Happy Friday the 13th! Here is a vignette on one of the main characters in my story The Otherworlders, Max.
. . .
Max was only three years old when his father died on duty. He didn’t remember much from those early years, besides occasionally being hoisted into the air looking down into his father’s big blue eyes, the same as his, alight with good humor. Actually, he wasn’t even sure if this was truly his own recollection or just a memory super imposed by his mother who told him this is what his father would do every time he came home from work. When Lieutenant Hagan was laid to rest, Delma Hagan, his loving wife and closest confidante, put all of his belongings in three boxes and shipped them to her parents’ house. However, she did save a giant portrait of her husband, given to her as a gift from his precinct, though it would be a few years before she could stomach taking it out of the bubble wrap. In effort to keep his memory alive, more for herself than anyone, Delma regaled Max with stories about his father’s finer qualities: his humor, his affection, and his ability to make an instrument out of anything, though she was careful to leave out mention of her husband’s line of work. If it were up to Delma, Max would never know what his father did for a living. But, as the widow of well-loved police officer, colleagues were prone to stopping by. Whenever Max met any of these former colleagues of his father, Lieutenant Hagan was lionized and eulogized. Even so, Max never really thought about becoming a police officer. At five, his most sincere wish was to be a dinosaur. It wasn’t until he was nine that he realized his real ambition and it was because of the last person who would ever want him to go into law enforcement.
Delma was left with five children, a police officer’s pension, and the fierce determination that her four girls and baby boy succeed (which, in her mind, meant whatever she had planned for them). So she set about squirreling away whatever money she could. Leaving behind the house her and Lieutenant Hagan made a home in Westchester; she packed up her family into a three bedroom apartment in the Pelham Parkway area of the Bronx. Here, she erected the portrait of her husband in his dress blues in their living room, right above a drawer where she kept their wedding album which only she was allowed to retrieve. Working two jobs, one as a seamstress and another as a hostess at the local diner, most nights would get her home just in time for a late dinner with her children. Violet, the eldest, as much of a force as her mother, was charged with making sure her siblings made it home safe from school and stayed that way until their mother came home. After putting the younger children to bed, Violet and Delma would commiserate over the day’s events, more like two old veterans than mother and teenaged daughter. Delma would sigh wearily at news of her second daughter, Shannon’s small acts of rebellion, like getting caught smoking behind the dumpsters at school or fist-fighting girls at her Catholic middle school. This was usually followed by a recounting of the raging fight between Eveline and Bridget, Irish twins born exactly 11 months and 3 weeks apart. They were inseparable but were also polar opposites, as cunning and scheming as Eveline was, Bridget was just as bullish and headstrong, leading to explosive fights at least once a day. Then there was Max, a sweet boy, prone to disappearing into random corners of the apartment to play with his toys or read a spy novel. While Violet would complain Max needed to get out more, that spending so much time with four olders girls all willful in their own right couldn’t be healthy for his development, that his spy novels were polluting his mind, Delma was secretly relieved. Though he looked like his father in miniature, Delma found him to be bookish and placid. She preferred it this way; anything that would keep him safe and draw him to more suitable professions like a professor or a doctor. She would scold Violet: He was smart for his age, increasingly thoughtful, and compassionate.
On Friday nights, Delma took an extra shift at the diner, coming home well after the children had gone to bed, even Violet. She would shuffle into their tiny apartment, slip into her a nightie in the time it took her popcorn to pop in the microwave, and settle into the old leather couch in the living room to watch an after hour screening of a TV movie. Without fail, five minutes in, Max would slip out of his bed and enter the living room, feigning some excuse about nightmares or insomnia. Delma would hold his pointed chin in her dry cracked palm and “tut-tut” at how exhausted he looked and offer him a place underneath the throw beside her. Sinking into the sofa, comforted by the pressure of his mother’s soft body next to his, try as he might, he never lasted more than 20 minutes before he fell asleep.
They continued this secret little tradition for months before it happened. Their neighborhood had changed since they moved in 6 years before. Their curfew was now as strict as ever, “If the sun’s not out, neither are you,” Delma would say sternly when her older daughters would complain. She was even more on edge those days because dozens of apartments on their block had been broken into a span of two weeks. One night, Max sat quietly as the opening scenes of a movie they had already seen unfolded. Just as he was about to ask his mother if they could watch a VHS of his favorite movie, Hook, the knob of the door rattled.
It was a gentle rattle, barely disturbing the air around it, but Delma, in her heightened state of nerves, heard it. She hushed Max, her exhausted body tense and her eyes and ears alert, she rose from the couch. “Get under the blanket. Don’t move,” she said in the same tone she used when Max had broken an ornamental vase her father had given her for her wedding. He shimmied under the throw. Though he wasn’t able to see anything, he could hear Delma’s furtive movements around the living room. The front door at the end of the long hall way shook harder now as someone on the other side jimmied the lock. Max heard his mother slide open the drawer under his father’s picture so slowly he strained to hear it shut. She moved passed him into the hall. Without hesitation, Max peeked his head out to see where she had gone. Craning his neck over the couch, his mother’s doughy frame was silhouetted against the light streaming into the hallway from the living room.
The front door opened slowly and a man dressed in dark jeans, a black shirt, with a nylon stocking over his face slipped through. Before the man had time to shut the door behind him or to register the figure holding a gun at him just a few yards away, he heard a loud popping sound and felt a searing pain cut through the left side of his abdomen.
Years later, when he announced his intention to enter the police academy, Delma would turn stone-faced and refuse to speak to her son for months over what she considered utter betrayal. Max knew he could never articulate how her calm strength, quick-thinking, and steady hand in the face of such danger inspired him. How the fire in her eyes when she turned around after unloading that single shot made all those stories of his father seem farcical and his spy novels juvenile. No, he never told her and all she could mutter after was that she should have never put up that damn portrait.