James S. Hoch
The October First Selected Writer is James Hoch
Please feel free to email James at:
Regrets have a way of sneaking up on a person as one enters into the last years of their life. The dreaded regrets are like a virus, settling in to bring one down to visit the depths of depression. Regrets do no one any good, and no one really wants them to visit. However, it seems like one day, bam…there they are! Big as life. Staring at you. Taunting you as if they were a bully wanting to pick a fight. They pick all right; they pick at your memories of the life you lived and the one you had dreamed of. Not everyone is blessed with them. However, some individuals seem to attract or collect them as if they were prized baseball cards.
For Jack Jameson on his sixty-third birthday, a familiar big regret slithered into his thinking as he lay in bed waiting to get up. It was a regret that frequently tried to wreck Jack’s day, and today it decided to visit him the first thing in the morning. Today, it made him think of an old quote from John Barrymore who once said, “A man is not old until regrets take the place of dreams.” How fitting for Jack’s sixty-third birthday.
Staring up at the ceiling as if he were watching a big flat screen, plasma TV, Jack relived the day his wife died almost twenty-five years ago. I sure wish we hadn’t waited to start a family, he thought. There it was the Big Compunction. The Head Honcho of Regrets. Still watching his disappointment movie, he saw his wife and the pains of missing her emerged once again, settled into his gut, and made the tears in his eyes bubble up. I miss you so much. I sure wish we had had that family we wanted. I bet if we had had little girls they would have looked just like you.
Jack’s pity party was an especially large one with several old regrets stopping by to niggle him. The “I’ve got no children to take care of me in my old age” regret came up to Jack and slapped him on the back. Thank God the phone rang breaking up the soiree.
Jack reached for his cell phone. “Hello.”
A scratchy, broken-up version of the birthday song emerged from the phone’s tiny speaker. “Happy Birthday, big brother.”
“How do you feel?”
“Old,” Jack said as he swung his legs to the side of the bed.
“Nonsense. You’re only sixty-two.”
“The last time I checked, I believe today I turned sixty-three.”
“Oh, I guess so. Well, anyway you are still young.”
“Tell that to my back,” Jack said as he stretched his waist side to side.
“What are you doing today?” Janet asked.
“Going to work.”
“On your birthday?”
“Yeah, I have a deadline and the newspaper frowns on taking days off when you have a column that needs to be ready.”
“Can we get together for lunch, then?” Janet asked.
Jack yawned and sighed, “I’ll have to see how it’s going.”
“Call me later. I know a nice deli close to your office.”
Jack got off the bed, walked to the window, and opened the drapes. “Yuck, what a…”
“What’s wrong?” Janet asked.
“Oh, sorry, I wasn’t…well, I just opened the drape, and it’s a crappy, rainy day. Fitting for my birthday.”
“Don’t get all depressed. Oops, look at the time. I gotta go. Call me. Okay?”
“Yes, I will. Bye.”
Jack stood at the window staring at the dreary, rain soaked back yard. A fog slithered across the grass, weaving in and out of the landscaping. A movement, emerging from the mist, slowly caught his attention. A swing set, complete with one swing lazily floating back and forth, appeared as if it was just drawn by a student of Monet or Cezanne.
“What the fu…?” Jack said slowly in disbelief. He quickly rubbed the windowpane as if the fog was on the inside, trying to clarify what he just saw. “Who put a swing set back there?”
The fog increased, obscuring the scene in his backyard further. A sudden gust of wind pushed the whiteness out, revealing a clear view of his backyard. No swing set.
“Okay, buddy. You are losing it. It was just your imagination. Get a grip. Enough pissing and moaning. Time to get the day going.”
Jack turned from the window and walked gingerly to the bathroom, complaining about each new ache that seemed to offer itself as a present on his special day. The fog returned, and there where the swing set had been envisioned lay a small dirty, doll. One eye lazily slid open.
Over the past several years, the newspaper industry was evolving. Several companies had folded, or restructured, or simply went to just a digital version only. This new transformation made Jack nervous. A few of his colleagues that he knew at other papers were either put into diminished roles, or just let go. He constantly felt that any day he’d be given his walking papers even though he knew he had a good relationship with his editor.
When he arrived at his office, there was a note asking for him to see his editor. A wave of nausea washed across his stomach. He felt shaky. Was this it? Maybe he just wants to wish me Happy Birthday. Relax. Don’t panic.
“Who the hell’s been messing with my computer?” he mumbled. He opened the file that held pictures for his screen saver and looked at his collection of photos. There were several shots of his dog. As he opened each one and admired it, he slowly sat down. A tear inched its way into the corner of each eye. Welcome back to the pity party, he thought, staring at his dog that had just passed away last week.
