I slide the knife downwards with force, the clean steel shining in the dim light before slicing through raw flesh. The kitchen has a distinct aroma—a fetor of composting vegetables and stale garbage. There’s a small linoleum counter with two wooden stools where my family eats dinner, and by family, I mean my father and I. Ambrosia such as this is hard to fathom in our hungry hovel. To have chicken, let alone beef, is a luxury not typically indulged upon by my kind. I don’t know how my father can afford steak on a janitor’s wage, but I’m not about to question the fact with my mouth salivating like a hyena’s over a carcass preordained to the lion pride. To put it in perspective, I still remember my father’s dismissive glare when I asked for a forty-dollar New York sirloin at the local steakhouse. He didn’t say anything, though the air around him was palpable with a gritty forbiddance; after all, the cost of that one strip would feed us for a week. We ended up only ordering appetizers and haven’t been back since. I wish I could dine out eating that exquisite shit like the rich pricks on television, but I wasn’t born into a privileged life.
My mother died giving birth to her only child. She was seventeen at the time, my father a year older. He tells me they were high school sweethearts to justify the early pregnancy. More likely, I was the result of a broken condom during a bathroom fuck between classes. I was raised by my father, and though I want to believe he loves me, there has always been a looming resentment for having killed his wife, to whom he proposed after learning she was with child. It’s for that reason I never dug too deep into the story of how I came to be. After her death, he dropped out of school his senior year and went to work at a gas station. He never remarried.
I go to the same high school that my parents went to, but unlike their love story there are no special girls in my life to knock up. Not many friends either. I have to admit, I kind of like it that way. Focusing on my school work helps keep my grades up so that in two years I can receive my diploma and make something of my life. If being a poor nobody has taught me anything, it’s how to work hard to one day not be. I know, pretty obvious; it just makes me frustrated when I see the kids from the affluent part of town slacking off without a worry in the world because their parents are doctors and lawyers with cars more expensive than my house.
By the time my father gets home from his work shift at the town mall, supper is prepared and waiting on the counter with a can of cold beer. He feigns a smile, his tired face wrinkling with the expression, as he walks through the front door. His beard is dirty and disorganized, as is his hair, expected of a custodian. Planting himself on the empty stool, he sighs. The steak steams to the sound of a cracked ale.
I turn to him with enthusiasm: “This is some kinda meal you got, Pa. Good day?”
He cuts into the bloody meat, seemingly annoyed or maybe just tired. “Thanks for makin’ chow…” He chews. “I’ve got the nightshift at your school in an hour.”
“I thought you were done for the night? You worked all day.”
“They offered me some extra shifts down at the school and I took ’em. Better for us both so we can keep eatin’ this beef, which is goddamn delectable by the way.”
I chuckle uneasily. “Yeah alright, it is pretty good if I do say so myself.”
“I’m lucky to have you ’round, ya know that?”
His softheartedness catches me off guard, straining my ability to respond. “Thanks dad, I… I ‘preciate how hard you’ve been workin’ for us.”
He grunts while swigging his brew. “I won’t be back till close to mornin’. You have any plans tonight?”
“Not really, finished my homework so not much to do,” I say, hoping to earn a morsel of paternal praise.
There’s a long pause as he devours his meal. He utters, “Atta boy,” and disappears into the bathroom. From behind the door he yells to me, “Keep on and have a cold one if you’d like,” which swells my chest with pride.
Before I even put the dishes in the sink, I hear my father’s pickup roll out of our decrepit driveway and into the rainy night. The plates are cleaned, a beer is humbly withdrawn from an otherwise barren fridge, and I settle onto the crumb-ridden sofa, only to skim through the low-class drivel customary of local programing. As my mind wanders so do my eyes, noticing the answering machine blinking on the cheap wooden desk along the wall.
“Hello there, this is the Reichmanns. Sorry for the late notice, but our flight back was delayed and we won’t be able to make it home tonight. If anyone is there, uh, we’d really appreciate it if you could go over and feed our cat. Our house sitter can’t make it tonight, but the food should just be on the kitchen table and there’s a key under the mat by the front door. Thanks so much and don’t worry if you can’t make it. Have a nice night.”
Listening to the voicemail invokes an exciting prospect. I so rarely have the opportunity to visit my neighbor’s house, which is a palace compared to our little shack. I could see what they had to eat and watch some premium entertainment on their big flatscreen. This was the third time I had been invited to my neighbor’s; once before for dinner and once to feed their dumb cat. They gave me twenty bucks last time too, which was nice.
I grab a jacket and head across the unlit street. Clouds cover the moon and pour torrential rain. By the time I get to their front porch, my jacket is soaked like a marinated roast. Inside, the house is clean and spacious. It makes me envious of the over-privileged cat that lives better than my father and I. I fill the feline’s dish with food, as well my own with all sorts of goodies from the fridge and cabinets. I lounge on the leather sofa in sweet delight and begin flicking through channels yet again, this time on a much larger and clearer screen.
After hours of watching high-definition action in surround sound, I’m ready to go home when the night sky flashes white and seconds later booms with thunder. The house rumbles and before I have a chance to ascend from my seat, everything goes black—power is lost. Clueless to my surroundings in the foreign abode, and already exhausted, the comforts of the couch overtake me. I can return to squalor in the early morning, I tell myself. Besides, this sofa is softer than my lousy mattress. The cat purrs from somewhere nearby, succoring me into a deep, cozy slumber.
