(c) Amanda Dick
“You cannot find peace by avoiding life.”
- Virginia Woolf
“Eddie Vedder is a god,” Ally announced from the back seat. “No doubt about it.”
Jack nodded at her in the rear-view mirror.
“And not only is he a god, but he has to be one of the sexiest men on the planet.”
“Good save, babe,” Jack winked.
“He’s the guy that chicks want and dudes want to be like,” Callum said, turning around to face her from the seat in front. “But I don’t blame you. If I was a chick, I’d do him.”
“Ugh, now I need bleach to scrub that mental image from my brain.”
Ally leaned forward between the seats.
“Okay, favourite song from the concert tonight.”
Jack sucked in air through his teeth, eyes on the road ahead as he thought it over.
“Oceans,” he said.
“Crown of Thorns,” Callum said. “I never got to see Mother Love Bone live so it’s the next best thing. Although Why Go was pretty freakin’ amazing.”
He broke into a frenzied air guitar session in the front seat, his expression rapturous.
Jack chuckled as Callum turned back to Ally.
“Black,” she said, without hesitation. “With Release a close second. And I got it all on video. Can’t wait to get home and upload it!” She squealed, leaning back again. “I cannot believe it’s taken so long to see them live, but tonight was worth the wait.”
“He has the sexiest voice ever,” she said.
“Hello?” Callum turned around in the seat again. “Do we have to spend the entire trip home hearing about how sexy he is? I’m sure that, given half a chance, he’d prefer to be known for his talent than his looks or his… general sexiness.”
“Jealous?” Ally ribbed.
“When I have all this at my fingertips?” he ran a hand through his short, dark hair. “Not a chance. And come on; he may be sexy, and he may be a rock god, but I’m sure it’s not fun and games all the time. I mean, he probably has those paparazzi bottom-feeders chasing him wherever he goes, splashing his visit to the pharmacy to buy haemorrhoid cream all over the front page. That’s gotta suck.”
Ally leaned forward to swat him around the head.
“Don’t you dare drag him down to mortal level like that! Anyway, I’m sure he has people to do all that stuff for him.”
“True. That’s a job description I’d love to see.”
Ally leaned forward to slap him again but he ducked out of the way with a chuckle.
“Quit it, you two,” Jack grinned, taking his foot off the gas in anticipation of the approaching corner. “Don’t make me the grown-up here. You know I hate that.”
The road was still wet, even if the rain had stopped. The country road had been lined with trees for the past half mile, trapping the light from the headlights, bouncing it off the undergrowth and back out onto the road again. The effect was eerie and he was grateful when the trees gave way to the open countryside again.
“You need to put a leash on her,” Callum grinned. “She’s outta control tonight!”
Jack glanced at Ally in the rear-view mirror and she smiled back, winking wickedly. She was in a playful mood tonight, still on a high from the concert. He could relate. Adrenaline hummed through his veins and his ears still rang from the noise. It had been worth the long drive there and back but he suddenly wished they were home already. The ring tucked safely into the pocket of his jeans dug into him as a physical reminder of what lay ahead.
Distracting himself, he leaned over to turn the music up and Eddie Vedder’s sultry voice filled the car. Ally swayed to the music in the back seat, a satisfied smile on her face. He turned his attention back to the road as they rounded the corner.
Headlights cut through the dark, directly into their path, blinding him momentarily. His heart leapt into his throat and his gut knew instinctively what was about to happen mere seconds before the car hit them.
Callum yelled as Jack automatically wrenched the steering wheel away from the blinding light. It all happened so fast. He didn’t even have time to slam on the brakes.
The impact was mind-blowing, sending a shuddering jolt throughout his entire body that turned his limbs to jelly. Time stopped as they skidded across the road, the buzzing in his ears blocking everything else out. Then they were upside down. He squinted out through the windshield, his brain struggling to process what was happening. He felt like he was moving simultaneously in slow motion and fast-forward, and it crossed his mind that this might be how he died. A strange calmness washed over him. His fate was completely out of his hands.
