Content Warning: language, substance abuse, self-destructive behavior.
Rodney's client was not only an asshole, but an idiot to boot. He blatantly lied on the stand. Rodney knew it, the judge knew it, opposing counsel knew it, and the jury knew it. Rodney could prove it, and it put him in a tight situation. Technically, he hadn't known his client would lie, but the bastard had made it clear that he thought it was his golden ticket to getting out of this mess.
Law was the kind of intricate challenge Rodney loved, until he started actually practicing it. Now pushing 40, all he had to look back on and forward to was a life of unbearable moral and ethical compromises, a long string of awful people getting away with awful things the only testament to his mastery of that challenge.
He looked at the judge, prepared to... to what? His mind went blank, and the words came out of his mouth before he could stop them. But once said, a weight came off his shoulders. He felt the kind of freedom he hadn't felt since graduating high school.
Resigning in the middle of a trial carried consequences. Fine and disbarment, for sure. The judge argued with him, ordered him to continue the case, threatened him with contempt. He didn't budge.
His wife visited him on the third day of his seven day contempt sentence. The timing sent a message, not least that she was pissed at him. The delay had given him time to think about what he'd done, what he needed to do next, and what he would do with this newfound freedom.
"I quit." he said once she sat on the other side of the glass and picked up the phone. Not 'hello', not 'I'm sorry'. None of that mattered any more.
"In the middle of a trial?" Her tone was accusatory right off the bat.
He stared at her through the glass. She'd misunderstood. "Yes, in the middle of a trial. I can't take it any more, Marcy."
"What are we supposed to do for income?"
"There's savings and investments." he said. They had a couple million, give or take. He is very, very good at his job... was very good. Marcy was used to the lifestyle now. She would have to adjust. "Not to mention the royalties from the book." He added.
"Your book was a flop." her voice was ice cold.
"Technically, not a flop." he responded.
"And how much was your last royalty check?" She knew exactly how minuscule it was.
"Not much, but it helps."
"We can probably find loose change in the couch cushions." her voice was dripping with sarcasm. "That'll help even more."
He'd written a legal thriller, because a writer is supposed to write what he knows, because it had been the hot thing those days. It had made a splash about as big as a dead bird falling into a puddle. No matter, he had loved doing it.
"How do you propose to keep the kids in school?" she demanded. The expensive private school, she meant. The one they'd argued about, the one that made up for what it lacked in quality by having an abundance of status.
The status mattered to her, not the kids' education. "And what about you?" he asked, pinning her with a look. "Those fancy dinner parties, rubbing shoulders with the movers and shakers. You won't be able to show your face there any more."
He laughed. "Why start now? How long has it been, Marcy? Six months? Two years? I lost track."
"Why should I bother?" she hissed. "You're not getting any younger, or any skinnier. Or any better in bed."
She thinks she's twisting the knife, Rodney thought. He didn't really need her. They had a tacit arrangement, the kind of thing expected in his circles, so long as it was discreet enough to ignore with a straight face. He got his and she got hers, each their own way.
He smiled at her. "I don't think you'll be able to afford pool service much longer, and looks alone aren't going to close the deal any more" he said, glancing down at her chest.
She glared at him, then her eyes narrowed. Rodney watched the gears turn. She had noticed.
"I won't be able to afford it?" she asked, emphasizing the singular pronoun that implied that she was about to be single. He savored her expression.
"I quit." he said.
"Yes, we've established that."
"Marcy," he leaned forward with a hard stare. "I. Quit."
Her eyes flared wide for an instant before she got control of her expression. She had always been good at that. "I'll take you to the cleaners." she said.
"I can out-lawyer you, and you know it."
"Not anymore, you licenseless, jobless, disgraced piece of shit."
"I still have favors to call in."
"You think anybody will want to be seen taking your case now?"
"I only need one."
She leaned back in her chair, the closest she came to admitting that he'd landed a blow. "We'll see." she said, the gears turning again.
"Don't bother." he said, watching the scheming in her eyes. "It won't work." Her icy expression barely concealed an underlying fear. It didn't conceal it at all from him. They knew each other so well.
"Here's what I want." he said. "You will agree to it."
"I..." she started to object.
He held a hand up. "Shut up." she did. "The lake house. 250 thousand."
"That's pretty presumptuous."
"Not compared to what I could get, if we have to fight it out."
"I'll take you for alimony, child support." she insisted.
Rodney leaned back in his chair and laughed. "From what income?"
She seethed. "I don't care, I'll rip the pennies you make in half one by one, if that is what it takes."
Rodney leaned forward again, showing her his most intimidating stare, the one that made cops cower on the stand. "You can be petty and spiteful. We'll fight it out. You know what will happen then."
"I'll win." she said feebly.
