Dan arrived to the bar so early that only gloomy faces were present, huddled close and sipping on whatever would warm their souls. He ordered tea and waited for the weather forecast to appear on the big screens. As soon as the forecast ended, he slipped out of the bar and camouflaged well amongst hotel staff lingering the halls, eyelids half-shut.
He pulled out his key and unlocked his hotel room, his footsteps lenient against the carpet. Ash had sprawled across his side of the bed since he'd left, her stomach sticking out and feet tasseled with the sheets. He gazed at Elaine, who was taking perfectly fine to Ash hogging most of the blanket, and as a matter of fact she was in a deep sleep.
Dan was reminded of how Elaine had come to him apologizing after they had fought a day ago. Of course she would go to a line-up, she said. He pretended to be happy while he knew she had no desire to attend and would only do so for his sake.
What's so bad about revenge? He wondered to himself. Revenge...? Was it correct to address it as such? The culprit had committed a slew of crimes, including murder; some prison time was only what he deserved.
With so much on Dan's mind and Ash snoring in his place on the bed, he decided he would wander the hotel. He buried his hands into his pockets as he went outside to admire the hotel in the proper light. The ice suffocating the cement crunched below him and he tilted his head up to better look at the structure. It hailed six stories above him, its red bricks darkened by age.
He had strewn off the path and was rounding the back side of the building when he noticed an older man sitting on a bench. They locked eyes, and Dan immediately recognized him.
He crossed the courtyard and the man averted his eyes, feigning that they had not seen one another. When Dan reached his bench, he huffed a long billow of cigarette smoke into Dan's face. "I don't do autographs, so scram."
He grinned and said "It's Dan. We've only met a few times through—" he coughed as more smoke met his face. "Through Carly."
"No, I meant that we met a few times before. Last I saw you we talked about a paper you wrote back in college."
"Look, I don't know what you're going on about, Jan, but I honestly—"
"It's Dan. Daniel Phillips."
"Daniel? Hold up, are you the one with a presentation tonight?"
He laughed. "I remember you now! You worked with Carly or something, back when you had more hair!"
"Everyone's talking about you, do you know that?"
"Aw come on, of course they are. I read your work a few months back because I was curious what all the fuss was about. It was a pretty solid contribution, minus chapter 11."
"I get most critics on my ass for that chapter."
"I didn't quite get it." Luke Simmons emitted more smoke, and instead of Dan's face he let it waft in the air. "What's semi-conscious reasoning? Some form of mild delirium?"
"In a way. It's a certain state of mind I believe exists in response—"
"Fuck! Hold up a second. Move this way a little."
Dan edged closer to Luke's bench as he tossed his cigarette end aside. "Sorry, I just don't want to be seen. I've got a busy weekend ahead of me already, then you lot all want to get a word in when you see me. Goddamn, my kid just got out of surgery and I have to be at this stupid convention."
"How's he doing?"
"Loads better already, experiencing less pain and whatnot. You're good friends with Carly, aren't you? Can you convince her to have me back?"
"I assumed she wanted you back, at least for the sake of the kids."
"Hell no! I tried to talk to her about it. I said I'm done fooling around if Joseph's life is on the line, then she says she's only putting up with me for the time being because Joseph wants us both there for him. She's driving me mad, she used to play it out like she missed me and now it's like I'm the scum of the earth. Lemme give you some advice: don't ever get married."
"Advice taken. Honestly your daughter's been the most distraught with you gone. She hopped into my trunk for a ride here just to see you."
"Is that supposed to be a joke?"
"It'd be nice if that were the case."
Luke grunted and dug out another cigarette. "That girl, I swear! Listen, I can't take her this weekend, it's just too—"
"It's really alright, I can take care of her. Carly's dropping by sometime today to pick her up."
"Carly will be here? That's another chance for me to convince her, then." His mood improved, he stood up and shook ice from his shoes, pulling his wallet out from his back pocket. He handed Dan several large bills.
"Here Daniel, just take this for her food and whatever else she needs."
"This much...? No, no, I couldn't—"
"Goddamn, just take it."
He did as Luke asked, and once the bills met with the interior of his wallet he felt feeble for trying to deny them. He split up with Luke, who left in the opposite direction to avoid the rush of people out front. It was bustling more than it had been before inside the hotel. Most were focusing on setting up their booths before the rest of the hotel awakened.
Elaine was standing outside one of the conference rooms, and sitting against the wall behind her were Ash and Weston partaking in an early morning argument, their voices bouncing off the walls.
"Dan, where'd you go off to?" Elaine questioned once he had joined the group.
