A Short Story by JannaTWrites:
Cory Humboldt knew that on the outside, he was the epitome of the American Dream. At forty-six years old, it was a well-crafted image that he had spent the better part of his life building. He owned a house and two cars. He had a loving wife, one dog, one cat and 2.5 kids. Well, two children with the third due to be born in three months.
In his office, Cory whittled his unread emails down to eighteen. He was deleting an online seminar advertisement when his phone rang. Make that seventeen messages to go.
“There’s a visitor at the front desk waiting to see you.”
Cory checked his desk clock: 8:07 AM. “Mr. Yamachi isn’t supposed to be here until nine-thirty.”
“It’s not Mr. Yamachi,” Susan whispered.
“Tell whoever it is to schedule an appointment. My time is valuable.”
“She told me you would say that.”
“Really?” Cory asked, not bothering to conceal his annoyance.
Susan sighed. “She wanted me to tell you to get your tail out here right now or you’d be sorry, young man.”
“Geez. I’ll be there in a minute.” Cory slammed the phone down on its cradle, mumbling to himself. As he stomped down the hallway, he practiced the deep breaths and exhales that his therapist had taught him. By the time he reached the front desk, his bubbling anger had dissipated into a fog of resentment.
In the lobby, he saw a woman sitting in a leather wing chair wearing a snug-fitting jade dress, black pumps and a smirk on her barely wrinkled face. He wasn’t about to tell her that her neck couldn’t keep a secret. “Mother,” he said in a crisp tone.
“Hi, dear. I’m sorry to bother you at work, but I’m worried about Kevin.”
Cory stiffened. “I told you not to ever talk about him in public,” he said in a hushed voice. He shot a glance at Susan, who shifted her eyes down, feigning interest in papers on her desk.
“Please.” She grabbed his hands and her tear-filled hazel eyes begged him to listen.
He couldn’t bring himself to tell her to go. Her eyes may have been the last remaining genuine parts of her body; untouched by botox or surgery. They were the one bond he still had with his mother. He slid his hands out of her grasp. “Fine. Follow me.”
Cory led her out of the lobby. The Chanel perfume cloud and the echo of her clicking footsteps on the tile behind him signaled that she kept his pace. He made a mental note to ask his therapist why he still caved to his mother. Down a long hallway, he made a quick left. He flipped on the lights in a small conference room and gestured for her to enter. He followed her in and latched the door behind him. She sat in the high-backed chair at the head of the table.
To maintain some of his power, Cory chose the chair at the other end of the ten-foot long table. He ignored the look from his mother. He suspected it was meant to be a raised eyebrow, only her eyebrow didn’t raise – her eyes just opened wider.
“Well, what’s so important?”
“You know Kevin thinks the world of you-“
“He barely knows me. He was six when I moved out.” Cory folded his arms across his chest. “That’s what happens when there’s a thirteen year age difference between siblings.”
“We didn’t plan it that way.” She looked down at her hands clasped on the table.
“Yeah, I know. He was the menopausal gift from God.”
“You don’t have to be sarcastic.”
“I just get tired of you acting like we’re best friends or something.”
“You may have heard that Kevin is back in jail.” She looked at Cory, but when he didn’t respond, she continued. “He seems really depressed. I’m scared he’s going to die there.”
Cory laughed. “Don’t you think you’re being dramatic? He knows the ins and outs of jail; he’s an old pro.”
His mother shook her head. “This is different.”
“What’d he do this time?”
“He’s accused of…” she took a deep breath and exhaled. “Murder.”
“So what does this have to do with me?”
“When he called me last night, he begged me to get you to go see him. He wants to patch things up with you. I think you should see him now, if you can get away.”
“There’s nothing to patch up,” Cory said.
“Not this time, mother. Kevin is dead to me.”
She gasped. “Don’t. Please don’t say that.” She began to cry.
Cory closed his eyes and turned away. He couldn’t allow his mother to guilt him into reconciliation.
“I know he almost bankrupt you when he stole your identity, but you’ve more than recovered. Why can’t you let it go?”
“You don’t understand,” Cory said through clenched teeth. He concentrated on deep breathing and slow exhales. His therapist insisted it reduced angry outbursts, but he wasn’t so sure.
