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Blood on Blood
“There‟s a ghost in my house.”
This is what Rob told his son when he showed up unannounced on Eric‟s doorstep at 3:15
in the morning. Eric stood petrified in his door. He was slightly slouched, his button-down neatly
tucked into his khakis. Rob was still in his worker‟s overalls—the blue denim ones stained with
sandwich grease— as if he had been called away in the middle of dinner. His cheeks flapped and
his mouth curved downwards. The straggly hairs on his balding head were tousled and thin. He
looked drained. The red eye flight from Omaha to San Francisco, and the cab ride into Berkeley
had worn Rob through, physically and fiscally. Or maybe it was the ghost.
Rob pushed his suitcase into the living room before Eric had a chance to respond. He
threw himself onto the futon. Eric cringed at the thought of grease stains on the white upholstery.
Rob leaned back, rubbed his hands up and down his legs, and let out a sigh.
“Whatchu look like that for?” Rob asked, “Why aren‟t you in your PJ‟s? For Chrissake
it‟s 3 am. Don‟t you sleep?”
Eric shook his head as if trying to lodge the speech mechanism in his brain.
“Wait, don‟t tell me,” Rob sat up instinctively, like a bloodhound on a scent. He scanned
the studio, his eyes darting from the living room, in which he sat, to the kitchen off to the side.
Eric imagined him mentally added up the cost of his furniture—the slate tile coffee table, the
tiffany floor lamp, the pinewood table. Rob‟s head swung sharply in the opposite direction. He
peered down the single hallway towards the bedroom and winked suggestively at his son. “Don‟t
mind me, I can make myself at home on your couch.”
“Dad, what are you—”
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“If you‟ve got a girl here, I won‟t disrupt.”
“But I don‟t—”
“Eric, what‟s going on?” a soft, tinkling voice broke through the short corridor. Eric
started, but he was too slow. Rob had already gotten up and made his way across the living room
to the small pink figure in the hall.
“Robert Plum. Eric‟s Dad. Pleased to meet you,” Rob clasped the delicate hand in his
gruff one and shook vigorously. “Don‟t mind me. I don‟t want to interrupt.”
The girl lifted her dewy eyes to Eric who was standing helplessly behind his father.
“Jessica Stanton,” she replied. She tucked a platinum strand of hair behind her ear and
flashed a Crest white smile.
“Are you Eric‟s girlfriend. Or…?”
Eric let out a groan and pressed his hands into his eyes. Maybe if he pressed hard enough
he could induce a blackout and disappear. Two hours ago things had been going perfectly. Two
hours ago he had been blissfully unaware of the fact that his father was en route to Berkeley.
Eric had received the phone call at midnight. Jessica was crying. Small, pitiful sobs
jumbled her speech.
“Dave and I broke up. I have no place to go.”
An hour later Eric had picked her up outside of Jupiter‟s. She wasn‟t drunk, though she
was trying desperately to be. She wobbled dangerously in her Steve Madden stilettos, clutching a
tiny green backpack with about two days worth of clothes inside. Eric drove her back to his
studio on the north side of campus, where it was significantly quieter, where they could talk.
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Jessica had tangled herself in Eric‟s crochet bedspread and told him everything. About
the party. About the girls. About the messages she had found on Dave‟s phone. The fight. The
words. The decision to leave. She cried and raged and rambled. Eric just listened. He listened
and he offered her his bed. He offered his home for as long as she needed it and his help for as
long as she wanted it. When Eric heard the knock on his door, he was expecting Dave. He had
braced himself and was prepared to fight him if he had to. Finding his father on the doorstep was
worse than being floored. It was worse than getting the wind knocked out of him. It would ruin
Eric could hear them now, chitter-chattering, making plans.
“No, I‟m not Eric‟s girlfriend… That‟s very kind of you… Sleep on the futon? No way.
You‟re his father. You get the bed… Don‟t worry about me, I can stay with my cousin. She lives
in Albany, close by...”
Eric listened to the words, even as they were directed at him, and made automatic
responses. He was losing Jessica now. He was about to have her to himself, for once, for the first
time, and now she was giving up her spot in Eric‟s bed. For what? For Rob? It was so like her.