The car suddenly bounced as it left the road, ripping through a fence, the trees ahead rapidly filling the windshield as he mentally braced himself for the impact. The crazy rollercoaster ride ended as abruptly as it began, jolting him again, throwing a spear of pain through his shoulder and neck that left him breathless.
And then there was silence. Buzzing, humming, vibrating silence.
“There are four questions of value in life;
What is sacred? Of what is the spirit made?
What is worth living for, and what is worth dying for?
The answer to each is the same. Only love.”
- Johnny Depp
Jack McKenna bolted upright, bathed in sweat, his heart racing. When he was a child his mother would soothe him with “It’s alright, it was just a nightmare. It wasn’t real.” But this wasn’t just a nightmare. It was a memory, a very real memory. He fell back onto the pillow and ran a clammy hand down his face. He was on the brink of exhaustion but apparently sleep was a luxury he was being denied tonight.
No light spilled into the room from the tiny window and he lay there in the dark, listening to the sounds of the night. Traffic from the street below, cats fighting somewhere nearby, a distant sound of smashing glass followed by shouting. His current neighbourhood was more war zone than suburbia but afraid to close his eyes again, he lay there and listened to all of it.
Four years had passed and still he could recall every last detail of that night. In his waking moments he had control for the most part but when he slept it was a different story. Grief and guilt soaked through him like acid, eating away at him.
Frustrated, he pushed the covers off and swung his legs down onto the threadbare carpet. His entire body ached. The trembling hand he ran through his short brown hair left it standing on end, the nightmare still nipping at the edges of his subconscious. Ally’s face flashed in front of his eyes. He squeezed them shut, trying to block her out as he fought to regain control.
In, one thousand. Out, one thousand. In, one thousand. Out, one thousand.
Slowly, he opened his eyes again, staring blearily at the stained carpet beneath his feet. The day hadn’t yet begun and already he was bone-tired. He stood up, his shoulders still sore from the fight the week before. The recovery time was longer these days but he didn’t care. He needed somewhere to channel his frustrations and inside the ring suited him just fine. He was fighting again tonight, instructed to take a dive and being paid good money to do it. Wearily, he pushed his pride aside one more time. The fact that it had become easier to do these days sat like a lead weight across his aching shoulders.
Padding across the room in his boxers, he grabbed his sweats and pulled them on. He took the stairs from his shabby apartment down to the street two at a time. Running through the streets, cloaked in despair, almost invisible in the dark, he tried to block out the world. The sun had begun to rise by the time he ran back towards his apartment.
He showered quickly, unable to ignore his battered reflection in the mirror as he prepared to shave. The skin was still healing over the bridge of his nose and he had a dark bruise around the cut on his cheekbone, the result of last week’s fight. His green eyes were dull and hollow and he had a haunted look about him that made him look much older than his thirty-one years. Disgusted, he threw the razor into the sink instead.
After changing into his work clothes - faded jeans, checked shirt, padded jacket, work boots - he threw down a cup of strong, black coffee which did nothing to settle his stomach. Driving to the work site, he cranked the radio up loud in an effort to silence the voices in his head.
The day passed much like any other. He put in a solid day’s work on the building site and declined an invitation from his workmates to hit the local bar after their shift ended. One day soon they would stop asking. He had held plenty of jobs just like this over the past four years and the invitations always dried up eventually. The less they knew about him the better.
That evening, he sat at the tiny table in the dingy apartment that had passed for home over the past few months and ate lukewarm pizza in silence. The light bulb had blown in the living room a couple of days ago but he hadn’t gotten around to replacing it yet. The borrowed light shining through from the small kitchenette gave everything a sombre glow that suited his mood.
He felt like he was running in circles. Just when he finally felt like he had made progress, that the memory of what happened that night was fading, he would have the nightmare again and everything would come flooding back. At first it frustrated him, but then he realised that this was how it was supposed to be. The guilt he carried around with him like a chain around his neck, belonged there. Sometimes he thought that this was God’s way of punishing him for what he did. Leaving like that was an act of cowardice and cowards deserved to be punished. He wasn’t an idiot; he knew that he looked for that punishment every time he got into the ring. He was grateful for every punch that found its mark on his body. He deserved it.