“I want to understand.” His mother stood up and walked toward Cory, sliding into the seat next to him and took his hand in hers. “Your anger is poison.”
He pulled his hand away. “I’m sorry. You need to go.”
Cory felt awful because his mother looked stunned, as if he’d just slapped her, but knowing the truth about Kevin would devastate her. His mother could never know that his dad – her husband – died because of Kevin. Witness accounts produced a sketch of one of the perpetrators who looked a lot like Kevin’s buddy, Rojo. The way Kevin practically spent his twenty-five percent share of the insurance money before he got it was another sign. Cory knew it, but he couldn’t prove it.
His mother walked to the door. When she reached it, she paused and turned around, “I wish you’d consider talking to him, before it’s too late.” She let herself out and headed down the narrow hallway to the lobby.
Cory watched her leave and wondered if dad’s life insurance bought her calf enhancements, too. How did I let myself become the keeper of dirty family secrets? He wondered.
At one-thirty, Cory returned to the office after his solo lunch at Sassie’s, the best burger place in Scottsdale. The waitresses in low-cut t-shirts didn’t hurt, either. He thought about the conversation with his mother and decided he would visit his brother after work. Not for reconciliation, but to free the poison and save himself.
“Good afternoon, Susan,” he said to the receptionist as he strode past the front desk.
She held up her hand. “Cory, wait.”
He backed up a couple steps. “What’s up?”
“A call came for you while you were at lunch. I think it was your mother.”
“Did she say what she wanted?”
“No. She started crying before I could offer to take a message.”
Cory’s heart dropped and settled on the half-pound burger he just ate. “Thanks. I’ll give her a call in my office.”
Susan nodded, her forehead creased with concern.
Cory tried three times before his fingers pressed the correct sequence of numbers.
“Cory!” His mother answered on the second ring.
“Did you try to call me?”
“Kevin’s dead!” She blurted and then burst into tears.
Cory exhaled a sigh and rested his forehead in his hand. His mother’s words, before it’s too late, echoed in his mind. Now he worried that the unburdened secret would tear at his insides, eroding his soul to a bitter shell. He felt a burn in his throat and decided that if regret had a taste, it would be cheeseburger with extra onions and fries.
“He wasn’t about to tell her that her neck couldn’t keep a secret.”
Love that line!! And loved the story. A nice little reminder that secrets can damage.
Thanks, Hilary! I’m glad you enjoyed the story. Yes, secrets can be damaging (Look at Arnold Schwarzenegger), but Cory has a choice about how much damage he will let it do.
If regret had a taste it would be that of his mother’s tears.
That would be a sweet sentiment, Carl. But I’m afraid Cory is too wrapped up in himself and his image for it to occur to him.
I feel bad for Cory – his brother committed the crimes, but it is Cory who is stuck with the pain of it, now that Kevin’s dead. I explored that theme in a similar story a couple years back, but never polished up for publication. My surviving character was dealing with guilt over knowledge of the murder his brother committed, but he did not have sibling forgiveness issues.
We must be on a similar wavelength this month, because my next story for the blog starts out: “I’ll never forget the day a murderer walked into my antiques store.”
I guess we have mayhem on the mind. -Jen 🙂
Murder and mayhem…the makings of a fun story, no? Guilt and regret are both powerful emotions that I think many people can relate to. I know I’ve felt my fair share of both 😉
I can’t wait to read your story – that first line sounds interesting. Thanks for the teaser, Jen!
Great story! I loved it. SAS has a point. Cory is left with secrets, guilt and regret. I feel really bad for him.
I’m happy you liked the story, Clar. I don’t know if Cory would’ve felt any better had he made other choices. It’s one of those situations where bad feelings would result no matter what.
When an ending is left unsettled, the reader wonders what would have happened if the end had been different. If Cory had visited his brother in prison, I wonder if his brother would have said things that might have sickened Cory’s heart even more than feeling guilty for his failure to visit sooner, or maybe Cory may have said something that added to his brother’s grief, thus adding more pain in the aftermath. You have a fine talent for writing, Janna. Blessings…
Carol – thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts about the story. There are things that could have happened differently to ease his regret, or fuel his anger. I do agree that had he seen his brother and said terrible things, he would have taken on the burden of responsibility for the outcome. I appreciate your kind words and hope that my writing continues to improve with practice.