How disgustingly sweet. Eric was simultaneously overcome by both love and hate. Why couldn‟t
she be more selfish?
The cousin was called. A cab was called. Jessica bid Rob good night with a gracious
smile, and then she was gone. As the door swung closed and reverberated in its frame, Eric found
the switch to the mechanism in his brain. He opened his mouth. His tongue was loosened.
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“What the fuck do you think you‟re doing?” Eric had turned away from the door to face
Rob head on. He was a full foot taller than him, despite the slouch, but what Rob lacked in height
he made up for in girth. He puffed and heaved like a tropical bird defending his territory.
“I told you. There‟s a ghost in my house.”
“What the fuck does that mean?”
Rob sighed, letting his chest plummet into his stomach.
“Listen, I‟m sorry. I‟m sorry I drove her away. But it‟s not like she‟s your girlfriend. I‟m
“Thanks for reminding me.” Eric threw up his hands in exasperation and acquiescence.
“Whatever. Let‟s just get some sleep, ok? It‟s fucking four am and I have class tomorrow.”
Eric lay awake for the next two hours thinking of Jessica. When he did doze, he dreamed
of his father and the fishing trip they had taken when Eric was still in high school. They had
driven up to Minnesota to fish for carp and sometime during the awkward interrogation about
girls and school, Rob had proclaimed himself a Latin scholar.
“Carpe diem! That‟s „seize the day,‟” Rob had announced.
“I know, Dad.”
“That‟s what we‟re doing now. Well, kind of. We‟re seizing the carp! How do you say
carp in Latin?”
“I don‟t know, Dad.”
Rob had spread his arms out on either side of him— an affirmation of his manhood and it
was at that moment, as those words were pronounced, that Eric realized that his father was
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ordinary. How could he, straight-A, straight-laced, Ivy-league-bound Eric, have sprung from the
same root as Rob? Rob who wiped his nose on his sleeve. Rob who burped at the dinner table.
Rob who got up in the morning and put his socks on before his pants. How could he be the
offshoot of a man who made Latin jokes about fish?
When Eric awoke the next morning he was groggy and irritated. The thoughts that had
sifted into his dreams had not allowed him much rest. He shuffled into the living room and gazed
at his sleeping father. His gaping mouth, his scraggily chin, his raucous snores. Eric shook his
head and proceeded to dress. He had class in an hour.
When Eric had gotten out of the shower he found Rob stretched out on the couch
spellbound by a soap opera. He was gaping open-mouthed, rubbing his hands up and down his
legs, leaving greasy handprints on his pants.
“Hey,” Eric greeted him. “I have class soon.”
“Don‟t mind me, I can take care of myself,” Rob replied without looking away from the
screen. “Just do what you do every day. Forget that I‟m here.”
“Why are you here, Dad? You still haven‟t told me.”
Rob looked at Eric briefly, not long enough to make it meaningful.
“When you‟re ready, we‟ll talk,” he replied. “I‟m going sight-seeing. Never been to
“It‟s all a bunch of smoke shops and second-hand clothing stores.”
“Don‟t sound much different from Omaha.”
For some reason, this comment irritated Eric, who was the first to acknowledge his city‟s
shortcomings. Love it or hate it, he had chosen to live in Berkeley, to study there and work there.
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It was his adoptive home, and despite its imperfections, he cringed to hear it being compared to
the home he had left behind.
“It‟s a lot different, actually.”
“I‟ll be the judge of that,” Rob said switching off the set. He got up with a stretch and a
bear yawn and strode over to Eric‟s bathroom. “Have a good class,” he said as he slid the door
Eric did not have a good class. The subject was philosophy; the discussion was on the
Meno. “Eudaimonia is typically translated as „happiness,‟” Eric wrote in his notes, “but the term
is closer to that of „human flourishing‟ which is the aim of all virtue.” The ink oozed out of
Eric‟s pen leaving blotches on the page. He stared into these big, blank holes and began to
doodle, drawing lines from one blotch to the next, connecting them until the page was one giant
web of ink. Eric inadvertently thought of Rob, who he was, their invisible connection. He could
only see his connection to his father through Angela, his mother. Angela who was soft-spoken
and reserved. Angela who kept her emotions to herself. She was the link between father and son,
the line between the blotches of ink that kept the web together. And that link was broken. Angela
She had died three months ago after a brief struggle with lung cancer. Angela had never
smoked. Eric readjusted fairly well after his mother‟s death. He had returned to school and
continued to pursue his PhD. He had heard from Rob occasionally over the course of the three
months, but Rob had never once alluded to his loneliness. He had never before mentioned any
ghosts and he had never revealed his intentions to visit.
