By the time Carl made it home from work, the sun’s waning light reflected off the windows and metal roofs of his apartment complex. Each building’s fading paint a different light shade of blue. It was this view that sold him and his wife on Mainstay Apartments a year and a half ago.
“Reminds me of where we first met,” she said, her head resting on his shoulder. He could still remember the feeling of her cedar-red hair trailing down his back. Although the color was beginning to fade, he couldn't help but think back to such moments.
Pulling into the parking lot, he saw his mother’s Hyundai parked in the handicap spot closest to the apartment. The bumper of her car had a pink ribbon magnet, the same one he had on the back of his own car. He parked a farther ways off and made his way towards the building. Along the way, he passed several of neighbors, returning their friendly wave with a nod of his head.
He knew he had reached his apartment not just because of the room number or because he had walked to it hundreds of times, but because of the anchor door knocker his wife picked out. The apartment was two bedrooms, a living room, kitchen, single bath, and a small adjunct room all squeezed together so every noise was audible from anywhere in the apartment. What had seemed to be an affordable apartment was beginning to to bleed him dry, especially now that he was on a single income. As rent went up, so did the hours as Project Lead at a start-up construction company.
Upon entering the living room, his eyes fell on the wooden shelf positioned next to the television. It stood proud in the living room, a collection of intricate model ships. They were all sail ships that seemed so ornate and detailed that they were out of place positioned alongside the apartment's mess of yard sale furniture and decorations.
“Evening, Carl,” his mother said, looking up from her newspaper, peering at him over her thick reading glasses. For a few moments, her expression was cheerful, but when her eyes wandered down to the work bag slung over his shoulder, a frown unraveled on her face.
“Hey, Mum,” Carl said.
“Don’t tell me you just finished work…”
“I did. Boss asked me to work overtime, we’re behind schedule.”
“That’s the third time in two weeks! It’s not healthy to work so much,” she said to him, the corners of her lips sinking deeper on her face, making the wrinkles all the more pronounced. Even though her lips were curled into a frown, her eyes told a different story. He could feel them looking into him, inspecting every dark spot on his stubbled face, and the bags forming under his blue eyes. After several moments of silence, she broke her stare, looking out the window at passing cars.
“I have to, Mum.” They were both quiet for what felt like an eternity. “Did James eat yet?”
“Yeah, we had some spaghetti. He had two helpings, no leftovers, I’m afraid.” Without another word, she lay back in the weathered leather sofa and closed her eyes, shielding them from the evening sun shining through the window with the newspaper.
With no other choice Carl shuffled into the kitchen to make himself dinner, choosing one of the many frozen dinners from the fridge. Even though the frozen meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and assorted vegetables tasted revolting, they were cheap, easy and quick. The pain of not having the chance to learn how to cook was always burning him; it was usually his wife who used to cook for them. But he ate it all anyway, finding himself much hungrier than he had been just a few minutes ago. While he ate, he looked over to the television to see what was playing. On the television a cartoon raccoon and bluejay were driving a jet boat, shooting lasers at aliens in flying saucers.
Wondering why his mother had cartoons playing on television, he gestured towards the muted television and asked, “Why are you watching that?”
“James was watching it,” she answered.
“I thought you said he was in his room.”
“He is, just went up there a few minutes ago,” she said, changing the program to Judge Judy and closing her eyes once again.
After he finished eating, he threw out the plastic tray and hung the work bag up. Looking over to the couch again, he noticed his mother had fallen asleep. Not wanting to bother her, he decided to go upstairs to relax in the crafts room.
As he passed James’s room, he reached for the doorknob but hesitated for a moment, listening for any sounds James might have been making. At first it was silent, but after a few moments, he heard the sounds of one of his son’s games. With a smile, he let go of the doorknob, figuring that his son wanted some time to himself, just as he did. He headed down the hall and entered the small room at the end of the hall.
While the crafts room was the smallest room in the apartment, it was also his favorite. The smell of carved wood permeated the room and filled his nose, making his breathing slow down, becoming deeper and more relaxed. Working on these models alone was his peaceful torture; it never failed to relax him, but at the same time it drew back bittersweet memories.
Sixty hours of work a week had left his eyes and arms heavy. Two months ago he had been boasting to his co-workers about the promotion he had received. He had finally gotten the position as Project Lead at the construction company that he thought he needed. He could pay rent on time, and try to eat something other than the frozen meals he had been eating for months. For the first few weeks he was enthusiastic, excited by the opportunity, but as as the stress and hours began to build up, all he wanted was to have his old job back.
