PI 2015 Round 4: Nicholas and Claudia Bell

Note: There’s this fan community I recently joined that hosts an annual writing contest called Project Ink. I applied, surprisingly got accepted, and made it to the second-to-the-last round. Each of the bi-weekly rounds had the participants write short stories following prompts. I had the choice to build a new world with each new round, but I didn’t. Instead, I built the Cecilia Canon – a series of stories about this woman named Cecilia, her daughter Claudia, and her unnamed mother who all look like Eva Green.
Project Ink Round 4: Point of View Challenge, characters receive a letter from ‘Ruth’ about ‘Sam’ passing on. Max 2500 words.


Nicholas Bell

Nick watched as Claudia glared at the letter tacked to the fridge. Ruth had left him a note, informing him that Sam had passed on, but his daughter hadn’t even bothered to appear bereaved. She had never warmed up to his parents – not even when she had been seven, and ponies had been her flavor of the month. At Sam and Ruth’s farm, there had been horses of all sizes, all ages, but Claudia had not been charmed by them. She had always been determined to hate her grandparents, just as she was determined to hate them now.

“I’m sorry about this, honey,” Nick apologized, pulling his car keys out of the pocket of his jeans. He had promised her that they would clean the attic together, throw out those old trifles for good, but he hadn’t known Ruth was in town. “I’ll make it up to you.”

Ruth, who had the personality of apple pie and never insisted on anything, had practically demanded that he meet her. Nick was ready to offer a shoulder to cry on, ready to agree to anything she asked for. Nick knew Claudia wouldn’t be happy about her grandmother possibly moving in, but Ruth had no one else now. She had only him, his confused daughter, and their two-storey home at the end of Lemon Street, with its peeling paint, its plumbing problems, and the stuffed penguins Claudia had once loved stacked next to his collection of snow globes.

Sam had made his peace with the dust – as he had put it when Nick had last seen him conscious, smoking in his back porch with the sinking sun in his eye. He had fallen into a coma after getting hit in a drunken bar fight, and although Nick knew Sam had it coming he preferred not to dwell on it.

Expecting that Sam would ruin himself and hearing that his old man had died were two different things, and Nick was not inclined to pick apart the differences. For as long as he was able to, for as long as he could, he would hold on to the memory of the man who had taken him in when he had no one else. He had been twelve, orphaned, born of people that seeded wounds way under skin and bone, and only one distant relative had cared about him. Sam and his wife, they had stuffed him with bacon and potato salad for weeks, never complaining that he wouldn’t speak to them, not until Sam had gotten him his first snow globe, and he had muttered one word of thanks.

Sam’s weathered face had taken on a smile, and he had ruffled Nick’s hair with a dusty hand before walking out of the house, not saying anything.

“You know she’s going to bleed you dry.” Claudia was narrowing her eyes at him – the way her eyebrows had been pinched together so tightly these days had Nick struggling to remember what she had looked like with her face at peace. She had been such a bright child, his daughter. She had been so carefree, so vivid, and then she had grown up, turning into a woman too young to already be blurring at the edges, standing in his empty kitchen, glaring at everything.

Yet Nick could see why she hated his parents so much. Her only image of Sam had been that of an old man bent over a huddle of empty beer bottles, defeated by the failure of all his commercial ventures but too proud to admit that he was hurting and ashamed. She had never seen Sam as Nick did: tall, strong, a man on whose shoulders he could balance to see the world on higher ground. While Claudia had only seen Sam broken, Nick had been there as he broke. It had been painful, almost indecent – the plunge into insobriety, the fistfights, the women, the smashed bottles marking cavities on the walls. Ruth had stayed, and Nick had never tried to take her away. They were, the two of them, all that Sam had. They were the only ones who could see past the anger and misdirected self-loathing to recognize the man that was buried underneath.

“Don’t say that, Claudia,” Nick admonished. “Grandma might be coming home with me.”

Claudia snorted.

