Austin walked out of the conference room. His face was red and he was defiantly angry. He got to his car and just sat for a moment to try to compose himself. He took a few deep breaths and turned on the engine. It was getting late and he didn’t have time to change before he went to the group. Driving down the street, he started obsessing about the last few hours he had spent in the conference room. “How dare those bastard make me erase the grade and leave it blank? What the hell is going on in this society when a father can control a boardroom and buy a grade for his son? Or when the board of regents are shaking in their pants over silent threats?”
In his career, he had never felt so trapped, being forced to let the board of directors dictate what he was to do with a failing student. Usually, when it got this far, it was ruled in his favor. When a student did not earn a grade, nobody was going to make him change it. But, tonight they had. Maybe it’s time for me to move on and look into another career or maybe a different place to teach. Maybe I have outgrown all these sniveling babies who run crying to their ‘daddys’ with deep pockets. Maybe-- His thoughts were broken when he turned the corner a little fast and nearly hit a pedestrian. He slammed on his breaks just in time. With the force of the unexpected motion, his papers, attaché case, and coffee went flying across the car as he felt his tires grip the road, causing a high-pitched screeching noise.
He held on tight to the steering wheel until the car came to a halt. With his car stopped, his eyes immediately moved straight to the pedestrian. Her head swung around and her eyes directly linked to Austin’s. The look of shock and anger from that moment of recognition was hard for Austin to deal with. Not only had he come close to killing someone because of stupidity and his anger—it was someone he recognized. He had nearly killed Kelzi and her young son as they walked across the street. Austin slammed his gearshift into ‘park’ and he went flying out of his open car door.
Kelzi had already bent down and was cradling her son in her arms. His low whimpers could be heard by the small crowd that had gathered near the curb. All Kelzi could do was hold her son tight as she whispered in his ear, “It’s okay, baby. Mommy is here, and I wouldn’t let anything happen to you.”
Austin stopped and bent down next to the mother and son. In a low voice he said, “I’m so sorry.”
Kelzi’s head swung around and he could visibly see the control it was taking to not lash out at him in front of her son. With narrowed eyes, she said, “Okay. We’ll be fine. Just leave.” She flung her hand at him, as though she were swatting a fly.
His eyes scanned the group. “…then there was the crash,” he began. “One moment of time had changed my perfect life forever, and there was nothing I could have done to stop it. I wanted that moment back, but that's impossible. That crash was going to happen no matter what…because three young punks decided they were going to have a fun afternoon watching people’s lives fall apart.” The anger began to permeate his voice. “They couldn't care less what any of the repercussions would be. They only cared about themselves as they placed a spiked strip across the railroad track and waited for the crash to happen. No one could have prevented it. Not me—not my parents—not her parents—not even Enrique Gomez whose truck was the vehicle of destruction. ‘Nothing’ could have stopped the pain and suffering of so many lives. Only those three punks who killed and injured innocent people could have made a better choice. Three…lousy…punks….” Anger poured from every word as his body began to shake while he remembered those few moments that changed so many lives, forever. He stopped for a moment and heaved a sigh. “Am I willing to accept it…? No! For the past few years I have been wandering through life, waiting for something or someone to stop me from my own self-destruction. My friends tried to give me advice and my family pleaded with me to let it go. But I can’t. I’m so terrified if I let the pain go…I will forget the amazing memories that had led up to that one moment—and I will lose Harper, forever.” His voice cracked, “Did I tell you that we were going to be married in one week? One…lousy…week…and Harper and I would have had an amazing future together as husband and wife.” Eyes opened wide around the circle. He wiped the tears as the truth of his pain finally surfaced. “At times I wished it had been me—not Harper. Not one day has gone by that I don’t think about suicide or why I am still here.”
The therapist asked, “Do you think you will try it? Is that a liable option to you? Because if you do…I need to know.”
Austin closed his eyes for a few seconds, pondering the answer. Then he slowly opened them and looked directly at Suzanne. “No…Harper would be ashamed of me. She would want me to keep moving forward,” he whispered.
She quietly sat there with a stoic look and a slightly smug grin as she stared into space—acknowledging no one. She seemed to be in her own space, where nothing or no one could touch her. She was an attractive young woman, but she looked a little disheveled. Her fingernails were bitten to the edge—her hands folded in her lap. Her brown shoulder length hair wasn’t combed and her clothes were wrinkled and aged. Austin glanced at her big brown eyes and watched her chest heaving with slow, even breaths. Exhibiting a poker face, she was emotionally holding her cards next to her heart so nobody could guess why she was there. She didn’t look at anyone or acknowledge what was going on around her—she just sat there staring into space. Austin was amused by her lack of connection to anything around her—he was there the first year after Harper’s death and continued to stay there for his own self-preservation. The young woman didn’t parade any hysterics or display her emotions on her face for everyone to see, leaving Austin guessing as to what major crisis in her life had left her so damaged. Why was she just taking up space, sitting in one of the ten other chairs? Why didn’t she get up and leave like he wanted to?
Austin’s eyes were fixated on the ceiling at the dark smudge next to the air conditioning vent. The room had a wall of windows with all the blinds closed so that outside world could not be seen. It was a sterile room empty of everything except a round circle of chairs and a small desk in the corner. The lights were dimmed giving it a more guarded setting, yet the voice seemed to be bouncing off the walls. Austin blocked out the woman’s voice and tried to concentrate on his inner voice that was telling him, Get the hell out of here. Knowing his promise to his mother, he was unable to move. He sat quietly in the chair like a frog sitting on a log, wasting time as he continued staring at the spot. I don’t know why I let them talk me into coming to this meeting. This really isn’t my thing, nor do I like listening to sad stories, Austin said silently to himself. I don’t need to define my feelings to anybody, especially to a group of strangers who couldn't give a shit about me or Harper. I deserve to grieve for as long as I want. Where is there a law that prohibits someone from having a self-pity party?
He knew why his family and friends had pushed him into this therapy group. Even though it had been a few years, he was still inconsolable and heartbroken over Harper's unexpected death. He had become withdrawn and rarely ventured out of his self-imposed antisocial existence. After enduring the loss, he had become numb to life. He no longer participated in the things that had once made him happy. Everything he once loved—ceased to exist. Only now, his family and friends were not so accepting of his reclusive behavior and they started pushing him into doing things he really didn’t want to do.
Suddenly, he heard a loud noise that drew his attention back into the group. The therapist, Suzanne Ward, was looking directly at him as she cleared her throat again to get his attention. Her soft voice had raised a few octaves. “Listen, Mr. Lewis…if you are not willing or interested in participating in this group then I suggest you give your chair to someone who is.”
Austin gave her a condescending smile. “I really don’t know why I’m here. Even though my frame of mind sucks sometimes…I seem to be functioning okay.” He uncrossed his legs and leaned his elbows on them. “My family is a little concerned, so I made them a promise.”
Her hand slowly swept around the circle as a composed smile crossed her lips. “Look around the room, Mr. Lewis. Everyone here is 'functioning' to a degree,” she said, nodding her head. “How long do you merely ‘just want to function’?” Her eyes seemed to be questioning him for an answer. “For the rest of your life, Mr. Lewis?” There was silence. Then she continued, “This group is here so that everyone can learn how to deal with their tremendous loss and learn how to move forward again.”
He looked down at his clasped hands that were beginning to shake. He knew what was coming next and he didn’t want to hear it—not again, not even one more time. Not from his family, not from her, not from anyone. Gently, she said, “Is there anything that will bring her back? Can anyone change what happened, Mr. Lewis?"