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Sometime during the course of his daydream, class had let out. Eric glanced up from his
notes to see his classmates stuffing texts away and tucking in chairs. Eric shoved his notebook
into his bag and flung it across his back. He fished through his pocket for his phone and texted
Jessica. Maybe lunch would make up for the fiasco that was last night.
“He‟s just lonely,” said Jessica through a mouthful of alfalfa. She chomped hungrily on a
vegetarian wrap. “It‟s only been three months.” She and Eric were walking through the oak
grove by Memorial Stadium. It was a brisk autumn day, a cool breeze rustled Jessica‟s skirt, her
cream legs pimpled in the cold. She huddled closer to Eric and wrapped her arm around his.
“I know, but he keeps talking about a ghost,” Eric replied.
“I think he‟s losing it.”
Eric stared pensively at the pavement as if trying to find the answer to his father‟s
behavior in the cracks. He walked slowly trying to draw out the moment as long as he could.
“He‟s just sad,” said Jessica, “Don‟t be sorry about last night. He‟s your Dad, and he
“How are you doing?” Eric gave Jessica‟s arm a slight squeeze.
“I‟m holding up. I‟ll be ok. Think about your Dad.”
Eric rolled his eyes. He liked Jessica, but her selflessness was starting to get on his
nerves. Couldn‟t she just sympathize with him, for once, instead of Rob?
“We don‟t get along,” he told her. His eyebrows furrowed revealing his disappointment.
“You‟re your mother‟s son, I guess.”
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Eric knew relatively little about his mother‟s past. He knew that she had come from a
well-to-do family of Bostonians and that she had met Rob when he had come to do the electrical
wiring in her home. She and Rob had fallen in love and were married after three weeks, and from
what Eric could gather, Angela‟s family had not approved. For this reason Eric had never known
his maternal relatives except for once when Angela‟s older brother had come to Eric‟s eleventh
birthday. Angela had not called the man her brother, but Eric had overheard her in the kitchen
asking the man about “Dad,” Eric‟s grandfather, or step-grandfather.
“He‟s dying,” the man told her. Eric had found the man attractive in a standoffish kind of
way. He leaned against the sink in his pepper grey suit, occasionally flicking ash off his cigarette
down the drain.
Eric recalled Angela‟s reaction to her brother‟s words. Her expression was firm, resolved,
maybe even stiff. She did not allow the news to weaken her, to make her cry. She stood over the
kitchen counter with her sandwich tray, nodded once, and went outside. That was that.
Eric was his mother‟s son. He had the same firm resolve, the same ability to control
emotion. Eric had not cried when he received the news of his mother‟s death. He had not cried
on the flight home and he had not cried when he saw her in the open casket. Her black hair fell
softly against the white silk pillow and framed her pale, powdered face. This is not my mother,
Eric had thought. The face was not the same. It was made-up, unnatural. The figure lying dead
was a statue of wax, not his mother.
Eric had not cried when Angela was finally laid in the ground. He had not cried when his
father held him and sobbed into his shoulder. Rob had cried. Loudly. Rob had cried from the
moment she had died until the moment refreshments were served at the funeral, and occasionally
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after that. Rob‟s grief had not moved Eric. If anything it had only irritated him more. Rob‟s
moans and sniffles broke the solemn silence of the awful fact: mother is dead.
Jessica tugged on Eric‟s arm bringing him out of his thoughts. “We‟re thinking about
going to karaoke tomorrow night,” she said. “I invited your father.”