“You were a good dog, Molly. I miss you. You were my best friend,” he said touching the screen. A large lump rolled into his throat and lodges itself firmly. “This is one of my favorite shots. I think I’ll print this out and get a nice frame for it on the way home.”
The phone rang, invading his thoughts. “Hello, Jack Jameson here.”
“Good morning, Jack. Can you stop in for a moment?” Jack’s editor, Henry, asked.
“Be right in.”
Henry’s office suddenly felt like it was ten blocks away, all uphill, and a raging blizzard was happening in the hallway. Jack straightened his tie, took a deep breath, and made his way to Henry’s office. He knocked softly on the glass door.
“Come in,” Henry shouted. “Hello, Jack. How you doing?”
“Fine, and you?”
“Ah, my bursitis is acting up again in my golf arm. It’s a bitch getting old,” Henry said. “Please have a seat.”
Jack’s insides now felt like they had been twisted so much that if he were to die, a pathologist would not be able to recognize his organs and would have to pronounce that he was from another planet. Shaking and almost to the point of screaming, Jack sat down and smiled weakly at Henry. Here it comes. Brace yourself, he thought.
“Jack, you’ve been with the newspaper for a long time. How many years?”
Oh, shit. What an opening line. Classic.
“Um…ah…I started fresh out of college. This was my first job and only one. I was twenty-three when I started, and today is my sixty-third birthday. So, it’s been forty years, I guess.”
“Wow. Happy Birthday, Jack.”
Henry went on for the next fifteen minutes explaining all the problems the newspaper was facing like how people weren’t buying subscriptions, and reading their news on electronic devices, not to mention the drop in advertising. Jack kept squirming in his chair. This was old news to Jack. Hurry up and get it over with. Drop the axe already.
“Jack, you look a little green around the gills. You okay?”
“Henry, if you are going to fire me. Get on with it.”
Henry started laughing and slapped his desk with the palm of his hand. “Now, why in the world would I do that? You’re one of my best newspapermen.”
Jack felt like the axe had stopped in mid-air, and that maybe there was more to come that still had a kicker.
“Jack, I asked you to come in today to be part of a committee to help develop our new digital online version of our paper.”
What in the hell do I know about anything digital? he thought. He’s probably thinking I’ll just go ahead and retire. Maybe I should?
“Well, Henry…um…I don’t know much about any digital stuff. I mean it took me forever to change from a typewriter. Why do you…?”
Before he could finish, Henry explained that Jack’s column was being suspended until the digital on-line version went up, and there was the possibility that it would no longer be needed.
Bam. There it was! My column got the axe, not me. Now what do I do?
Jack’s dejection had pushed him down lower in the chair. He felt defeated, and now useless. New invitations were just sent out for his next pity party.
Henry came from around the desk and stood in front of Jack. “Look, maybe it’s time to put your pen down so to speak. You’re at a good time to retire.”
Anger started to push the depression aside and Jack said, “Henry this sucks. All I know how to do is be a newspaperman. What the fuck am I going to do retired? I have no grand kids to go visit like most elderly people. They get in their big fancy motorhomes and go visit the grand kids. Seems like that’s all they ramble on about, like everyone in the world wants to hear about what their grand kids had for breakfast. If I see one more picture of some guys grandkids, I’m going to explode.”
Bent up frustration had just been unleashed as if it were a crazed lunatic who had escaped from a straight jacket. Jack went on for five minutes more venting.
“Jack, maybe you should take the day off and think about…well…what you might like to do.”
“Nice birthday greetings, Henry,” Jack mumbled as he got up from the chair.
“I’m sorry, Jack. I hope we can work something out.”
Still fuming, Jack muttered, “Digital newspaper can kiss my ass.” As soon as he got to his desk, he picked up the color copy of his dog’s picture. Staring at the photo, fond memories of his furry friend abated some of the bottled up anger and of course, the vile regrets.
“Maybe I will take the day off. Screw this place.”
On the way home, he stopped off at a Walgreens to buy a nice frame for the photo. He looked over the selection and immediately one grabbed his attention. It wasn’t the construction, the size, or the color of the frame. It was what was in the setting that lured him as if he were metal magnetized. He picked the frame up and stared at the photo inside. Two little girls with pale blue dresses sitting on a swing set smiled innocently. One held a cute little doll decked out in a matching dress as the girls had on. It was a picture perfect, idyllic setting. A bead of sweat formed on Jack’s brow, and he suddenly felt like he was having a panic attack.
