Great stories about good people caught in difficult situations.

Chapter Three Hundred and Ninety-six: Clogged

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Wednesday afternoon — 2:55 P.M.

Jacob wiped his nose on the sleeve of his jacket and sat up.

“Classy,” Mike said.

Mike gestured to the snot smear on Jacob’s jacket. Jacob moved his arm away from him so that he could look at it. Blane grinned.

“Snotty, more like,” Blane said.

Despite his sorrow, Jacob joined them in a laugh. After a few moments, he sighed.

“I’m freezing,” Jacob said. “Let’s go inside.”

Jacob got up.

“Ya gots to have warm testicles to make us a son,” Jacob said to Mike in a terrible imitation of a Scottish Accent. He gestured to Blane. “That’s why he has sons.”

“How would you know the temperature of my testicles?” Blane asked as he got to his feet.

“I has my ways,” Jacob said.

Laughing, Mike got up. Blane grabbed the milk; Mike took the bowls; and Jacob cuddled the cereal as they went inside.

“I have beer,” Mike said, gesturing to his apartment a few feet away.

Jacob nodded. They followed Mike into his apartment. Mike nodded toward the leather couch, but Jacob took a seat at the bar in the kitchen. Mike went to the refrigerator.

“Blane?” Mike asked.

“Water,” Blane said. “Can’t have beer yet.”

Nodding, Mike took out two bottles of beer and a bottle of expensive carbonated water some producer had given Valerie. Mike slid a beer across the counter to Jacob. Blane took a glass down from the cabinet and poured himself a glass of the fancy water. Jacob opened his beer, and Blane took a seat next to Jacob. Mike leaned on the counter across from them.

“I guess I do need to talk,” Jacob said.

Mike and Blane looked up at him. Mike make a flourishing “go ahead” gesture with his hand. Jacob took a swallow of beer and fell silent.

“Why don’t you start with the Sea of Amber?” Blane asked.

“Did Aden call you too?” Mike asked.

“Came in while I was packing Jacob’s office,” Blane said. “When did Aden become such a girl?”

Mike and Jacob laughed. Blane smirked.

“I’m telling you, those marriage classes are emasculating,” Blane said.

“Hey!” Mike exclaimed. “I went to those marriage classes.”

“I rest my case,” Blane said.

Jacob and Mike laughed.

“Got any lime?” Blane asked.

Mike gestured to the refrigerator, and Blane got up to look.

“Bottom shelf,” Mike said.

Blane leaned over to get the lime, and Jacob sighed. Jacob set his beer down on the counter around the time that Blane turned around with the lime in his hand. Blane went to get a knife.

“How do you know where everything is in my kitchen?” Mike asked Blane.

“Every kitchen in this building is set up the same way,” Blane said as he cut the lime.

“How could you possibly know that?” Mike asked.

“I helped Jake put most of them together,” Blane said.

“Why?” Mike asked.

“I was living here,” Blane said.

“Why don’t I remember that?” Mike asked.

Blane slapped the back of Mike’s head as he passed. Mike reached to grab him, but Blane was too fast. Blane sat down next to Jacob. He gave Jacob a piece of lime and slid one across the bar for Mike.

“Limes are for girls,” Mike said as he put the lime into his beer.

“Something you’d like to share?” Jacob asked.

Mike and Blane laughed. Jacob smirked and took another swallow of beer.

“I keep thinking,” Jacob started.

Jacob looked up to see if Mike and Blane were listening. Their eyes were riveted on his face. Jacob nodded.

“I keep thinking that I can swallow it away, swallow it down,” Jacob said. He took another drink of beer. “But it …”

He gestured to his throat.

“Stuck in your craw,” Blane said with a nod. “I think that’s what that expression means.”

“You just have to start talking,” Mike said. “Doesn’t matter where you start. You just have to start.”

“Sea of Amber,” Jacob said. His eyes flicked up to look at Mike. “It sounds like a place like the Mediterranean Sea or Lock Ness. I guess from the outside, it’s like that.”

“Like what?” Blane asked.

“A place,” Jacob said. “Something outside of yourself, you know. There’s me.”

Jacob held up his hand.

“There’s beer,” Jacob said. He poured a drop of beer onto the palm of his hand. “A place.”