He nodded. "A Pyrrhic victory once our lawyers' bills burn through the bank accounts. I'll make sure it is a long, long time till the dust settles, billed by the hour."
In the end, she agreed. He knew she would, the fight would kill any hope of maintaining the lifestyle she was used to, and his offer really was grossly lopsided in her favor. It was all done after a brief negotiation over details. He got the books that lined two walls of his office at home. Marcy had no need for books, no interest. She was glad to be rid of them. She got custody of the kids with only token visitation for him. And the dog.
He loved his kids, probably, but the truth was, they'd grown as distant from him as their mother had. With his almost inhuman work hours and them hundreds of miles away at their private high school, with college coming soon, their contact with him had been perfunctory and stilted. He'd miss them, but he'd been missing them for years already. That dull ache had become a comfortable companion, almost forgotten, taken for granted. The holidays and summers when the kids were home had mostly served to remind him that he'd already lost them.
He'd gotten one more non-negotiable thing in the settlement. The rights to the book were his. The royalty checks were as financially insignificant as Marcy's scoffing sarcasm had said they were, but they were his. They were the one thing he owned free and clear of the ethical morass he'd spent his life wading through to earn his living.
They meant everything to him despite being too small to make a difference. They were proof that he could write something that somebody would pay actual money for. They were proof that he was worth something without his law degree.
He was free. From all of it.
He wound through the trees in a ten year old hatchback that held literally everything he owned besides the books, which had been shipped to a UPS drop off an hour away. Marcy had gotten the Mercedes and the Escalade and the 12,000 square foot house. He didn't want them, nor the payments. Let her figure out how to make those.
She was going to have to make some hard choices if she couldn't rope in some successful middle-aged replacement soon. Not his problem. He had all he needed, a roof over his head, a bed, a couch, and a room with a view to the lake where he could set up his computer. He had electricity, cable, internet, and middling cell service.
The lake house was a drafty shack on ten acres of wooded land with 75 feet of lake frontage and no view of neighbors. Great for summer, but it would need some shoring up before winter. It was home now, the first time he'd felt at home in longer than he could remember. He was free to do whatever he wanted. Even his affairs didn't need to be discreet any more.
He vowed to never write another legal book. He couldn't bear to immerse himself in that world that he'd left behind. It left him with no idea about what he did want to write. He just knew that that is what he wanted to do. What he was going to do.
He puttered. He cleaned the place up, did a few repairs. He fiddled with the old broken down boat, not really caring if he ever got it started, surprised when he did. He made the two hour round trip to pick up his books, twice since they wouldn't all fit in the car. He read a few of them.
In between, he'd sit down in front of his computer staring at the blank screen, hands poised over the keyboard, mind blank. After a while, he'd decide that he was trying too hard, that he just needed to get out and think, let his creative juices churn in the mysterious way they did when he wasn't forcing it.
He hadn't put two words together. He didn't even have an idea. But he was sure he would, he just needed time to adjust, to settle into his new life, to purge all the stress he'd finally given up.
He went into the tiny almost-a-town just up the hill from the lake and got groceries. He became a regular at the combination gas station / convenience store / bar and grill that, along with the grocery and hardware store that sat kitty-corner across the four way stop, served as the town's commercial district. He made small talk with the waitress, a divorcee a little past her prime, and definitely not in the class of mistress he was used to.
Maybe he just needed to get laid. The months alone in the house were getting to him. He just needed to loosen up, then the ideas would flow. After the first book, he'd had so many ideas. He knew they would come. He took the waitress home one night. When she first saw the house, she asked him, "so what do you do?"
"I'm a writer." he said, cringing inwardly at the half truth.
"So what did you used to do?", she asked, sensing that his answer was less than confident.
"I forget." he answered more truthfully.
She kept his bed warm through the early nights of fall. It wasn't great, but it would do. He was sure she thought the same, and he was glad to be on the same page with somebody again in that regard. It had been too long. It was just what he needed to get his mojo back.
Winter came, and the summer getaway town withdrew in on itself. The grocery store shut down entirely until spring. The gas station still sold gas and donuts and bottles of pop, the bar sold fountain drinks and microwaved snacks. No more waitress, no more beer and shots and mixed drinks.
He made the hour drive into the bigger town for groceries when he had to, when he could, when the pass wasn't snowed under. He thought that his isolation would be inspirational. It was merely depressing, and his grocery purchases started including more Jack Daniels.
He imagined himself the tortured, broken artist writing brilliancies through the woozy fog of red eyes, double vision, and shaky hands. It almost worked. He sold a handful of short stories, and he'd started on a novel. He wasn't making a living, but he knew he could, and when he didn't, he just had to talk to his best friend. Ol' Jack always set him straight.