"I had to check the weather about that storm. It shouldn't affect us too much, it's supposed to hit overnight. Why's Weston fighting with Ash?"
"I think Ash insulted him again."
"Weston!" Dan hollered for his attention. "Lay off the kid, Weston!"
"Fine, fine!" Weston sighed. "She's never going to get it."
"What were you planning to do this morning?"
"Well, there was this presentation in an hour I was hoping to get a seat at."
"When will Lindsay be here?"
"Soon I think."
"I'm dropping into this panel. Do you mind watching Ash for a bit?"
"I don't need to be watched." Ash snapped from behind crossed arms.
"I'll watch her." Elaine offered.
"No, El, you're coming into the panel with me." Dan said, frowning.
"Why can't I go into the panel with you guys?" Ash beamed. "It'll be fun!"
Dan let his guard down and allowed her to join them, but when they got into the room it was as he had first concluded and most of the seats wound up to be taken. They struggled to find three seats but could not without splitting their party. Elaine convinced two people to move to a better spot across the room, and as they took their seats Ash radiated with glee. She got comfortable in her seat and hugged onto Elaine's arm. She'd yearned to spend quality time with Elaine, and it was all the same for Dan because she saw him as her friend too.
Upon exploring the crowd she noticed two men a few rows ahead turned in their seats to stare at Dan. One of the two met eyes with Ash and hit the other in the arm, prompting him to catch sight of her as well.
"Ummm," Ash mumbled. "Mrs. Phillips?"
"Yes?" Elaine looked from the stage and down to Ash.
"Those guys are watching Mr. Phillips."
Ash looked back but they had vanished. Before she was able to eyeball the room for the missing suspects, they reappeared one row ahead, worming by those already seated and onward towards the empty seats in front of Dan and Elaine.
Dan lowered the pamphlet he had been reading as soon as one began, "Sorry to bother you, sir. We couldn't help but notice you look like Daniel Phillips."
The other man swatted him. "Thatishim, Frank!"
"So it is!"
"Do you remember me, Dan? It's Glen Abney."
"I remember you. You invited us to dinner before."
Glen smiled. "Right. And I see Elaine's here too! Where's the little one?"
"Who's this?" Glen motioned to Ash and then whispered so only Dan could hear. "Isn't she Luke's kid?"
"Yeah. Guess we're sort of babysitting for the day..."
"No way! Luke Simmons?" Frank lurched forward for a better look at Ash, whose face had crumpled as if she was ill. "Damn! She really must belong to the Simmons'—she's a tiny clone of Dr. Simmons! Hey, hey Glen," he snickered. "Check it out, that's probably the face Dr. Simmons makes when we send her an invite to speak every year."
"Shut up fatass!" Ash shouted, nearly landing a kick to his face. By that point many people were looking at the group, and many others were trying to ignore them. Dan couldn't help but notice all the eyes that were looking distinctly his way, and the room was becoming warm at an increasing rate. The memory of the last time Dan had seen Glen Abney had stricken him. Glen's home was small but inviting, and Glen had a daughter the same age as his son. He remembered it a highlight of the evening that their children got along so well, and the thought was beginning to nauseate him.
To forgive—to forgive! He could never! But how could he even if he wanted to? It was impossible. If he ever found the culprit, he would rip the man to shreds!
He felt Elaine's hand encompass his, momentarily pulling him out of the wretched depths of his mind. He yanked away from her with little hesitance, but she didn't appear insulted. "Are you feeling okay?"
"I'm fine." Dan stood and nodded to excuse himself, although Glen was the only of the two newcomers aware. "I just need some air."
He slipped out of the room just as the lights darkened to cue the start of the panel. Dan did not return, and by the end of the presentation Elaine had seen more of the door than she had of the lecture.
Glen and Frank said that they'd been hoping to ask Dan a few questions about his work. Elaine apologized for Dan’s disappearance but expressed that he was sure to be able to speak with them some time that day.
Now that the morning was nearing afternoon, the halls were packed tight with people. Elaine struggled through a large crowd with Ash at her tail. Amongst the faces Elaine saw Weston, and she snatched his sleeve, forcing him out of the pack as it passed.
"Elaine!” Weston smiled. “There you are!"
"Have you seen Dan?"
"Nope. Did you lose him in these massive crowds?"
"He may have wandered outside, but I'm worried..."
"Don't worry, he'll be fine! Look who's here," Weston pulled her forward from a little ways behind him where she stood. "It's Lindsay!"
Lindsay flushed pink and extended her hand. "I've heard so much about you. Dan told me you were my biggest fan."
Elaine received her hand and nodded, gazing upward. "Yes...you're...well, taller than I'd imagined."