Eric felt his mouth fall open. He stopped walking and turned to look at Jessica. Her
expression was calm and resolved. She stared back at Eric, her blueberry eyes holding a glint of
challenge in them.
“Why?? When did you see him?”
Jessica‟s expression changed. Her eyebrows relaxed and her face flushed pink for the
briefest moment. She casually replied that she had run into Rob earlier that day.
“Where? What was he doing?” Eric pressed. Jessica was looking at her feet now. Her
eyes had lost all hint of challenge.
“If I tell you, you can‟t get mad at your Dad, ok?” she said, “It‟s really funny, so you
shouldn‟t be mad.” Jessica smiled and let out a tinkling laugh. Eric braced himself. If it involved
Rob, he was certain it would be less amusing than embarrassing.
“I ran into him about an hour ago here at the Oak Grove,” Jessica told Eric. “He
was…kind of being harassed by one of the tree dwellers. You know, those hippies who live in
the oaks. I guess Rob had said something to one of them, so they were throwing food and other
things—don‟t do that, Eric! It was funny, really!”
Eric had buried his face in his hands and was letting out a succession of “oh no‟s.”
“It‟s not his fault—the tree people are really aggressive!” Jessica laughed. She placed a
hand on either one of Eric‟s and was prying them away from his face. Eric looked at her and she
was smiling, the corners of her mouth crinkled into her cheeks, forming a slight dimple on the
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right side. Eric felt overwhelmed by her beauty. And scared. He repressed the urge to kiss her,
pulling his hands out of her grasp and dropping them to his side. He let out a cough that was half
of a laugh and shrugged his shoulders.
“I guess if you still invited him to karaoke after that, you knew what you were getting
Eric descended the stairwell of the Down-Low with his father in tow. They had just
gotten their ids checked. The bouncer had taken one look at Rob—hand outstretched, offering a
driver‟s license—let out a gruff laugh and said, “It‟s ok, Pops. I believe you.” Rob had laughed
along with the bouncer and made some offhand remark about his boyish demeanor. Eric had
The two rounded a corner at the end of the stairway and scanned the lounge. There was a
scattering of tables and couches arranged sporadically throughout the room. A long counter
stretched half the length of the wall to the right where a few lonely patrons sipped their
Guinnesses and a group of college girls took tequila shots. To the left were a couple of pool
tables guarded by a crowd of bear-like frat boys. At the front of the room was a raised platform
sprawled over an empty dance floor.
Eric felt Rob tug at his sleeve. He turned to look at him and tried not to make a face at the
outfit. Rob had abandoned his token overalls for a silk lavender button-up with a red diamond
pattern and a pair of black trousers, two sizes too big. He had even done his hair. His pitifully
thinning locks were meticulously arranged and gelled in place. Eric breathed in the strong scent
of cinnamon that lingered about Rob‟s neck. California North was the name of Rob‟s favorite
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eau de toilette, so naturally, after arriving in Northern California, Rob felt the need to douse
himself in it.
Rob was pointing at the far left corner where Jessica and a few others were seated in a
plush red booth. The two approached the group and Jessica leapt to her feet throwing her arms
around Rob and Eric in turn.
“I‟m so glad you came,” she said, “We‟re just deciding what songs to sing. Take a seat.”
Jessica introduced Rob to the rest of the group, mostly philosophy students, though there
were a few engineers as well. She ran through the names quickly and Eric was pleased to note
that Rob couldn‟t follow. He already did not like that Rob was so chummy with Jessica. The last
thing he needed was for Rob to be weaseling his way into the rest of the group.
The songbook was passed around and Eric fingered through it hesitantly. If he were
going to sing, he would need a drink. Eric looked up across the table and caught his friend‟s eye.
“Charlie, you look like you could use a drink. Let‟s go to the bar.”
Eric and Charlie rose to leave when Rob piped up,
“I could use a drink myself.”
Eric rolled his eyes but said nothing. The three of them headed over to the bar and Rob
proceeded to chat up Charlie. He asked Charlie about school, what it was like to be a philosophy
student, whether or not he thought philosophy was just a bunch of hogwash sometimes.
“Dad, I study philosophy!” Eric interrupted.