Of course, his father would disagree. Tom seemed certain that forgiveness awaited him - from Ally, from Callum and from everyone else he had left behind. The truth was, as much as he loved his father and appreciated his support and loyalty, he knew some things were unforgiveable.
One day, he promised himself, he would go home and apologise in person. But not yet. Four years had passed and he was no readier to face them now than he was back then.
He took another swig from his beer bottle and set it down on the table in front of him, staring at it as if it would provide him with answers. He had fantasies about going home, about just turning up on his father’s doorstep out of the blue. He imagined talking to Callum, hearing him say that he understood why he left and that he didn’t blame him for anything. He fantasised about Ally forgiving him, throwing herself into his arms and everything going back to the way it was.
But they were just fantasies. The reality was that he would never be able to go home, Callum would never understand why he left and Ally would never be able to throw herself into his arms again.
Sometimes, in the moments just before waking, he almost felt her warm body tucked into his on the bed, her hair tickling his nostrils. He could swear he felt her long, smooth legs entwined with his, his hand curled around hers beneath the pillow.
And then he woke alone, his arms empty, his bed cold.
He had taken something from her that she would never be able to get back. As she lay in the ICU that night, he remembered thinking that she looked whole. But she wasn’t. A shattered spinal cord did invisible damage, damage that could never be repaired. She would never walk again and it was his fault. He carried that knowledge around with him like an anchor that simultaneously tied him to her and tore her away from him.
The brief conversations with his father were torture. Questions haunted him but he was afraid to ask them. He convinced himself it would be easier if they didn’t talk about her but the delusion was paper-thin. Just because they didn’t talk about her didn’t mean she was far from his mind. He shook off the musings, taking another swig of beer. He didn’t deserve to know.
Staring down at the untouched slice of cold pizza on his plate, he saw his whole life stretched out before him. Alone in some grubby little apartment, working a dead-end job miles from home. Throwing himself into harm’s way - tempting fate, but too much of a coward to take matters into his own hands. Working himself to the brink of physical and mental exhaustion as he tried to block out all of his sins. How had he ended up here? The sense of hopelessness was so strong he wanted to scream.
Instead he took what was left of his beer over to the couch and sank into it, running his fingers over the fabric on the arms, smooth with the ingrained grease and dirt of previous tenants. His gaze crawled over the faded, peeling wallpaper as he tried to psyche himself up for the fight tonight. He had been instructed to take a dive in the third round, which got under his skin. He knew his opponent, had seen him fight. He was bigger but he was clumsier too. He knew he could take him if he put his mind to it but he had his instructions. It didn’t matter if he could take him or not. He needed the money and he needed to do what Ben wanted.
The trill of his ringing cell phone broke into his thoughts and he picked it up off the stack of pizza boxes that passed for a coffee table. An unfamiliar number blinked at him from the screen.
The hair on the back of his neck stood on end.
“Who is this?” he asked tentatively, although the voice was far too familiar to be mistaken.
“It’s me. Callum.”
His heart thumped in his ears.
“You still there?” Callum asked.
How the hell did Callum get this number?
“I’ve got some bad news. It’s your Dad.”
The words hung in the air between them, Jack’s heart breaking as if it knew the truth before he did.
“He’s dead, Jack. He had a heart attack.”
Jack stared at the wall opposite him, unblinking. There was a humming in his veins, in his blood, deep inside his chest, that made it difficult to concentrate.
“When?” he mumbled.
“This afternoon. I came over to –” Callum’s voice broke and he cleared his throat. “I found… he was in the living room. Your number was in his phone. I thought you’d want to know.”
Jack nodded blankly, unable to find the words.
“I’m sorry. Funeral’s on Friday.”