“You have to admit that a lake of beer would be pretty awesome,” Mike said.

Jacob smiled at Mike’s way of easing the pressure. Mike nodded. Blane put his hand on Jacob’s shoulder.

“The Sea of Amber isn’t a place?” Blane asked.

Jacob shook his head. He finished his beer and they sat in silence.

“I guess dying would be the same way,” Jacob said with a nod. “But it would just happen faster and might be less …”

“Dying?” Mike jumped to his feet. “What are you talking about?”

Jacob looked up at Mike with eyes filled with angst.

“I think he’s saying that the Sea of Amber isn’t like being in water,” Blane said. “It’s more personal than that, more intimate.”

“There’s no Sea of Amber,” Jacob said. “No separation between me and the …”

Jacob fell silent and scowled.

“Dark,” Blane said, finally.

Jacob nodded.

“I’m not saying what you went through was easier or different really,” Jacob said. “But someone did it to you.”

“Someone outside of yourself,” Blane said.

“Are you the Jacob translator?” Mike asked.

“Yes, I am,” Blane said.

Jacob and Mike laughed. Blane grinned. Mike grabbed the empty beer bottles, tossed them in the recycling bin, and went to the refrigerator. He returned with beer and lime slices. He made faces at Blane, who laughed.

“One moment, I was fast asleep in my bed,” Jacob said. “Inside my body, inside my mind. My bed was in the Castle on Race Street. I worked at Lipson Construction. The Castle and Lipson Construction are located in Denver, which is a city in Colorado. Colorado is a state in the middle of the country of the United States of America. The United States of America sits on the continent of North America, which floats on a planet that miraculously circles the sun.”

Jacob stopped talking to catch his breath.

“Jill was by my side. Katy was a baby monitor away. The boys …” Jacob scowled. “The next minute, I’m talking to Fin or some creature I thought was Fin.”

Jacob twisted open his beer.

“Then …” Jacob touched his chest. “There was no body. There was no mind. There was not bed, no children, no Castle, no Jill, no Denver, no …”

Lost in memory, Jacob nodded to finish his sentence.

“There was just me,” Jacob said, “just the essence of me because I don’t think I had even a soul or a spirit. One minute, I live inside all of these homes. The next minute, it’s just me and …”

Jacob stopped talking and stared across the kitchen.

“The dark?” Mike asked after a moment.

Jacob’s eyes flicked to Mike.

“Sure,” Jacob said. “But it was more personal than that. It was like my personal dark … my darkest thoughts. Thoughts I didn’t know that I had. Thoughts that were just outside of my consciousness. Thoughts that … my …”

Jacob looked at Mike and then Blane.

“I feel like an idiot saying this to you,” Jacob said. He looked at Blane,” You had such an awful childhood and … everything. And you, Mike, were Roper’s punching bag. But I …”

Jacob put his hand on his chest.

“I was so loved,” Jacob said. “I had problems, I mean, everyone has problems, but I had my mother and …”

“Sam,” Blane said with a nod.

“Nothing really affected me,” Jacob said. “It sounds stupid, I know it does, but everything that happened to me was filtered through Mom or Dad or Delphie, even. I never … faced it all on my own.”

Jacob sighed. Embarrassed, he looked down. Blane put his arm around Jacob’s shoulders.

“I talked to Delphie,” Jacob said. “After we got back. I asked her what it was like for her. She laughed and said it was like living with Johansen. The dark didn’t affect her because she was kind of used to it. But I … never …”

Jacob shook his head.

“And there I was,” Jacob continued. “Face to face with self-loathing and cruelty. Every horrible memory. Every moment of shame. Naked, but worse than naked because I had no skin, no barrier. I was completely defenseless.”

Jacob stopped talking. He looked at his beer before downing it.

“I’ve always been special,” Jacob said. He tossed the beer bottle in the air and moved it easily into the recycle bin with his mind. “Special isn’t easy, but I felt … good, solid with being different, being a Marlowe, from a long line of weirdos. Then suddenly, I was not special. I wasn’t anything. I was just there — weak, alone, vulnerable — surrounded by … my own dark.”

Without even taking a breath, Jacob pressed on.