Sighing a curse to himself, he tried his best not to think about work, or anything else, resolving to focus on his hobby. With a prolonged sigh, he felt his muscles relax as he got to work. The first thing he did was gather the supplies that he needed, getting the glues, oils, setting solution, and finish, setting them down on the workstation desk. Next were the tools; somehow he managed to gather more tools than he had supplies: drills, pliers, scissors, in just about any shape or size he might need. Even though there were several drawers filled with tools, he only gathered a few of them, placing them next to the glues and oils. The last step was picking up the model of Le Soleil Royal Huge Sailing Ship, 1/100 scale, over 3500 pieces, skill level 6 and getting to work. He cherished every moment he got to work on the models, but with his new workload, he couldn’t work on them as much as he liked. Models that used to take him a week, now take a month to finish.
An hour into working on Le Soleil Royal, there was a crash downstairs in the living room. It was the sort of sound that immediately snapped Carl out of his focus, the tool he was currently using dropping from his fingers. He wasted no time setting the rest of his tools aside and headed down the hall, noticing that the door to James’s room hung open. He made his way down into the living room and right away knew what was the cause of the sound. The shelf with all of his model ships had toppled over, debris scattered all across the carpet while the shelf itself had remained intact. It was difficult even for him to tell the ships apart; they were in so many pieces. Carl was in shock, all those memories, countless hours with his wife, lay broken at his feet. It was unbelievable how quickly it all could be destroyed. Even if he did manage to repair them, he would always think of this moment too, memories of his wife, corrupted. He was so lost in his own thoughts he couldn’t hear his mother say, “He was just playing, it was an accident…”
Finally, he blinked. Snapping out of his trance he asked, “James, how did this happen?” unable to look away from the wreck of the boats. He just stared at the heap of wood and fabric sails, trying to take it all in while he waited for his son’s response. But it never came. James just looked out the window, a dull expression and frown on his face. “James! Do you know how much these meant to me? Your mother made these...” When Carl mentioned his wife, it made James's head snap around to look at his father.
“I didn’t know…” he said, his eyes wandering around the room, everywhere but on the shattered remains of the model. Carl however, kept his locked on it.
“Didn’t know what?”
“I… I didn’t know her,” he said, the expression on his face changing while his head hung low as he started to cry. “She was always so sick…”
The whole time, his mother remained silent, even she didn’t know what to say. Carl swallowed, a knot forming in his throat. He was in total shock, not a single word came to him, leaving the room to fill with the sound of James's sadness.
“I don't even know you! You two were always at the hospital and you left me with nana...” The words came out between sobs.
Carl looked out the window behind the sofa, overlooking the entrance of the apartment complex and the parking lot. But when he looked back at his son, there was nothing he could say, no way to rationalize the disaster his life had been for the past six months. It was in that moment he noticed the cut on his son’s arm, a small splinter sticking out just above the surface of his skin. The cut was still bleeding and had been the since he tipped over the models.
“I’m sorry, James… Listen, don’t worry about the models. Here,” he said, picking James up in his arms and carrying him towards the crafts room. By the time they got there, the boy’s crying slowed down to sniffling, the tears drying up on his cheeks. With his son still in his arms, he grabbed the first aid kit from one of the many cramped drawers in the room and brought it into the bathroom. It only took a few minutes to clean up the cut on his arm and remove the splinter and placing a Star Wars Band-Aid on the cut which made James smile. Once he finished, Carl looked down at his son and wiped the last few tears from his eyes.
When he brought James back into the living room, he found that his mother had moved much of the wrecks of the ships onto the kitchen table. She looked down at them through those thick glasses, her thin fingers picking through the bits and pieces in an attempt to sort them.
“Mom, you don’t have to do that. I think it’d be best if I got rid of them,” he said while standing the shelf up to its original position.
“I know, I want to,” his mother said, still picking up the broken pieces. When she looked back at the boys and saw the Band-Aid and small smile forming on James’s face, Carl could almost see the wave of relief flow through her.
It wasn’t until he looked back at the clock that he discovered how late it had gotten, already a quarter to ten. Hearing a yawn beside him, he looked down at James, and seeing his mouth open wide, Carl couldn’t help but yawn too.
“I think we both had a long day James, we should both head to bed.”
He yawned again. “Yeah…”
“And I’ll see if I can get the day off. Maybe we can see a movie or something?”
“Really?! There’s a new Friendly Guys movie that just came out!” James said, his expression changing in an instant. Once they reached James's room, he crawled into bed and Carl tucked him in, kissing him on the forehead. He couldn’t remember the last time he tucked his son into bed; James was usually asleep by the time he was done working on the models. Tonight he made sure his son slept well, falling asleep beside his son while watching over him.