“Can I help you find something?” a clerk asked as she repositioned several bags of Fritos on the opposite aisle.
“Oh, no. I’m fine,” Jack said, relieved that his panic attack had been thwarted. “I found what I need.”
“Cute kids,” the clerk said. “They always put in such little angels. Who wouldn’t want the frame?”
Jack nodded, and smiled politely. He was about to walk away when something struck him as a bit odd. Usually when there is a frame of all the same kind, the picture inside is the same in all of them. The frame he held in his hand was the only one with the two little girls. Hmm, they must have changed photos. Wonder why?
Jack’s dinner for his birthday consisted of a tall glass of Crown Royal with no ice, and a bag of pork rinds. He went all out and decided on the spicy ones. After his second glass of whiskey, his pity party was in full swing. The regrets gathered and put on a full-blown parade with each one doing an elaborate routine as they marched if front of Jack, causing him to take another hit from his glass. Half way through his third glass of the medicinal beverage, Jack glanced over at the new frame that he had set on his coffee table next to the extra large bag of spicy pork rinds.
“What the fuck?” he muttered, staring at the frame. Did I just see one of those girls wink at me? No way, he thought as he looked down into his pity glass. As he looked back at the frame, this time both girls waved slowly, and instead of blue dresses they were wearing red ones.
He jumped up, spilling some of his whiskey on his pants. “You’re not real. Stop it.”
“Why?” one of the girls asked softly.
“I’ve just had too much booze,” Jack replied.
“That’s okay. It’s your birthday,” the other little girl said as she played with her doll. “You’re allowed to have fun on your birthday.”
Jack stood with his mouth open, staring at the two perfect little angels in the dark teak frame. Now their dresses were purple.
“You can sit down again if you like. Have another drink. Those pork rinds smell wonderful. My name is Wendy and this is my sister, Cathy, but everyone calls her Cat. We just got these pretty dresses from…”
“Stop it. Shut up. You’re not real,” Jack said, bending over and screaming at the frame. The two girls didn’t move or speak. Jack sat back down slowly. He poured himself another glass of Crown, and took a lengthy sip.
“Feel better?” one of the girls asked.
“I just will ignore you. You’re just an annoying regret from my pity party. You’re just a pigment of my imagination.”
“Ha, ha, you said pigment,” Wendy said, laughing. “If you like, we can be your little girls.”
Jack put his hands up to his ears and shook his head. He kicked the coffee table, hoping to knock over the frame, but it remained as if it were super glued to the table. The girls giggled as the frame rocked back and forth.
Jack’s insides seethed with a whole catalog of feelings, mostly the type that would fall under an icon that looked like a black, storm cloud. He drank more, followed by another hefty gulp.
The cell phone rang making him jump. He picked it up and threw it at the frame. As it approached the center of the picture, the phone slowed down and fell into the frame, landing at the girl’s feet. They picked it up and started playing catch with it.
“Give me my phone,” Jack said, now complete with slurred speech and stumbling as he tried to stand up.
“It’s ours now. You’ll have to chase us if you want it,” Wendy said tossing the phone to Cat.
An insipid, nettlesome nursery rhyme began to emanate from the frame. It sounded as if it were being played on an out of tune, scratchy old carousel.
Giggling from the girls grew louder as Jack watched them toss his phone back and forth. “Stop it! You’ll break it,” he yelled. “Give it back to me.”
“You have to catch us,” they both intoned with a singsong, mocking voice.
Jack stood swaying back and forth. He felt like the room was beginning to spin as he sat back down. As soon as he was seated, he grabbed the arms of the chair to steady himself.
“Well, if you aren’t going to chase us, we’ll just then have to chase you. Here we come,” the girls said with a voice that sounded like it was coming from demonic stereo speakers.
Jack pushed back into his chair with all his might as he watched the two girls emerge from the frame. Slowly, they grew in size. Wendy carried his cell phone while Cat clutched her doll that now looked like it was dragged through the mud. One of the eyes was missing and part of its skull was caved in.
“Hi, Jack. We’re ready to play with you,” Wendy said staring at him with a malicious grin.
Wendy and Cat suddenly grabbed Jack by the arm and pulled him out of the chair. Once Jack was standing, they pinched him and taunted him. Wendy held his phone up in the air and shouted, “Come and get it.”
Cat pushed Jack to get him moving, then joined her sister.
With a crooked smile, Jack said, “Okay, if you want to play, fine.” He started to walk towards Wendy. A few feet in front of the little girl, Jack lunged forward trying to grab the phone. He missed and fell onto the floor, knocking over one of the end tables next to his chair. Wendy spun around and ran to the back of the sofa. Both girls began tossing the phone back and forth, goading Jack to chase them. He got to his feet and slowly commenced stumbling around the room, trying to catch them. In the process, he and his two playmates knocked over lamps, end tables, knick-knacks, and chairs. After a few minutes, the room looked as if a small tornado had vied for a Fujita classification.