For all that she hated her grandfather, Claudia and Sam were alike in so many ways, the least of which being the disquieting process when they retreated into bitterness the moment they gave up on themselves. Nick had known that Claudia’s two years at college had not been kind to her, but learning to live with the aftermath of her pain was proving more challenging than he had expected. She had come home, asking to rest for a year, offering to help with his home business, but watching her function with obvious effort was painful. The spark in her had died, perhaps long ago, and Nick didn’t know how to save her. It was like watching Sam, his father, relive his worst years in another shell.

Nick sighed. “I’ll call to let you know when I’m coming home.”

“Dad, wait.” Claudia suddenly jumped from her perch on the kitchen counter and walked towards him, raised palms begging to be understood. “Don’t take this the wrong way. I know you love these people. But it’s not healthy to hold on to toxic relationships just because they’re the only ones you have. You deserve so much more.”

He stared.

Sam’s smiles, few though they had been, had made him feel at peace and rewarded. Ruth’s nagging, though it bordered on being irritating, had made him feel warm and cared for, had reminded him that he had a place and someone who watched over him. Claudia’s ideas on family, though they scared him, stung more than anything else. He was part of the reason she distrusted people so. He had failed at making her feel safe, keeping her whole, and she was reaping retribution, whether intentionally or not. Claudia had learned to cut her losses well and early, turning away from relationships the moment they became disadvantageous and bit her. She had learned to defend her heart with a violent caution that tore into him, too.

Perhaps, when he would no longer be useful to her, she would cut him off as well. That was what her mother had done. She had left him – had left them, without a backward glance.

“Ruth’s still your grandmother,” was all Nick said. “We don’t leave family behind.”

He hugged her and before she could say anything else, walked out of the house he had lived in for twenty-five years. It had seen one daughter, two wives, three fish and a tortoise, its memories condensed in a dusty attic, a stack of old snow globes, and dozens of abandoned toys. It had witnessed his daughter grow, and eventually learn to give up on people. It had witnessed Nick getting hurt a hundred times, still deciding after each heartache that he’d never stop believing in tenderness.

Nick Bell, frowning faintly, drove away from the dilemma of his daughter, and headed off to meet the other ghosts of his family.

Claudia Bell

The woman had apparently never heard of voice mail.

Claudia eyed Ruth’s hesitant handwriting on the note pinned to the fridge door, recalling faces she had not seen in almost seven years. She had been thirteen then, and her father had insisted that they visit Sam and Ruth for Thanksgiving. It had not ended well. Sam’s rival for the title of village idiot had turned up at the door, shouting a stream of curses as he waved a rifle around. Her dad had never brought her to Oklahoma after that, although Claudia knew he visited his relatives regularly. She really wished he didn’t.

The man she had been asked to call Grandpa all her life had been a repulsive creature. He drank the town dry, slept with countless women, and still managed to look infallible in her father’s eyes. His wife had been just as detestable – tall and bony, with watery eyes and a hunched back that reflected her timidity. Ruth had turned a blind eye to every mistake her husband made, playing the role of the martyr wife well. Claudia hated her weakness. She was an embarrassment to the independent woman, and the very sight of her made Claudia’s fingers curl into fists.

That Sam had croaked after going into a coma did not come to Claudia as a surprise. He had gotten into a slugfest with another frequenter at his favorite watering hole, all over a few unsettled poker games. His head had hit the bar, he had gotten a bad concussion, and at his age, no one had really expected him to wake up again. Claudia personally believed he had been asking for a death sentence, had been for years. She supposed he had some good points tucked behind that devil-may-care facade, or her father wouldn’t think so highly of him. To Claudia though, he had only been a monster – violent, hateful, crass, and vile.

“I’m sorry about this, honey. I’ll make it up to you.”