“I know, I know! I‟m not knocking it or anything. I just wonder if you ever think things
like, „boy, that Descartes really got things wrong—what an impractical bastard!‟”
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Charlie laughed and said something about feeling that way all the time about
philosophers he didn‟t like. Eric made a comment about how understanding Descartes was more
important than knowing how to electrically wire a house.
“I don‟t know about that…” said Rob, “Hey Eric, how many philosophers does it take to
change a light bulb?” Rob pounded his beer on the counter and let out a guffaw. Eric made no
reply. He turned to the bartender and ordered an AMF and a beer. And after that a vodka Redbull
and a shot of Maker‟s Mark. After the beer he was ready to sing Tom Petty. Halfway through the
vodka Redbull, he was ready to sing Queen.
Midnight approached and the DJ announced a singing competition: the singer getting the
most people on the dance floor would win fifty dollars. Rob rushed to sign up.
“I‟m going to sing „Working for the Weekend‟ by Loverboy!” he announced.
Eric‟s name was already in the queue from before the contest had been announced. He
had signed up to sing Kelly Clarkson. He fumbled through the lyrics, having a hard time reading
them on the screen. Why did I choose this song again? Eric thought to himself. He vaguely
remembered wanting to impress Jessica by singing something she knew. He looked over at her
halfway through the song but she was leaning back in her red velvet seat, eyes closed, not even
noticing. Eric finished singing having only gotten three people on the dance floor and collapsed
into a seat next to Jessica. She peeked at him through half closed eyes.
“Look. Your Dad‟s up,” she said.
Rob was adjusting his microphone onstage. His eyes squinted as he looked out at the
dimly lit dance floor. The song started up, a sequence of synthesized notes. Rob belted the lyrics,
his stomach jiggled as he bounced across stage and his face contorted with every forced word.
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Rob‟s eyes closed, he thrust his head backwards and forwards. His hair broke out of its gelled
mold and fell loosely over his forehead.
“Wow! He‟s great!” said Jessica. “Let‟s get out there and support him!”
Eric‟s eyes stretched wide, his mouth fell. The dance floor was nearly filled. Jessica was
pulling him out of his seat, but Eric protested. He was too tired, he said. Jessica let go and left to
join the rest of the group. He leaned back in his seat stewing in suppressed rage. Rob had done it
When the song had finished Rob was announced the winner. He accepted his fifty dollars
graciously from the DJ and took a seat next to Eric.
“Guess I still got the old touch,” he said with a flick of his collar.
“That was amazing!” Jessica said as she joined them.
“What are you going to do with the money?”
“What do you say, kid?” Rob threw an arm around Eric‟s shoulders and leaned in. Eric
was drowned in the mixed scent of alcohol and California North. “Let‟s blow this cash,” he
continued, “Get us some strippers.”
Eric sat rigid. He pushed Rob away and shimmied out from under his arm. He stood up in
one abrupt motion, looked once at Rob, once at Jessica, and bolted for the door.
“What was that all about?” Rob was trailing behind Eric trying to keep up. His short legs
worked overtime to match Eric‟s long strides. Eric kept pace and sped down Shattuck. He passed
a movie theatre, a Vietnamese restaurant, and a library without looking back. He was halfway
across Kittredge Street when his father grabbed his arm and spun him around.
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“Let go of me,” Eric spat.
“What‟s wrong with you?” Rob‟s eyes drooped in concern. “I was joking!” He guided
Eric out of the street and halted in front of the Shattuck Cinemas. The theatre was dark. A couple
of bums had spread out under its awning for the night. Eric shook himself loose from Rob. His
hate, his embarrassment had finally reached a level where subtlety no longer mattered.
“You wanna know what‟s wrong with me?” Eric began. “You, Dad. You show up here
unannounced, embarrass me, and then try to claim everything that‟s mine. My friends. Jessica. I
don‟t get it. I just don‟t get it.” Eric shook his head. “Why are you even here? You never even
told me! You just show up and ramble about some ghost like a crazy person. You‟re a crazy
person! We have nothing in common. Sometimes I can‟t even believe you‟re my father.”