You are an excellent writer, Janna.
Thanks for your support, Carol 🙂
Interesting story, Janna. But I didn’t like or feel sorry for any of the characters.
Now he worried that the unburdened secret would tear at his insides, eroding his soul to a bitter shell. He felt a burn in his throat and decided that if regret had a taste, it would be cheeseburger with extra onions and fries.
Wonderful ending, but I would encourage Cory to spill the beans rather than allowing the secret to tear at his insides.
I might even encourage him to do it at the funeral for Kevin. To let everyone know the kind of person they are morning.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the story, Nancy. I’m sorry you didn’t connect with any of these characters…maybe next time 🙂
Cory didn’t speak up partially because he didn’t want his mom to suffer with knowing, but also because he knew that she ‘babied’ Kevin…if Cory told her, she might turn against him in defense of Kevin (which would also feel terrible.) Even if he “spilled the beans” at the funeral, his mom would probably chalk it up to Cory’s bitterness and see it as a cruel lie meant to destroy her memories of Kevin. He was in a no-win situation.
I don’t see it as a “no-win situation.”
If he tells the truth then he KNOWS that he told the truth. What his mother chooses to do with that information is her business.
If she turns against Cory for telling the truth . . . that might be a real win for Cory. 😀
He might be better off having her out of his life.
BTW: I’m not trying to “argue” with you about your interpretation as a “reader” . . . but not all readers are going to see it as a “no win” scenario. I sure don’t.
There’s one thing for sure, not all readers will view any situation the same way. We all carry a lifetime of experiences that color how we view the world. That’s what makes life so interesting 🙂
I love your descriptions of the mother…about her eyes being the last remaining genuine untouched part of her body, and where Cory thought she raised her eyebrows, but her eyes only got wider. Funny. They were all in a pretty sad state, but those kinds of things do happen to families.
Thanks, Patti. They were all a little messed up – especially Cory. I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment on the story.
Janna ~ I’ve thought more about the story and read it to BFF to see whether he shared my concerns about the way you painted your characters. He does.
If you want your readers to conclude that Cory really is between a rock and a hard place, you need to re-write the beginning of the story to paint a different picture of the relationship between Cory and his mother.
As it stands, he resents her showing up at the office, he slams down the phone, he storms down the hall, boiling anger turning into simmering resentment.
A loving son who cared about “devastating” his mother with the truth would not worry about maintaining a position of power by sitting 10 feet away from her at the conference room table. A son who is focused on his mother’s feelings would not be laughing at her chicken neck or speculating about calf enhancements.
That’s why the ending is so unbelievable to me and to BFF. It’s not that NO SON would want to protect his mother from the truth . . . it’s that the characters that you have created do not appear to be in that situation.
To make the story more compelling, Cory would react warmly to his mother’s appearance and be solicitous of her comfort ~ not focused on the clouds of Chanel. “Hey, Mom. What brings you out so early in the morning? Can I get you some coffee or tea? Let’s go into the conference room. I’m free until 9:30.”
In the conference room, he would inquire after her health and well-being, “How are you doing in the house without dad? Are you managing OK? Do you want to come over for Sunday dinner? Suzi and the kids would love to see you.”
She could then bring up Kevin and you could reveal his resentment toward the “black sheep of the family” at that point.
Then, when you got to the end, readers would understand why this loving son wouldn’t want to devastate his poor widowed mother with the truth about Kevin.
As it stands, she seems like a deluded bitch who used the insurance money to subtract a few years from her visage and who can’t see what a loser Kevin is . . . despite the fact that he repeatedly ended up in jail. And Cory seems like someone who would relish the idea of finally telling his chicken necked, calf-enhanced, Chanel wearing mother (who he deeply resents) what Kevin was really like.
A few posts ago, you shared your desire to strengthen the characters in your stories. That’s why I’m back sharing my thoughts about how your characters seem to be painted to readers who have only just met them.
Thanks for sharing your viewpoint on the story and characters, Nancy. I do appreciate the feedback 🙂