A Good Influence
A short story by Benjamin Lawrence (aka Benjamin J. Law)
This story and others like it can be found in We Are Humans: A Collection of Short Stories, Poems, and Essays by Benjamin J. Law - coming to Amazon.com this winter.
Stephen looked across the room at the young boy who stared back in an equally sardonic manner. Stephen liked his nephew well enough most of the time, but he hated watching the kid. Every time his sister had to run out of town on sudden business she would drop seven-year-old Nathan off at Stephen’s house because she knew his schedule was always clear. Stephen watched Nathan watching him and thought about his sister: off working and having dinner parties with her clients, and bringing in quite the paycheck. And he was here, in an almost empty house on the outskirts of Portland, hanging out with a seven-year-old and watching cartoons with the volume on mute.
“You look pissed,” Nathan said after a while. He scrunched up his lips.
“I’m not pissed. And don’t say pissed,” Stephen replied flatly. “Your mom will be pissed -- I mean -- angry with me.”
“You just said pissed three times.” Nathan folded his arms and leaned against the brick fireplace that had remained unlit for going on a year and a half. He sat on the floor, and his uncle sat on the dirtied white couch across from him. “I can say whatever you say.”
“No, I can say more things because I’m twenty-one years older than you. I can say words that you don’t even know yet.”
“But, I will know them eventually, and I’ll make sure to let you know all the words I know then.”
“That sounded like a threat,” Stephen said. He crossed his arms, looking more like his nephew than he'd care to admit, and slouched into the couch. Nathan shrugged. “How are you so sure that you’ll know all the words I know?”
“It’s just part of growing up, duh.”
“You don’t wanna grow up to be like me, kid.”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“Trust me,” Stephen sighed; “You don’t want to. I wouldn't even be eating if not for disability funds.”
Stephen had bought a nice house, the one he still lived in, when he was twenty-two and paid it off by the time he was twenty-five. He had owned his own company and grew wealthy fast, but he didn’t handle the money responsibly. When the economy crashed Stephen’s company went belly up, and he lost all his assets. He hadn’t been a drinker, but on the same day that he realized he’d lost everything, he also realized it was a good day to get drunk. In an intoxicated fit, Stephen attempted to throw himself from a bridge. As a result, he’d ended up with a bad back, unable to work, and living on disability pay from the government. When he woke up the next morning, he realized that he might have ruined his whole life.
“What’s a disability funds?” Nathan cocked his head to the side. Stephen looked away. The sun sprinkled through the window and touched his face. He took several deep breaths as his personal trainer had instructed him to do when he felt his tensions rising. Since his attempted suicide, Stephen had gotten in better shape than he’d been in his entire life as he worked through the injury. But, that was a very, very thin silver lining. “What’s a disability funds?” Nathan pressed.
“Nothing, kid… I shouldn’t have said anything.” Stephen cleared his throat and leaned forward as if to get up. He paused and looked across the room at the confused Nathan. “You hungry?”
“Want me to cook?”
“What can you make?” Nathan seemed skeptical.
“Sandwiches?” Stephen raised his eyebrow.
Nathan sprawled himself out on the couch and patted his belly. “Not the best sandwich I’ve ever had, Uncle Stephen, but it was still pretty good.” Stephen laughed and plopped down on the couch away from Nathan. “Whoa...I’ve never heard you laugh before…” Nathan gaped at his uncle.
“What?” Stephen craned his neck to look at his nephew. “What do you mean you’ve never heard me laugh?”
“I mean that you never laugh. You never even smile. You must always be sad.”
Stephen opened his mouth to say something but found no words. He slowly pressed his lips together and cleared his throat. He couldn’t really deny what Nathan had said. He pretty much was always sad. Nathan only noticed because Stephen’s sister, Nathan’s mom, was always so happy. Stephen questioned why she even left her son with him. He knew he wasn’t a good influence on the kid.
“Did I upset you?” Nathan’s voice interrupted Stephen’s thoughts. Stephen looked up to see Nathan lying upside down with his back arched. He was staring intently at Stephen.
“No,” Stephen said after a moment. “No, I’m not upset, Nathan. I’m just…” He paused. He knew he shouldn’t be sharing things about his life with his seven-year-old nephew. “I’ve just made some decisions I really regret. I’ve lost all my dreams…”
Nathan flipped around and sat up straight. “When I lose one of my old dreams, I dream new dreams.” Nathan pursed his lips. “When was the last time you got a new dream?”
“Well,” Stephen took a moment to think. “I’m not sure, kid.”
“That’s the problem with growing up,” Nathan observed.
“When you grow up, you start regretting and stop dreaming… Mom does it, too; she regrets not building a better relationship with you. I think that’s why she brings me here a lot – you know, to help bridge the gap, as she says at work a lot.”
Stephen sat up straighter. He felt a soft pounding in his forehead. There was a sharp pain like a stinging in his gut. It was the feeling of a sudden realization that can change someone’s life. “Did your mom say that?
“She talks about it a lot,” Nathan answered. “I’m getting tired. I think I’ll take a nap.” He rolled up and put his face against the couch cushion. A watery film formed over Stephen’s eyes as he watched his nephew drift asleep. It dawned on him then that his sister hadn’t been afraid that Stephen would influence Nathan because it was Nathan who she hoped would influence Stephen. He slouched into the couch and, following his nephew’s lead, closed his eyes to rest.
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