The pause was long and uncomfortable. He imagined Callum’s face on the other end of the phone but that just made it worse. Imagining Callum’s face also conjured up Ally’s. He had never felt emptier or more alone.
“Are you coming home?” Callum asked.
His heart hammered in his chest, fear pulsing through him at the thought.
“Jack? Are you planning on coming home, for the funeral?”
The harshness in Callum’s tone shocked him into answering.
“I don’t know.”
“It’s your call, obviously. I don’t care one way or the other but I just want you to know that if you do decide to come back, Ally doesn’t want to see you.”
Jack froze at the mention of her name.
“So, come or don’t come, that’s up to you, but stay away from her - I mean it. She doesn’t need this shit from you, not now. Funeral’s on Friday at eleven. Father David’s handling it. You can call him for all the details.”
The anger in his voice was unmistakable. He rattled off Father David’s number as Jack scrambled for a pen and scrawled it on top of the nearest pizza box.
“Thanks,” he mumbled, his hand shaking so badly he could barely read his own handwriting.
“I mean it, Jack. Stay away from her. You owe her that much.”
The line went dead.
Jack pushed the conversation with Callum into the back of his mind, compartmentalising it as he had done so often over the past few years. Shadowboxing, he bounced on the balls of his feet. He didn’t want to think about anything right now. He just wanted to get into the ring and fight.
The warehouse was on the outskirts of the city, tucked in behind a factory that looked like it had shut down years earlier. Grass sprung up from cracks in the broken concrete outside and most of the windows were smashed in. It was the poster child for urban decay, abandoned and forgotten, a reminder of better, more industrious, days.
It smelled like sawdust and oil and it reminded Jack of long hours spent with his father, working in their garage on his motorbike. Tom wouldn’t have understood why he was doing this, Jack was sure of that. Jack could almost hear how that conversation might have gone in his head, his father’s voice firm and unwavering in his disapproval.
Just then Ben arrived with one of his heavies, strolling straight into the small storeroom out back that served as the locker room. He didn’t bother with any preamble and got right to the point, clarifying the details with him before the fight. He was to go down in the third round. Jack nodded, ignoring the giant standing behind him.
“Third round,” he mumbled. “Got it.”
“Payment after the fight, as usual,” Ben said, preparing to leave. He turned around in the doorway. “There’s a lot riding on this so don’t screw it up, for either of us. You go down in this fight and your next one will earn us both double, trust me.” He paused, giving Jack the once-over from his feet up. “You look tense. Loosen up.”
Jack clenched his teeth, nodding. As much as he hated to be told, Ben was right. He needed to concentrate on keeping his father out of his head if he was going to make it through this. So, he pushed the pain down deep, just like he’d been doing for the past four years. He didn’t have the luxury of dealing with grief right now.
The general buzz of the amassing crowd outside was slowly building. Moments later, the place erupted in a loud roar. There had to be at least a couple of hundred people out there. By the time he climbed into the ring to the deafening sound of cheering, Jack was in a trance.
Let’s do this.
Standing up inside the ring, the smell of sweat, stale beer and liniment was overwhelming. He bobbed up and down, rolling his shoulders, ignoring the crowd and concentrating on his opponent. He had clearly been spending a lot more time in the gym since he last saw him. Jack’s ribs ached just looking at him.
“Just another day,” he mumbled to himself above the cacophony, throwing punches into the air in front of him.
He never even heard the bell above the roar of the crowd but he saw his opponent heading straight for him. He shook his head to clear it and headed into the centre of the ring to meet him head-on. They were fighting for money and the crowd was betting large. There was no meeting in the middle to touch gloves, no agreeing to abide by the rules. There were no gloves and no rules. Strangely, he felt at home there.
He ducked the first punch and snapped back to reality in time to feel the second punch connect with the side of his head. His ears rang but he kept his hands up and his feet moving. He stole a quick glance ringside. Ben stared back at him, his face expressionless. Jack diverted his attention back to his opponent, dancing around him for a few seconds before bearing down with a series of one-two combinations, ending with a sharp jab to the ribcage. His opponent staggered but stayed on his feet, Jack’s arms and shoulders burning from the recoil. Over the next minute or so stray punches found their mark but Jack shook them off.
