blow. Her expression of utter shock and horror as she held a hand to her cheek, staring at him in fright. It was the first time he’d lashed out at her in such a way. But what made it all worse was noticing the small form in his peripheral vision, the form of his then four-year-old daughter who stood in the doorway, nightgown wrinkled and a stuffed bear held in an intense grip to her chest. His daughter had gawked at him with so much fear and confusion. When she started to cry, her mother ran straight to her, ignoring him, and hushed her, steering the child away from the door and back to her bedroom to invent some kind of excuse for his behavior. It was years before he’d struck her again. He couldn’t even recall what it was for.
As Cal remembered all this, he’d eventually sat down on the bed next to his wife, who’d stayed eerily silent. Almost like she was watching these scenes from the past with him. When he finally was able to look back at her, he saw not his wife, but a shattered human being, devoid of all happiness. He’d made this palace of hell for her. She had every comfort in the world, except the love of her husband. Given everything she’d said to him, she’d been fully expecting a sound beating, or worse. Yet as he looked at her now, he saw a glint of hope in her eyes.
Swallowing hard, she moistened her lips and shook her head. "I can’t do it anymore, Cal. Please let me go."
Oh, yes. Yes, he’d let her go. He’d end her suffering, and his. Now he knew exactly what he needed to do. "Wake up Peter. Go to Gemma. She’s in the parlor. Take them to the sunroom. Play a game and tell them I’ll be down soon."
Her small brow furrowed and she scrutinized him. "Cal—"
"On your way there, tell Henry to bring tea to my study in ten minutes. Is that perfectly clear?"
She parted her lips and took a breath to question him, but decided against it. Her robe had been placed next to her and she put it on gingerly, shooting him confused glances. He stayed motionless on the bed as she went to the washroom. He listened to her splash water on her face. When she came out, Ellen crossed her arms, as if waiting for him to say something. When he gave no indication of talking to her, she sighed and put her slippers on and then headed for the door.
And in that fleeting, frightening moment, Cal realized he might never see her again. He sprung off the bed, halted, then quickly came up behind her before she could reach the door. He could hear her soft gasp. Did she think perhaps he now figured out what she’d said and would punish her?
Cal moved closer to her, thankful she didn’t run away from him and slam the door in his face. Tentatively, he slipped his arms around her waist, bringing her against him. When she didn’t resist, he put his forehead to her shoulder and breathed in her scent—jasmine. Under his arms, he felt her breathe in to speak.
"What does this mean now?" she murmured.
He brought his head up and nestled his face in her hair. "Don’t forget about me, Ellen." She tried to face him to answer, but he shushed her, keeping his arms securely around her.
"I would never forget the good man in you."
She didn’t get it. She wouldn’t understand until later. Instead of telling her this, he kissed her neck and was pleased when her form slumped a bit in his arms. She turned her face to him, expecting more. He gently kissed her closed eyes, then pressed his lips to hers, gratified when she responded. She’d twined her arms with his and he tenderly untangled them as he broke the kiss.
"Take the children. Go to the sunroom."
He’d sparked that hope in her again. She looked at him with…what—forgiveness? Perhaps. Cal wasn’t sure if he was that lucky. She nodded once, a small smile tugging at the corners of her now healthy red lips. Yes, she would be fine. The children would be fine.
Cal shut the door behind her, leaning his head against it. He listened as she went to Peter’s room. A few minutes later, her soft footsteps padded along the carpeted floor. He heard Peter moan in protest, having been woken in the middle of his nap.
"Oh, dearest, be happy, will you? Daddy is coming to play with you and Gemma."
"Daddy come play?" Peter asked with as much excitement one could muster upon just awakening.
"Yes, in a few minutes, Daddy will come to play..." It was the last words he heard from her as she descended the stairs.
Now he was completely alone, with but a few minutes to complete what he needed to do. He walked aimlessly away from the door, giving the bedroom a once-over. His wife thought he was a changed man, or at least on the road to change. No, he was still the same Cal. Only now he knew she deserved better.
Cal wasn’t sure what to use at first. It had to be quick. There was a letter opener sitting on the desk across the room. But he wasn’t sure if he had the backbone for such a disgusting, masochistic method. Filling up the bathtub would be fitting, but certainly not the way a gentleman would go about it. Cal ambled to his study, a room attached to the bedchamber. The doorknob felt heavy and cold in his hand and his chest seemed weighed down. Ignoring it, he went on. Once in the study, Cal perused the room, glancing at the open window with interest, satisfied with the hard concrete of the garden walkway two levels below. No, too messy. Peering back into the room, the glint of sunlight reflected off smooth, polished wood and metal. Cal stared at it, knowing in an instant that it was the right one. It was the way of a gentleman.
The weapon was old, belonging to his grandfather, who was an officer during the Civil War. It was passed down, displayed proudly. And more importantly, still had a single bullet and shot. He loaded it with fervor, feeling all the more anxious with its coolness in his hand. When it was prepared, though, Cal stopped. There was nothing else to do. He looked at the clock—seven minutes had passed since Ellen left. Give her two minutes to reach Henry, and the old man would take at least five to prepare the tea on a tray. Which gave him a good eight more minutes. Hopefully, Ellen wouldn’t suspect anything, thinking he wanted time to finish his tea before joining her and the children. Cal had told her to go to the sunroom quite on purpose. He wasn’t sure what he would do, but no noise would reach them since the sunroom was clear on the other side of the house.
Cal went to work then. He took some towels from the washroom and a pillow, organizing the hand towels on his desk in the study and placing the pillow on the chair—that would be used later. He caught sight of himself in the mirror, narrowing his eyes at the five o’clock shadow that had developed and the state of his dress. His suit had creases in it and the tie was loose again. That wouldn’t do. He redressed himself in his most expensive work suit, dress shirt, and tie and changed his slacks. He combed his thick hair thoroughly, grunting dejectedly at the hardly visible gray hairs. He quickly shaved and in a matter of moments, he looked five years younger. Cal smirked at his reflection in the mirror.
"You unimaginable bastard," he muttered to his arrogant likeness in the mirror. "Just wait, Rose, my sweetpea. I’m coming to join you in hell."
His money was gone, or would be near so in a few years. His wife forgave him, but would be speaking with lawyers in the morning concerning their divorce. His legacy rested with a two-year-old who could barely speak. No, this life wasn’t worth it. He was in purgatory, and the demons had captured his soul long ago and had no intention of giving it back. They could keep it.
Cal went back to his study. Henry would be here very soon. He sat down in the impressive leather chair, positioning the pillow around the back and side of his head. Cal was a fan of cleanliness--no need in making a mess. He took the weapon into his hands, feeling its weight. His eyes wandered to the family photograph on the desk. He admired it for only a moment, looking into the eyes of each of them. As he put the barrel into his mouth, he nearly laughed as a bout of satire struck him. All his life he’d lived for money. Wasn’t it ironic that he would die because of it?