Out of breath and nearly ready to spew half his birthday dinner around the room, Jack leaned on the back of his soft, leather chair, and tried to catch his breath.
The girls stared at him from across the room. Wendy, with a mischievous sneer, picked up a fireplace poker.
“Put that down. That’s not a toy,” Jack slurred.
The girls didn’t respond, but instead walked slowly towards Jack. “Now, it’s our turn to chase you.” On the way towards him, Wendy swung the black, sooty poker in the air connecting with a large table lamp. The shattering of glass made Jack bolt upright.
“Stop it. Put that down now. As your fa…” Jack stopped himself.
“Yes, Daddy?” Wendy and Cat both said with a dead, flat inflection as they inched their way closer to him.
Jack was nearly in shock. He looked around his living room to see it in shambles. As he looked back at the girls, he saw the poker approach the side of his head.
“Son of a bitch,” he said, staggering backwards. He wiped his ear, and looking at his palm he saw it smeared with blood.
“Okay, give me that,” he demanded as he started chasing the girls. Wendy would turn and jab at him with the poker. As they ran faster, Jack became more and more dizzy and disoriented. Cat, still clinging to the ugly doll, raced around behind him.
“Catch me, Daddy. Catch me,” Wendy kept taunting.
Jack felt his heart hammering in his chest as if it were tapping out Morse code on steroids. He stopped a few feet away from Wendy who was standing in front of the coffee table.
In a flash, she jumped back into the frame. Jack was about to step back slowly when he felt a push from behind.
Janet pulled her old Subaru Outback up to the front of Jack’s house. A single, unmarked police car was parked in the driveway. She felt like someone had just kicked her in the stomach as she stared at the open, front door. Please, dear God. Not Jack, she thought as she opened the car door. The walk up to the porch felt surreal and slowly made her feel nauseous.
“Thanks for coming,” a police detective said as she walked into Jack’s house.
“What happened?” Janet queried with a tone that sounded like she was miles away.
“We don’t know. One of the neighbors reported a disturbance last night. When we got here, no one was inside the house.”
“Where’s my brother?”
“We don’t know. It’s possible that he was abducted.”
Janet began walking around the broken debris littered across the living room.
“Be careful, ma’am. There’s lots of broken glass.”
Janet spied the poker lying on the floor. The police had bagged and labeled it. “Is that blood on that poker?”
“We don’t know for sure. The lab will confirm and identify,” the detective said softly.
Janet plopped herself down in Jack’s chair, ready to start crying when the polished dark teak frame caught her eye. It was about the only thing left standing upright. She reached forward and picked the frame up. Slowly, she put her hand to her mouth, and felt the first tremors in her body quake.
Her scream reverberated through the entire house.
“What is it?” the police detective said coming over to Janet.
Janet kept screaming as she handed him the frame.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
She grabbed the frame back and stared at it. There in the picture was her brother sitting on a park bench with two little girls. One was perched on his knee playing with a doll; the other was standing behind him kissing him on the cheek. His face was partially obscured, but his eyes were wide open filled with terror. Just as Janet was about to throw the frame across the room, the little girl holding the doll waved at her.
For thirty-eight years, James Hoch enjoyed a productive career as a music educator. He taught at the university level as well as high school. The longest stretch was 16 years at Winona State University in Minnesota. He is also an accomplished composer with his works published by Zames Music Company. Additionally, he has produced two CDs of his chamber works, which are available from iTunes, CDbaby.com, and CDuniverse.com.
Dr. Hoch retired from Winona State University in May 2008 to begin a vagabond existence as a fulltime RVer. Along with his wife Zoe, and dog Ruby, they enjoy the freedom to roam.
His new writing career began with articles for the magazine Marathon and Beyond. SynergEbooks published James’ first full-length book, Milford Spitz and the Very Fast Machine in 2009. “I’ve discovered that letting my imagination run amok and getting it down on paper is addictive,” Hoch said. “Now if I can get the voices to stop, I’ll be fine.”
SynergEbooks began publishing his new series, The Crimson Pursuit, in January 2010. The first book is titled Reveka’s Return. Book Two, Reveka’s Revenge was released October 2010. It’s the perfect series for vampire fans who want a more adult approach with a bit of steamy involvement. Book Three, Reveka’s Rampage, is underway.
For the past year, Hoch has been writing short stories.