A flash of pain shot across Rob‟s face. His cheek muscles tightened and his eyes dropped
to his boots—Wrangler boots, lime-crusted and worn. He shifted his weight from one leg to the
other and clenched his jaw before looking up.
“Do you mean that?”
Eric was not sure if he did mean it. At that moment, in the midst of his anger and
frustration, he did. He did not respond. Rob continued,
“Then you‟ll be happy to know that I‟m not.”
Eric leaned against the wall and slid down until he was seated on the sidewalk.
“Oh, bullshit, Dad. Don‟t get my hopes up,” he said.
Rob stood aside, not looking at him, his hands in his pockets, his face resigned. Why is he
lying to me? thought Eric. His gaze pressed on Rob for an answer. He felt something bubble in
his chest. Rob squatted on his haunches next to his son, looked him in the eye, and said,
“I‟m serious. That‟s why I came. To tell you the truth.”
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The bubbling in Eric‟s chest overflowed. It felt as if it were caving in. As if a string had
been pulled, a lever lifted, a knot loosened. A weight was gone. His chest was light. Rob was not
his father. Was it true? He was not Rob‟s son. He was Angela‟s, just Angela‟s. He no longer had
to look for a connection between himself and Rob because it wasn‟t there. There was no
connection. He was free. Eric grabbed Rob‟s shirt with both his hands and held it fast until his
knuckles turned white. He leaned in swiftly and brought his face within inches of Rob‟s nose, the
bulbous nose, the nose he had no connection to. He swam in the stink of beer and whiskey,
breathed it in, a breath of fresh air. He was mad, frantic, ecstatic, thirsty for the truth.
“Who is he?” asked Eric. “Who is my father?”
Was he an actor? An intellectual? An artist? What had happened to him? Was he dead?
These questions and a thousand more flooded Eric‟s brain, demanding answers, needing to be
known. Who was his father? Why had he left? Why had he abandoned his talented son with Rob,
the blue-collar electrician from Omaha?
Rob looked disheveled and defeated. His hair had begun to curl from the moisture of his
sweat. The circles under his eyes matched the lavender in his shirt and the silk of his outfit had
lost all its luster. Rob clasped Eric‟s hands in his and laid them down in his lap. He was
struggling with speech, opening his mouth and shutting it, looking at Eric and looking away.
“Your mother led a difficult life,” he finally said. “Her father died when she was twelve
and her mother remarried three years after. Angela‟s mother was a good woman, but she was
weak—alcoholic. Angela‟s stepfather, on the other hand, was abusive. Physically and sexually.
He beat your mother and raped her. Multiple times.”
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The words fell on Eric like a hammer. His eyes went out of focus. He couldn‟t see Rob
anymore, just the outline of the wall behind him. Its light brown paneling was almost red in the
dark. Rob continued,
“When your mother got pregnant with you, she decided to run away. Leave home for
good and start over again. I met her after she had moved to Omaha. She was working as a
waitress. I fell in love—”
“And my father??” Eric needed to know. He couldn‟t take it anymore. He just needed
Rob to tell him it wasn‟t who he thought it was. But Rob could not bring himself to look Eric in
the eye. He squeezed Eric‟s hands in his and let his head drop.
When Eric said nothing, he continued, “I always wanted to tell you, but your mother was
against it. She told me to be the father you needed, not the father you had.” Rob let go of Eric‟s
hands and rested his head against the wall, “I guess I couldn‟t be neither.”
Eric felt something new wash over him, a salty wave, a bitter warmth. He scanned the
scene, the bums asleep a few feet over, the movie posters in their cases, and Rob. His non-father.
The sadness lining the wrinkles in his face. The closed eyes fighting back tears. The nose, red
from cold and alcohol. Eric wanted to say something, something that might make this less
painful for them both, but his mouth wouldn‟t open. His tongue was parched. He wanted Rob to
look at him, but his eyes were closed. So Eric pressed his hands into the pavement. He let the
asphalt embed itself in his palm. He let the coolness of the stone rush up his arms, wash through
his chest, mingle with the bitterness and the salt of his remorse. His muscles loosened, his eyes
closed, he lifted his hands and rubbed them up and down his legs.
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