If he was careful, the quarter million could have lasted a decade or more. More than enough time for him to get established. He didn't need to be the next Stephen King or James Patterson to at least pay the bills.
He wasn't careful. For one, Jack was a financially demanding friend, almost like having a wife. Another summer went by. He had few sales and a stack of rejection letters thick enough to keep the house warm for days come winter.
He passed days staring at the screen. He spent hours here and there typing words that left him flat, that meant nothing to him. That would be bought by online magazines that weren't too picky and the occasional dead tree anthology that needed filler. He paid to play, using vanity presses and publish for fee websites. He just needed the exposure.
Another winter went by. He typed more, not caring what the words were, not caring if they were spelled right. That's what spell check was for. Another dry summer went by.
He was spending more time in town, hoping to find a woman hard up enough to settle for the lonely drunk at the end of the bar. It worked often enough to keep him coming back. It also meant driving back over that pass in a condition he knew he shouldn't be driving in. But there were few cops way out here, and almost nobody to crash into. He couldn't bring himself to care too much about wrapping his car around a tree. The money slipped through his fingers as easily as the seasons.
He had nothing to do, no deadlines to meet, no trial dates to prepare for, no wife to demand that he maintain his status. No book ideas to work out. He was free of all of that. He sat on the couch, TV remote in his left hand, a nearly empty bottle limply hanging from his right, idly scanning for a movie with some T & A.
He stopped at a title that was too familiar. He saw his own name on the screen through the faceted lens of wet eyes. He threw the bottle with all his strength.
An upstart streaming outlet that just needed content, any content, had commissioned a movie of his legal thriller. He never knew about it. It wasn't his any more...
He'd been right that there wasn't much to crash into going over that treacherous snow packed mountain pass. But like any good drunk, his aim could be uncanny when the moment called for it. He'd found himself back in court. They took it all. His driver's license, what was left of the 250K. The coup de grace came when the judge ordered him to sign over the rights to his book. He signed, numb, dead inside. That signature was the last thing he ever wrote.
He didn't know it, but an unscrupulous chop shop got the rights to his book and his name on it. They tore it open, stuffed it with skin and explosions and cheesy dialog, and sold the resulting Frankenstein monster for a pittance.
LCD screens don't shatter in the satisfying way that TVs used to, so he jumped off the couch and grabbed the bottle from the floor, swinging it again and again, screaming his throat ragged. Satisfied with the destruction, he staggered towards his office.
Over and over, he raged and swung the bottle and screamed, until he couldn't lift his arm any more and the last remaining tools of his trade lay in sparking, shattered heaps on his desk.
He collapsed on the couch and wrenched open a new bottle. He took a long swig, his eyes watering and stomach churning. He wondered how many bottles it would take. How long before someone came to the lake house to find him. He brought the bottle to his lips, pausing.
"I quit." he said to nobody, and tilted the bottle up.
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This is a Horror story! The lake house with the fat checking account balance was my plan! So it doesn't always work out ?!! "It had made a splash about as big as a dead bird falling into a puddle." Oh, I am reaching for my bottle of Jack right now- Good story
An enjoyable story, and probably a little touch of horror for anyone who writes and has been stymied by writer's block :) It's neat, because we can see how he caused his own unravelling near the end, through his various irresponsible decisions - but at the same time, that same mentality leads him to make the right choices at the beginning. Initially, we cheer a man whose life is strangling him, and who has the courage to do something about it. But maybe that former life is like a poison, and it remained in his veins even after he left. An ...
"An apropos title." I was going to call it "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose", which is such a perfect fit it is amazing. But then I looked it up, and using song lyrics that way is asking for trouble.
Heh, no doubt! I immediately heard Janis Joplin's voice when I read your comment :)
His book was lost to him, just as his kids were. A great story.
Well, that was sad. I expected him to pull through. Great job though.
Yeah, but then I wouldn't be able to cleverly bookend the thing with "I quit" on both ends :-) But seriously, that's just how I saw his life going. Maybe it's a reflection of my own doubts on this writing thing, all blown out of proportion.
It's good to put your own feelings into your story although I'm sorry you have doubts though. Just keep writing and maybe one day, you'll be successful!
Gritty and raw, but with so much realism in the characters, motives, and dialogue. This line was especially heart breaking and well-said: “They tore it open, stuffed it with skin and explosions and cheesy dialog, and sold the resulting Frankenstein monster for a pittance.”
I futzed with that line a bunch, and still wasn't satisfied. Glad to hear that it worked out after all. Thank you for the nice feedback.
Nice! This was put together well. Good job, Kyle.
Thank you for the story.
This was sad, but well written. Poor Rodney went downhill fast. I felt bad for him. Great job on this one!