Weston chuckled and elbowed Lindsay. "Your mere presence leaves your fans flabbergasted! Don't forget to give her that book, by the way."
She pushed him back, the pinkness in her cheeks returning as she rummaged through her bag, pulling out a sleek hardcover novel. "This isn't on the market yet but I wanted you to have my latest."
Elaine took it, gaping at the cover as its author blathered. "My first novel is really popular thanks to you. I saw the news segment about how it gained popularity locally a while back. Everyone was so angry that the recommendation had come from an elementary school teacher...what a load of garbage, those stuck up parents need to stop filtering things for their children so much."
Elaine was examining the novel from every angle, flipping about it slowly. She didn't get a chance to thank Lindsay, for when she looked up from her gift Weston was hurrying to pull Lindsay along before another crowd swept through the halls. "Hurry or we'll miss the panel—you're going to love this one."
"Wes, slow down! I can never keep up with you!"
"Elaine, we'll see you in a bit!" Weston waved.
Ash tugged at her shirt as they headed in the opposite direction. "What'd that librarian give you, Mrs. Phillips?"
She gave Ash the novel, and Ash handled it roughly as she tore through. "Ooh, it even has an autograph in it. I bet you could sell it for a lot of money like this! 'Elaine, thank you so much for'...crap, I can't make out this handwriting."
They wandered two floors of the hotel in search for Dan but their search hit a dead end. Elaine brought Ash to the cafeteria when she began craving lunch, and they found Dan alone at a table with his face in a file.
"Jeez, you left us to work?" Ash asked him in between spoonfuls. "You look like my mom now, she always has her face in a file."
Dan didn't respond so Ash looked to Elaine for attention, but she was sifting her food with her fork in a daze almost as if Dan's sulkiness had rubbed off onto her.
When Dan closed the file he saw Lindsay's novel sitting on the table and grinned, taking it in his hands. "You ran into Lindsay? She told me she was going to give you a copy and I kept it a surprise. I let it slip how you were a fan, so—" He paused and turned the novel around to the back. "What's this about?"
"I haven't read any of it yet."
Ash dropped her spoon on to her plate and gazed at Elaine and Dan with eyes that twinkled. "Am I allowed to get seconds?"
Dan lowered the novel to give her cash and she nearly tripped lining up for more food. He set the book aside beside the file and said "Can I borrow this for a bit?"
"You want to read it?"
"Yeah, it looks a lot different than her first book. I think I'll try to analyze it...are you okay, El?"
"I suppose I've walked around too much...my leg is killing me."
"I told you to bring your crutches with you this weekend."
At the mention of those dreary planks of wood the doctor had permitted her to abandon, she felt sicker than ever. She shoved her plate aside and said "I'm just going back to the room to rest for a bit."
"Are you sure?"
She cupped her hand over her mouth after standing to endure a wave of nausea. Ash slammed her tray down onto the table and scuffed the legs of the chair into the floor as she flung herself with excitement into her seat.
"Where're you goin' Mrs. Phillips?" Ash asked through a mouthful.
Instead of answering Elaine turned and staggered away, her hand still securing her lips. Dan shouted after her "There's a restroom just out front!"
"What's wrong with her?"
"It's her leg...she should be fine, her pain medicine is in the room."
"She kinda looks like she's got a stomach flu, Mr. Phillips. She barely touched her lunch."
"My, I didn't know you were so informed on the subject, Dr. Simmons."
Ash spat out her food, sending chunks flying across the table. "Don't call me that you ass!"
"Now you sound like her too."
Ash became so irritated that she stuck in her headphones and pushed the volume up so that she could ignore Dan while she finished eating. He smirked and checked the time—Luke's presentation was going to start and he had been waiting all day to see it. As soon as Ash finished her second plate they rushed out to secure good seats.
They had given Luke one of the largest rooms in the hotel, recognizing that his presentation was likely to draw a large crowd. The seats in the room were already halfway filled. Dan focused on finding two seats at the front of the stage, and he saw Weston and Lindsay at the end of the third row. He slinked by to get to them, and Ash diligently followed, headphones still blaring.
"Hey." Dan greeted them as he settled next to Weston, but the couple was in the middle of a fierce argument. Ash slumped into the seat on the other side of Dan, arms crossed in displeasure.
"—That's because you've always got your face in a book!"
"Don't even go there, Wes! All you ever do is leer at other women!"
"I'm only looking! And it's not like I completely lose myself, how could you even compare the two?"
Lindsay stood and edged past Weston to leave the room. He gripped her sleeve, and cooed, insisting she stay, but she wrenched herself free and left. Weston did not bother to pursue her and instead heaved a sigh and met his face into the palm of his hand. "I hate when she does this!"