I see a beautiful woman on the far side of a boulevard with long, straight, auburn hair. Her face resembles a picture of my mother’s, which sits on my father’s nightstand. She turns, beaming at me with lustrous affection. My toes tingle numbly with each step toward her alluring simper, my heart pounding frantically in excitement. The encompassing darkness births light from above, drawing me into the divide, when the silence is suddenly pierced by a girlish scream. My mouth clamps down, unaware if it was my own fearful holler that broke the quiet night. From a distance, car headlights draw nearer. The celestial glow evanesces, diminishing me to the pavement amid the vermin. I attempt to rise up, but the numbness has taken hold, paralyzing my body. My mind, however, races on, as does the car. “Oh my God,” I shout in deathly horror. I try to roll, my torso teetering back-and-forth like a half-empty bottle on the gutter’s edge. The vehicle is almost on me as I toss and turn in utter desperation. BAAANG!
My eyes open to an indistinct chamber, face on a soft rug. Lightning explodes outside, ephemerally displaying the Reichmann’s regal den. The sound of foot steps and an unusually cold breeze fill the room. Lying motionless, jammed into the crevice between the coffee table and sofa, I ponder my plummeted position, catching my breath. My heart pumps rapidly as if sensing impending doom. In the dimness, legs strut across the horizon of stacked magazines on the coffee table’s lower shelf. I hear pattering on the sofa’s leather, too afraid to turn around. Impact from above immobilizes me with fear, nails digging into my back through my wool sweater. The prickly sensation travels up my spine to my head, soft tail swiping my face on departure. Damn cat nearly scared me to death. From a different room, presumably the kitchen, rattling and clanking symphonize aloud with the storm. Sitting up timidly, peaking out over the couch, the room flashes bright again, followed by the roar of thunder. Rain blows in through a shattered sliding glass door. Shaking, I move cautiously to an alcove in the corner, avoiding the broken glass strewed about the carpet, and peer down the hallway. Coming from the entrance to the kitchen I can see a flashlight’s beam dancing in the shadows.
It’s not my responsibility to stop a burglar. This isn’t even my house—like there’s anything to steal from mine anyways. Having awaited visual adjustment to the gloom long enough, I tiptoe up the corridor. The kitchen is now quiet, so I enter, crouching low beneath the countertops. Remembering a knife set from earlier in the evening on the island next to the cat food, I sail across the sea of polished wood flooring. My hand reaches for the knife with the biggest handle: a steak knife. I hope not to use it, but grasp it tight just in case. Staying still for what seems like an eternity, my panting subsides, though the struggle remains in listening for signs of an intruder over the thumping of my own heart.
This is all in my head. A bad dream and stray tree branch in the wind can explain everything. What about the flashlight? No, it was my mind playing tricks—simply moonlight reflections. Regaining a sense of clarity and composure, I step into the lengthy foyer. My newfound courage is fleeting as I begin lightly sprinting for the front door with the same urgency a child has when their imagination runs amuck with pursuant demons in the dark. Passed the bathroom and the office, I’ve almost made my escape. Without even putting on my shoes, I lunge for the doorknob. As my fingers land on the cold metal, a firm grip clasps down on my shoulder. This time I’m certain that it isn’t the cat. Unwilling to submit, I instinctively swing my arm around to break free, my hand still clutching the knife. The blade slices through raw flesh. My opponent grunts in agony and collapses to the ground. I crawl away from the assailant, trembling in disbelief.
My sobbing is interrupted by laughter from the television in the living room. The power has been restored. Slowly standing up with the help of the wall, I search for a light switch, finding one for the chandelier directly overhead. Under illumination, I observe a body in a crimson pool only feet from the front door. I make my way toward the lifeless figure, knife sticking straight out of its chest, to look upon a masked face.
Beside the slain, a sack of stolen goods has scattered the stage, some of the contents and bag soaking up the gore. The display disgusts me such that I gag repetitively and then vomit, falling to my knees aside the departed. I edge closer to the satchel, feeling a familiar numb tingle while scouring within. The mind does everything in its power to suppress the truth, but even the gravest distortion could not deny my touch; a piece of packaged meat as tender as a mother’s love, alas not my own. A New York sirloin to be precise, similar to the one I’d made for dinner. My heart stops as if pierced by the very knife just wielded. As the veil is raised, a disheveled beard gives way to a wonted view: an empty gaze, aloof and unloving. I stare into the face of my own father.
Blood drips from the corner of his mouth as I ease my hand over his worn eyelids and lower my head to the floor. My cries rival the thunder of the passing storm. I wonder whether he was even a janitor, or if it was all just a lie to cover up stealing to feed his only son; a son that stabbed him in the heart long ago, finally finishing the job. Never a lion, undeserving of love, for I killed my mother and my father.
Philip Finkelstein is a freelance writer across political, technology, travel, culture, and fiction fields. Since graduating from the University of British Columbia in 2017 with a BA in political science, he has lived around the world while writing for online publications, news sites, political organizations, and businesses. Now based in NYC, Phil is in the process of publishing his debut novel—a dystopian thriller about American cultural polarization and geopolitical tensions with Russia and China. Read more of his work at philipfinkelstein.com.