“There’s so much dark, horrible in this world,” Jacob said. “Love is no defense against it. And you cannot fight it. Warfare, even arguments, feed into this evil. Self-loathing. We have so much and everyone hates themselves. It’s like the entire country is set up to enhance people’s hatred of themselves. There is nothing in this world, but … despair.”

“And Lipson?” Jacob raised his eyebrows as if they’d asked him a question. “Lipson is one nightmare after another. One whiny client or corrupt state official or bullshit employee or broken down piece of equipment after another. It’s kept me …”

Jacob shrugged.

“Going,” Jacob said finally.

“Jake,” Mike said in a low voice. When Jacob didn’t respond, Mike reached across the counter and shook him by the shoulders.

“What?” Jacob asked.

“You’re wrong,” Mike said.

“What are you talking about?” Jacob asked. “You of all people know that there’s no way to fight all of the evil in this world. We are evil. Our very cells are made up of evil. We should just detonate our nuclear bombs and wipe us out.”

Blane put his arms around Jacob, kissed the top of his head, and pushed him back into his chair.

“I love you, brother,” Blane said. “But you’re wrong.”

“How can you say that I’m wrong?” Jacob asked. “You of all people. You know what people are capable of!”

“I do,” Blane said. “I know they are capable of great love. I know they are capable of heroic deeds — like what you and Celia did to save me or what that Army team did to save Mike.”

“But that …” Jacob said.

“I think that’s what the Sea of Amber did,” Blane said.

“What?” Mike asked.

“It convinced you that the darkness, the negative was more real than the overwhelming, everyday beauty of this world,” Blane said with a nod.

Jacob shot Blane a look like he was crazy.

“Think of Lipson,” Blane continued. “How much of your day was actually spent dealing with problems? In hours. How much?”

“All day,” Jacob said with a sigh.

“Why don’t we check it out?” Blane asked with a shrug. “I still have your schedule. Let’s look.”

Blane took out his smartphone. He clicked around until he pulled up a day a few months ago.

“Let’s see …” Blane said. “This is kind of a random Wednesday. We started with …”

“Breakfast,” Jacob said, looking over Blane’s shoulder. “Problem-solving.”

“Some,” Blane said. “But this was the day we went to Pete’s, remember? Everyone came up to talk to you about Jill and the boys? Remember Sam showed up? I remember because it was just before I went into the hospital.”

Blane scrolled down the schedule.

“Look, we went out to Jerry’s site to celebrate completion?” Blane asked.

“The owner was thrilled,” Jacob said.

Jacob flipped to the next day and scrolled down the schedule. He scowled and took the phone from Blane. He flipped through the day after day schedule.

“Huh,” Jacob said. “Did you change this?”

“No,” Blane said. “I always kept track so we could do the end of the year audit. You wanted to be sure how you actually spent your time. You used it to give bonuses and to let go of problem projects.”

“There aren’t problem people …” Jacob repeated as if in a trance. “I remember feeling that way.”

Jacob nodded. For a moment, he fell silent.

“What happened to me?” Jacob asked in a low voice.

“The Sea of Amber is a legendary place,” Mike said. “My dad, Perses, told me that the original stories about hell were told by people who’d been stuck in the Sea of Amber. It’s a horrible place. He said they intentionally dropped all stories about the Sea of Amber to keep people from wanting to explore it.”

Mike shook his head.

“You talk about what happened to Blane or me,” Mike said with a quick shake of his head. “What we went through had good and bad to it. Blane loved the jerk that who ruined his career. I … saw the sun every day, felt its warmth. We worked in the fields and … There were moments of laughter and joy mixed in with all of the horrors. Children playing …”

“Laughter,” Blane said with a nod.

“But the Sea of Amber …” Mike said with a shake of his head. “I think it’s clogged your pores.”

Mike waved to his head to indicate Jacob’s psychic abilities.

“That’s why you didn’t know about being done at Lipson,” Blane said with a nod. “Your clogged with Amber.”

“I remember being … different, feeling different, but it’s been so long, such a long time,” Jacob said.

“A couple months,” Mike said.

“Feels like decades,” Jacob said.

“We’d never let you go that long,” Blane said.

“Not a chance,” Mike said.