"Does what?" Dan said.
"She's always hiding everything from me, I can't stand it. She's so much worse about it now than when we used to date before..."
"...Already reading her newest, I see?"
"I'm trying to analyze it." Dan turned a page. "It's different than her last."
"I read the unpublished version. It was a little depressing, but..." Weston looked about. "Where's Elaine at?"
"I think she'll be here soon, she said she wanted to see it earlier."
"Did you hear about that blizzard that'll be coming through tonight?"
"It's a blizzard now?" He glanced up. "Weird, it wasn't supposed to intensify..."
"Odd, isn't it? I'm not worried about it though, it's supposed to hit pretty late tonight. Are you ready for your presentation later? I can totally be there to back you up!"
"Why not, I'm sure there'll be plenty of seats available."
"It'll be packed! I've been telling everyone about it. I ran into these guys who wanted to talk to you, apparently you've met 'em?"
"Eh, I've only met Glen."
The room hushed one another when a younger man came onto stage. The lights dimmed and the young man babbled a little before introducing Luke Simmons. When Luke entered from backstage, the room erupted into clapping. He reached the podium and tried to settle his audience with short waves of his hand.
Around Halfway through Luke's presentation, Elaine appeared and took the seat vacant beside Weston. Weston noticed her gentle blue eyes casting glances to Dan every so often, and witnessing it enough motivated him to switch places with her. The couple began to exchange whispers immediately.
Ash had the hood of her coat looming above her closed eyes, and during quieter parts of Luke's lecture her music was audible to some in the audience. The presentation ended in loud applause, startling Ash to awaken. She jolted up and rubbing away a line of drool that was beginning to trace down her chin.
"What'd you think, Ash?" Weston flashed the girl a sly grin. "He's pretty talented, right?"
"He sucks. He put me to sleep."
"I was going to go backstage to see if I could talk to him. Are you coming with me?"
"Hell no! I'll go with Mrs—...they left already? Where'd they go?"
"Listen kid, it's pretty obvious you only snuck along to talk to your dad."
"Why would I want to talk to him? He made my mom miserable."
"Then why don't you tell him that?"
"Why don't you—hey!Let go of me!"
Weston flung Ash over his shoulder and headed backstage. When he found Luke with several other men circled around him, he plopped Ash to her feet. She shouted and kicked his leg "Don't ever do that again! You're theworsttherapist I'veever—"
"'Scuse me, Mr. Simmons!" Weston waved hectically and nudged Ash through the crowd. "Your daughter wants to speak with you, she came all the way here just to—"
"I did not!" Ash blushed. A few of the men chuckled and separated for Ash. Luke Simmons got on his knees to address her. "Hey there kiddo. Been a while, hasn't it?"
She was speechless, her head hung low and her messy dark bangs covering her eyes. Luke cleared his throat and tried again. "How have things been at school?"
"Fine." Ash uttered.
"Aren't you going to have your school dance soon? You were pretty excited about that before."
"I'm not going anymore."
"...There's someone I want to go with but...he'll never say yes if I ask."
"A boy, huh?" Luke asked over the group's soft laughter. "Why would he refuse to go to the dance with someone as pretty as you?"
"He likes another girl..."
"She's a dumb weirdo who thinks she's a librarian—and she isn't even that pretty."
There was more chortling from the group, and now even Luke was laughing. Ash moved closer to her father and whispered so quietly that Weston barely caught wind of it.
"I missed you."
"I missed you too."
"Mom misses you."
"That I'm not so sure about."
"Joey misses you. You're supposed to be with him, not here at this conference."
He nodded. "You're right."
"Will you come back home with us?"
Weston beamed and wriggled out of the crowd before he could hear any more, and strode through the back door that exited into the halls. Finally, Ash was taking positive steps towards improving! It had only taken him a few months! How long would it have taken Dan?
He shook his head, chasing off his negative reflections. Yes Dan would have helped Ash faster, there was no doubt about that, but for being his first child patient he knew he had done well.
Weston spent some time in the hotel lobby examining all of the booths with newfound passion. He later discovered Elaine and Ash together near one of the booths towards the back. Ash was detailing every moment with her father, stirring up more prideful-ness in Weston. He used to wonder if he could ever become as great a therapist as Dan, and with Ash's success he knew it was achievable.
With the afternoon ticking away, Weston went to see how Lindsay was holding up. He yawned and jiggled the key into the lock, and his hotel door swayed open. The lights were out and the curtains closed, blocking what little sun remained in the sky. He left the door partially open so that the hall light would leak into the room and he edged towards his bed, shaking Lindsay awake from underneath her fortress of blankets.
