Mark Stanton did not realize how tightly he had been gripping the wheel of his car until the muscles in his forearms began to ache. He slowly peeled his fingers off the wooden wheel, alternately opened and closed his hands, stretched his neck, popped his knuckles, and breathed.
The drive was not a taxing one, just 12 miles down Route 7. A flat, winding trip along the blue-green lake, Lake Tvivel. In his youth, his family spent every weekend on the lake, swimming, camping, baking under the sun. “Tvivel” meant “doubt,” and those carefree days on the water two decades ago were, unbeknownst to him, withdrawals of unburdened living he was making. Now, it was his time to pay up.
He turned off the radio, rolled down the windows, and felt the brisk air circle through the car. It was early morning, there was no traffic, and he could think. The lake was always still. Today, he thought about his wife, Katy, and his daughters, Beth and Sarah.
As he reached the northwest corner of the lake, he turned off Route 7 and headed into town. Turning left onto Maple Lane, the plastic butterfly holding pictures of his daughters, swayed to the right under his rearview mirror, and when he motored down the street, it rocked back and forth, a gentle reminder of what his choices meant.
Mark Stanton groggily looked up through blinking, bleary eyes to see a tall, blond woman standing before him. It was 7:00am, and he had arrived a half-hour earlier.
“Mr. Stanton, he should be in shortly. I just wanted you to know.”
“Thank you” was his semi-conscious reply.
Mark Stanton walked down the long, grey hallway. The building was old, but had recently been updated with a hi-tech wing and retro-fitted walls in the older corridors illuminated by soft lighting around the edges. It wasn’t the antiseptic palace he remembered visiting in his youth, but the modern touches did little to make one feel comfortable. Or warm. It was as if the pendulum had swung from cold and uncaring, right past homey and understanding, and into fashionable stark modernism.
He chewed on his lip, and, as he rounded the corner, he indulged his self-centeredness and wondered if the renovations to the building weren’t so bad. Maybe he was the one that had swung past homey and understanding. Demanding job, wife that worried enough for both of them, a young daughter with unique medical needs, a mortgage — it was nice and blessed and boring and suffocating all at the same time. It wasn’t as easy as it was supposed to be, it wasn’t as fulfilling. The bigger house, the better cars, the promotions at work, they never seemed as glorious as he was lead to believe.
But, most of all, it wasn’t fair. Not now.
Mark Stanton followed his path to the end of the corridor, turned left, and walked another 100 feet. He had arrived at a gleaming glass-encased wing. He sat alone, noting the light filtering into the atrium. The space was actually full of light, semi-comfortable chairs, abstract paintings just unique enough to make you wonder if they weren’t painted by a machine, and potted plants that were probably real.
He had just bitten one of his fingernails to the quick when a woman came out into the area and called to him. He nodded his head and walked up to the squat, black-skinned lady, with long hair flowing over her shoulders and eyes that were not as friendly as he wished.
“Mr. Stanton, my name is Cecilia. He will see you now. Please follow me.”
He nodded, and began to follow her down a winding series of corridors, descending several flights along the way. Her white pants and white shoes caught his attention, against the dusty grey floors.
“I understand we have your daughters, Mr. Stanton.”
“I’m reading a note . It says we will bring your daughters to this meeting when they arrive.”
“Oh, yes. I, um, I think that’s the plan.”
“We’ll take care of them. Don’t you worry,” Cecilia said as she stopped at a door and turned to face him with her uncaring eyes. “He is waiting to talk to you. Go on in.”
Mark Stanton peered at the old steel door in front of him, painted a grayish-green. He was in the bowels of the building now, far from the gleaming glass of the new atrium, and, as he looked down, he could see the light from under the door crossing the white shoes of Cecilia.
It was a Thursday morning. He should be getting ready for work. Katy should be dropping the girls off at school. He should be having a bland cereal with coffee that isn’t quite right. He should be making a list of chores to do around the yard this weekend. It should be a nothing of a day. Unremarkable. Full of meaningless choices. And, so, he could only think, how does one prepare for this?
“Mr. Stanton, are you worried about your daughters?” Cecilia questioned.
Mark Stanton noticed they were alone in the hallway. Her eyes robbed her question of warmth and only made him feel more isolated.
“Wouldn’t you be?” was the reply that left his lips before he could really think about it.
“Yes,” she said, and it was not until he began to push open the heavy steel door that her unexpectedly chilling reply registered with him.
[On Choices concludes with Part 5, coming soon.]