“How do I …?” Jacob’s eyes flicked to Blane. “Is that something you can help me with?”

“Acupuncture won’t do it,” Blane said.

“My dad said that you have to release the amber,” Mike said. “I didn’t really get what he was saying, but it was something like you hold onto the amber as much as the amber is stuck inside you.”

“That’s why Delphie wasn’t affected,” Jacob said.

“Keenan either,” Blane said.

“Why would I hold onto the amber?” Jacob asked.

“Why would you?” Mike asked.

Shrugging, Jacob turned his attention to his beer. Seeing the shift in Jacob, Mike and Blane returned to their joking. After a few minutes, they decided to suit up for a game of rollerblade hockey in the now empty driveway. They played until they were sweaty and laughing. They went in when the light failed. After showering and changing, they went to pick up their children.

The press of dinner and baths kept the question far from Jacob’s mind. As soon as the boys were in bed and Katy was reading a book, Jacob’s question returned.

“Why would I hold onto the amber?” he thought.

Shaking his head at himself, he opened a bottle of wine and waited for Jill to return from the trial.


Wednesday night — 9:37 P.M.

Jill pushed open the door and listened to the silent loft. She slipped off her shoes and set them inside the threshold. She pad across the wood floors in her socks. She drifted toward the kitchen where the light over the kitchen bar highlighted an open bottle of red wine and an empty glass. She poured herself some wine.

“Hi,” Jacob said in a low voice.

Jill started, sloshing the wine onto the counter. Rather than clean up the spill, she set down the glass and threw her arms around him. She trembled in his arms.

“That bad?” Jacob asked.

“Worse,” Jill said. “Just … horrible. By the end, the girls — every single one of them — were crying. Their parents were stoic. It was …”

“Awful,” Jacob said.

“And amazing,” Jill said. “This young man, well, I guess he’s about my age, stood up there for hours pleading guilty to each crime. When it was over, he looked so relieved. It’s hard to describe. He looked completely at peace. Samantha said he’s on suicide watch. No one wants him to kill himself before they read their victim statements.”

Jacob nodded and held on. Jill kissed his cheek and pulled back. She picked up her wine glass. Taking his hand, they walked to where Jacob had been sitting. Katy was asleep in the big chair.

“You didn’t put her to bed?” Jill asked.

“She wanted to wait up for you,” Jacob said. “Every time I put her down, she got up. I figured this was easier than forcing her to sleep in some arbitrary place. Plus …”

He looked at Jill’s face and shifted a piece of hair behind her ear.

“She was worried about you,” Jacob said.

“With good reason,” Jill said.

Jacob picked Katy up and carried her back to her bedroom. He kissed Katy’s cheek and left so that Jill could tuck her in. Jill returned to the fire a few minutes later.

“How are the girls — Noelle, Tink, Ivy, and the others?” Jacob asked.

“Good, I think,” Jill said. “The whole thing was hard, but in the car, they seemed lighter. Heather said they were better than they’d been in a long time. They certainly seemed better. Lighter.”

“What a relief just to have the trial over,” Jacob said.

“They are reading their victim statements on Friday,” Jill said. “Then it’s over forever. Just like that.”

“What a relief,” Jacob repeated.

Jill nodded.

“I guess the question is: how will they move on?” Jill asked. “It’s been such a big part of their lives for such a long time.”

“We’ll certainly help,” Jacob said.

“Of course,” Jill said.

She leaned back into him and the couch. They sat for a few minutes in silence.

“How was your day?” Jill asked.

“Good,” Jacob said with a nod. “Aden thinks I might be done at Lipson.”

“That’s good news,” Jill said.

Unwilling to start the conversation when Jill was so tired, Jacob simply nodded.

“You okay?” Jill asked.

“Good,” Jacob said. “Mike, Blane, and I played rollerblade hockey this afternoon.”

“The three Musketeers,” Jill said with a smile. “It must be great to have Blane back.”

Jacob nodded. Jill drained her glass. Jacob raised his eyebrows in expectation.

“Ready for bed?” she asked with a grin.

“Always,” Jacob said. He hopped up from the couch. “Race you.”

Jill took off toward their bedroom. Laughing, he followed her to bed.

Denver Cereal continues next week…

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