Bernard Smith lowered his suitcase quietly onto the porch he had lovingly repainted this summer. He wasn’t sure what he was going to say to his family. Nothing had changed on the outside of his life; the sun hung dutifully behind their house, birds chirped, a slight chill let him know Fall had arrived. Nothing could stop the flow of time, the changing of the seasons. The world would go on. But he knew inside the cozy Cape Cod, in the world he and his wife built for their family, everything was at a full stop. There would be no more Friday paychecks, no more security.
He was back from training his replacement and his job was over, his career was over. He had spent the last month posting and reposting his resume on Monsterjobs, Dice, I.T.-Jobs-R-Freakin’-Us. Fifteen years of experience and no calls.
“Hi, Honey,” he forced a tired smile. “I’m back.”
She was stirring oatmeal at the stove, staring out the window. She turned slightly and let him kiss her warm cheek. He wanted to slide his arms around her, bury his face in her dark, almond-scented hair, but he knew this would only scare her, make her worry.
He was going to try to squeeze out something sunny and hopeful, but he suddenly realized something didn’t seem right. He looked around the kitchen and it hit him. His entrance had been way too quiet.
“Honey, where’s the dog?”
“Oh,” she said, briefly smiling. “Duke required so much money for you know…food, vet care, grooming.” She turned back to stirring the oatmeal. “I got rid of him. We now have a fish.”
Bernard stared at the back of his wife’s head in disbelief. “But…but fish can’t bark when someone’s at the door…or…play with the kids…and you can’t pet a fish to relieve stress.”
“We have to think of the bottom line, Bernie. Fish are cheaper.”
A tall, skinny teenager wondered into the kitchen. “Hey, Mom. Breakfast ready?” He glanced at Bernard.
“Say hi to your father, Dear.”
Bernard walked across the kitchen and stood next to his wife with his arms folded.“Honey?”
“Who is that?”
“Mitchell, our son.”
Bernard tried not to yell or shake his wife. There had to be some explanation for all this madness. “Okay. Honey. Eleanor, when I left two weeks ago, we had one son and one daughter. Our son, Mitchell, was only nine months old. This is not our son.”
“Well, of course not, silly. He couldn’t have grown up that fast. But I replaced him. This way, we skip all the cost of diapers, baby food, doctor visits.” She turned suddenly, flinging oatmeal as she waved the spoon at him. “Do you know they say it costs a million dollars to raise a child! A million dollars. Mitchell is almost seventeen. Do you know how much money we’ve saved?”
“But he’s not our child! Our responsibility is to OUR child! This boy has his own parents…” Bernard began to look around the room for a hidden camera. “Oh, I get it.” He smiled at Mitchell. “Right.” He decided to play along. “The bottom line.” That did sound like a good name for one of those hidden camera shows.
He peered around the corner into the living room, where their four year old daughter is usually playing on the couch with her dolls. “And Lilly? I suppose you replaced her, too? Seeing as how she would require so much more money to raise than say…a hamster?” He chuckled to himself, wiping the sweat from his brow with a dishtowel.
His wife turned to stare at him. “I didn’t even think of a hamster!” Just then, a fuzzy ball of fur with mischievous blue eyes sauntered in and rubbed itself on his pant leg. “No, no, I went with a kitten like the Jacobson’s next door. We have to stay competitive in these times, right Bernie.”
Bernard began to tremble as he studied his wife’s face for the first time: the permanent smile, the vacant stare that reminded him of a wave less ocean. Yep, Eleanor had left the building.
He reached out and gently took both her hands, turning her toward him. “Eleanor. Where are our children?”
The teenaged Mitchell was nodding from behind Eleanor. He stuck a finger in the oatmeal and popped it in his mouth. “Sacrificed on the alter of the bottom line, dude…I mean, Dad.”
An image of his children strapped down to his corporate boss’s desk was the last image in his mind before his wife’s smile blurred and his head hit the tile floor.