"Ugh," Lindsay murmured, stiffening. Only a lock of her blonde hair was visible from underneath the blankets. "Just leave me alone, Wes."
"Christ, are you still upset?"
"Don't you want to see Dan's lecture?"
"I'll be there in a bit." She curled up and began to doze off again before Weston tore the blankets away.
"Wes, stop. I said I'd be there in a bit, just let me sleep."
"You're avoiding the problem again."
"There's no problem."
"Lindsay, come on, let's talk about it."
"There's nothing to say."
"Maybe you'd rather talk to Dan about it later?"
"There's nothing to talk about, Wes! It's nothing." Lindsay pulled one of the blankets back over her head, becoming a turtle once more. Weston stared at her form under the blanket, and this time he carefully picked the blanket from her head. She glared at him and flopped over so that he was facing the back of her head.
"Listen, Lindsay...I don't know what happened when we were apart, but it doesn't matter to me. I still love you just the same and I always will. That's why I want to ask you if—"
"No!" Lindsay wailed, throwing the blanket from herself, climbing hectically from the bed. "Wes, please don't—"
"You were about to propose! Don't pretend you weren't!"
"Is that bad?"
"Wes!" She squealed in frustration, taking off for the door. He reached her, having become just as panicked. "Shit, Lindsay! If you don't feel ready, then—"
"I won't ever be ready!"
"What do you mean? You don't want to?"
"Things have changed."
"What's changed exactly? Ever since your sister died, you'd always said—"
"I don't want a family anymore, Wes. I've told you things are different now. Please, just..." she skulked away from him, and this time he let her, watching her fumble down the hall. She sped past the lobby and outside, stepping onto the snow covered ground. The sun was down then and little flecks of snow fell from the sky, adding a touch of peacefulness to the scene.
She couldn't give the scenery the appreciation it deserved. Her heart was pounding against her chest as she dashed around to the backside of the building where a lonely bench awaited her, distanced from the rest of humanity. In her rush she ran into another man coming from the opposite direction, and she held her nose as his book echoed across the courtyard after hitting the concrete. "I'm sorry!"
She lowered her hand from her nose. It was Dan she had galloped into. She looked down, watching as he picked up her newest novel.
"I-I'm sorry Dan..." Lindsay said slowly. "Are you alright?"
She bit her lip. "Yes—I mean no—well, Weston proposed. This is what I was afraid of all along!"
"Why are you afraid of marrying him?"
She clammed up, silencing. Dan frowned, eyeing her carefully. "It's okay to be afraid. There's a lot to be afraid about. Maybe you're afraid it'll be rough financially? Or..."
"Maybe you're afraid he'll find out about the last time you tried to off yourself. Or maybe he'll find out about your nightmares, and then he'll put one and two together—and maybe—"
He grabbed her before she could flee, shouting at the top of his lungs as her book toppled to the ground."How can you live with yourself? How can you live every day without knowing what you did?"
"I—oh, God," Lindsay struggled against him but could not escape, and tears were already seeping down her face. "You don't understand—I wanted to know—I wanted to turn myself in, I—"
She hit the ground as he threw her down, meeting his hands tightly against her neck, blocking her airway. Her empty expression tethered to meet his, desperately searching his face for any sign of lenience. There was nothing of the sort. Dan's face had warped with rage, and at every breath she struggled to take, the knot around his heart loosened.
This was it—this was the moment! Revenge! And this was the face of the offender, purpling with every unsuccessful gasp. How had he not realized before her newest novel revealed it to him in between every line? Her hesitation, her guilt; her nightmares wherein it all resurfaced, haunted by visions of faceless crippled dead.
There was a shout that wasn't his, and he hit his head as he fell aside in the snow. His chest tightened as he heard Lindsay heaving for air, recovering. He shakily shoved the arms that held him away.
"Get off, get off! Let me go!" he begged to whoever held him from behind as he watched Lindsay dashing to freedom. After seeing the last of her round the corner he wrenched himself away and found it had been Elaine holding him back. A ways in front of him was Ash, eyes widened in the direction Lindsay had escaped.
"You—" Dan stumbled on his words. "You recognized—her! You knew as soon as you met!"
"What's going on?" Ash said.
"Dan, please..." Elaine mumbled, moving towards him. "You can't hurt her, what good will that do? If you—wait! Wait, Dan!"
He would not hear anything otherwise. It was the first time since his son's death that he had been gifted with the feeling of relief and closure, yet he had only felt it as he was taking Lindsay's life. If that's what it meant, then there was a chance it would be worth it.