At the end of the first round, he retreated to his corner and took the squirt of water offered greedily. Panting, he was fairly certain that was more from the effort of trying to keep his mind on the job rather than any physical toll on his body. His father’s voice kept overriding that of the crowd. Blinking, he grabbed the water bottle, squirting it over his face in an effort to wash the voices away.
Heading into the centre for round two, he was anxious and hyper-alert. He dodged his opponent’s first couple of punches easily, swinging his body away from the right hooks - his most powerful. He was too slow to avoid the sudden left swing that hit him out of nowhere though, and it reverberated throughout his body, leaving him staggering.
Ally’s face flashed in front of his eyes and he shook his head to get rid of her, an overwhelming sense of guilt hitting him with the same power as a well-placed roundhouse kick. Groaning, he knew she would never have let him put himself and his body on the line like this. She would hate it if she knew, they all would.
A thunderous blow to the head saw him falling to the floor as the lights went out momentarily. He lay on the floor for what seemed like hours, his head ringing. Slowly his vision cleared and he saw his father standing inside the ropes, staring at him. Jack held his breath. Then he blinked and the image was gone. Scrambling to get up, he shook his head and tried to ignore the screaming crowd. He was being driven to the point of insanity. Maybe he was finally losing it?
This had to stop.
He shot upright, barely thinking about what he was doing, heading straight for his opponent, hands up, eyes focused. He didn’t even feel the first punch connect with his opponent’s ribs but he saw him double over all the same. The next punch came straight out of the blue and into his opponent’s face, front and centre. The grief and guilt tore out of him at a hundred miles an hour and rained down on his opponent because he was there. For a split second, he felt sorry for him.
Catching him as he rebounded off the ropes, he slugged him again and again and again, until the man was a steaming heap at his feet.
The crowd roared. Slowly, Jack came back to himself. Realisation slammed into him. Adrenaline fired through his system as he frantically sought out Ben. It was like staring into the eye of a hurricane. He stood in the centre of a baying crowd, unmoving, silent.
Jack bolted from the ring, fighting his way through the crowd. He had been in more establishments like this than he cared to remember and one thing he routinely did before the fight was check for possible escape routes, just in case. More than once he’d had to escape an unhappy crowd when the fight didn’t go their way. He snatched his bag, jamming a chair beneath the door handle. Heading straight for the small anteroom at the back, he tried to force the window open. When it wouldn’t give, he dug into his bag and pulled out his shirt, wrapping it around his fist and jabbing it into the window-pane, shattering the glass. He cleared the jagged glass around the edges of the frame and climbed through, glancing behind him once he was out in the alley.
Panting heavily, he ran along the alley, not stopping until he was clear of the building, steam pouring off him into the chilled night air. He jumped into his car and gunned the engine, heading for his apartment, blood pounding in his ears. Checking the rear-view mirror every few minutes, he looked for signs that Ben or his henchmen might be following him. He took the long way, just in case, and bolted up the stairs to his second-floor apartment.
Throwing his meagre possessions into his duffle bag, he checked his cell phone battery and ripped the lid off the pizza box, jamming that in too. After giving the small apartment a quick once-over, he headed straight back to his car. There was no time to waste. Ben would be looking for him.
Throwing his bag into the car, he glanced quickly up and down the street. He climbed in, pausing to take a deep breath. His lungs pushed painfully against his bruised ribs. His muscles screamed and his hands shook uncontrollably.
“I’m coming Dad,” he whispered into the silence. “I’m sorry I’m late but I’m coming.”
"Absolution is a story of second chance love, betrayal, friendships, family, lies, deception and most importantly forgiveness. It is a unique tale that has been flawlessly written - the attention to detail is beyond incredible and the journey you are taken on is simply beyond words." ~ Brittany's Book Blog (1 April 2015)