She had always wondered how a man as gentle as her father could come from a family as dysfunctional as his. He had a weathered face, mournful eyes, and a demeanor so mild one of her school friends had once thought he was a priest. He rarely talked about himself though, and even though she’d known him all her life, there were times when she felt she knew nothing about him. That his biological father had shot his mother and then committed suicide, Claudia knew. That Sam and Ruth had taken him in when he was twelve, she also knew. Still, she didn’t quite understand what made him tick, or what was going on in his head most of the time. She hated it most when he would stare at the whitewashed walls of the house, not really seeing them, obviously trapped between trying to remember a grocery list and reliving a particularly unpleasant memory. He was in limbo most days. Claudia sometimes thought he enjoyed trapping himself there.

“You know she’s going to bleed you dry,” she pointed out. Sam and Ruth had very little money, lost mostly in dumb saving practices and business ideas that ended up in bankruptcies. All of Sam’s hospital bills had been paid for by her dad, and it was a good thing he was making far more money than he’d ever consider spending, because otherwise he wouldn’t have anything left for his own retirement. He was the type who would saw off a limb if she said she needed one, and that was one of the most irritating things about him. He was basically asking to be taken advantage of, with that kindness, that naïveté. It was why people walked all over him every time.

“Don’t say that, Claudia,” he scolded. “Grandma might be coming home with me.”

She snorted. Of course, he would insist on bringing her home. He had always been an advocate for happy families, never accepting the fact that he’d never have the white-picket-fence life he’d always wanted. He had never admitted it aloud, never said he wanted a wife who made meringues and drove the boys to soccer practice, that he didn’t want this jaded daughter who painted her nails black and volunteered to work on the garden so she could vent her anger by stabbing the weeds in the backyard.

He had never confessed that, but Claudia knew. All his stupid snow globes had little houses with happy families congregating in them, smiling up at her tauntingly. She wanted to smash his entire collection – it angered her so, it made her want to shred his blissful fantasies apart and present to him the reality that the things we wanted most were the things we’d never have.

“I’ll call to let you know when I’m coming home,” he said.

“Dad, wait.” Claudia got to her feet and walked towards him. She knew he wouldn’t appreciate what she would say, but she couldn’t live with herself if she didn’t let him know what she thought. “Don’t take this the wrong way. I know you love these people. But it’s not healthy to hold on to toxic relationships just because they’re the only ones you have. You deserve so much more.”

And he did. He believed in people even when they didn’t deserve the faith he wasted on them. Worse, he was smart enough to know when he was being taken advantage of. She had seen his last wife exploit him, that cheating gold digger, and from what she remembered of her own mother before she drove off and never came back, she had used him, too. Her father attracted unhealthy relationships with disturbing consistency and an even more alarming resignation. It was as if he didn’t care about himself anymore, as though he didn’t think he had a right to a decent relationship and unconditional affection.

Claudia, she knew a lot about toxic relationships and putting an end to them. Her mother – she’d given up on that woman a long time ago. Friends – they always measured her up to their standards, and always found her wanting. Boyfriends – she didn’t need anyone to remind her that she was difficult to love, not when she woke up to that thought every single day. She’d broken off almost all her relationships, and she was slowly winning back her peace.

So now she would save her father – the only person left whom she cared for – from the farce he called his family. Sam had been selfish; Ruth was myopic. Her father was better off without them.

“Ruth’s still your grandmother,” he said, staring at her as though he was searching for someone else’s face. “We don’t leave family behind.”

Before she could react, he gave her a one-armed hug, and walked out of the kitchen door. Claudia huffed in disbelief. He was walking out of a possible discussion again, setting her aside, if only because admitting that there were things they did not agree on did not appeal to him. He had always turned a blind eye to things, much like Ruth, and that riled up Claudia’s anger. He was such a mouse sometimes, her father.

She walked to the kitchen window and watched him grip the steering wheel hard. She could do nothing but let him drive away this time, straight into the machinations of that woman, because of his suicidal ideas on family loyalty.

Claudia Bell bit her lip in frustration, cursing.

Project Ink posts on Saturdays. This is the 5th of 7. 

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