The sad thing is, it was one of their better mornings when Jake lost it. Liam had only woken twice during the night, which of course Ellen tended to, but it had stirred Jake out of his sleep both times. Lily slept through as usual, but began her morning with screams. The cries ended when she grabbed onto Jake’s hair after he lifted her out of her crib. Jake pried his daughter’s hands away long enough to change her diaper and felt them claw back onto his head as he carried her to the kitchen.
He breathed a sigh of relief when he finally got Lily strapped into her highchair with her sippy cup and bowl of cereal. But just as Jake started to fasten Liam into his highchair, he heard the bowl crash onto the floor and the cereal splatter. Lily squealed with delight.
“Think that’s funny?” Jake asked, pushing the Cheerios into a pile. “Well, I think this is hilarious!” he said, making sure Lily watched him throw the cereal along with the plastic bowl into the trash. Lily’s squeal turned into a scream. Liam began to whimper and Jake turned on him. “This is a good lesson, pal. No throwing or no food.”
“Jake, what the hell!” Ellen said as she came into the room, dressed for work but with her hair still damp from the shower. She took Lily out of the highchair and comforted her daughter with soothing words while finding a graham cracker in the pantry.
“That’s it, let her think there are no consequences to anything at all,” Jake said and began to brew his coffee.
“You could have talked to her about not throwing the bowl and food without throwing the bowl in the trash and being mean about it,” Ellen scolded. “Did Liam eat already?” she asked, looking at her son’s empty tray.
“No, but neither did I,” Jake replied and took his mug out of the cupboard, purposefully ignoring Liam’s whimper.
He heard Ellen sigh and the pantry door open again. When Jake turned around, both kids were in their highchairs, eating graham crackers, and Ellen was slicing a banana onto their trays.
“I need your help in the mornings,” she said to him softly, not looking up.
“I got the kids up, changed their diapers while you showered and changed, and brought them down,” Jake remarked tersely and poured some coffee into his mug. “That sounds like help to me. I haven’t showered or gotten to shave or change my clothes.”
“Okay, let’s not argue about this now,” Ellen said and picked up a few of the Cheerios left on the floor.
Jake looked at Ellen as she continued to not look at him. She was still an attractive woman, if much wearier and quiet than the woman he had first met. Both Liam and Lily favored their mother in looks, as his mother-in-law had warned him they would. “Korean genes run strongly,” she said at their engagement dinner. “Luckily for you they are the best genes.”
So Jake had been prepared when the twins were born and everyone agreed they looked just like Ellen. But he hadn’t been prepared for the disappointment of not recognizing any of his Irish and German traits in his children’s faces, and he hadn’t been prepared for strangers’ comments alluding to their assumed adoption when Ellen was not right next to him. Over time Jake stopped looking for his features in their faces, and when strangers asked about where they were from he replied, “Africa.”
“I can help you get them changed after they eat, but then you’ll need to stay for an hour since Marisa has an appointment this morning, remember?” Ellen asked as she poured a cup of coffee for herself.
Jake groaned. “No, I don’t remember. Are you serious?”
“I told you more than once, Jake. It’s in the calendar. What’s the problem?”
The problem was that Jake had carefully planned a morning run to the gym, twenty minutes to spend on weights, then a nice long shower and a late breakfast at the nearby diner before heading into his office shared by two other freelance graphic designers.
“I need to work on my proposal for that new hot yoga place I’m trying to sign as a client. What do you have going on that you can’t stay?”
Ellen took a sip of her coffee before picking up the banana slices Lily had started to throw on the floor.
“I have a meeting with the pro bono client first thing before all of my regular case work.”
“So reschedule it or blow them off. It’s only pro bono.”
“Jake, I have to meet with them. My year-end review is in one month, and if I don’t make my quota of pro bono hours they could dock my bonus. You know they’ll use any excuse and in case you haven’t noticed, we need the money,” Ellen said firmly but with sadness in her voice. For some reason the sadness made Jake even more annoyed.
Talking about money always set him on edge, mostly because it reminded him of when they first met and how different things were then. He had a steady if low-paying job as a graphic designer at a marketing firm. Still, he was making more than Ellen when he met her as she was a student in her last year of law school. Ellen had always been so appreciative when Jake paid for pizza or their weekly splurge on Sunday brunch. That changed somewhat when she graduated and began her year-long clerkship for a federal judge and they brought in similar salaries. It changed even more the next year when she began her current job as an associate at a large firm in the city and her year-end bonus was almost as much as Jake’s annual salary.
Jake was happy to move into Ellen’s one-bedroom in Manhattan and leave behind a difficult commute from his shared studio in Queens. He also had no problem letting her decide how much to spend on their wedding and honeymoon. He even had no desire to add much input when she began house hunting in the suburbs. But when Jake’s job was cut at the same time they were told by the second specialist that they would need to look into medical options for a viable pregnancy, he felt his voice begin to slip away.
Jake didn’t tell Ellen that he only wanted to have a child the natural way or none at all. When Ellen had a miscarriage, Jake had to stop himself from saying aloud it was to be expected when women use IVF. And when Ellen became pregnant with the twins, Jake made sure he didn’t mention he expected a miscarriage to happen again. So when the doctor lifted the babies out of her womb one at a time, Jake wanted to scream in disbelief louder than either of them.
Jake looked at the tiles on the kitchen floor, spotting a small stain.
“So who are you helping out this time?”
Ellen hesitated a few moments before answering. “It’s actually an interesting case. The client is accused of smuggling immigrants in.”
“That’s so fucked up.”
“Jake!” Ellen said, looking pointedly at the twins.
“Well, it is. Wasn’t your last pro bono case for a guy accused of domestic violence? Why can’t you help people who really need it? Like the immigrants smuggled in and not the evil smuggler?”
Ellen lifted the twins out of their chairs and put them in their play area in the next room before returning to wipe off their trays.
“The firm assigns us the cases. I’ve told you that.”
Jake shook his head in disgust. “You’ve worked there seven years and you can’t even ask for a decent pro bono case.”
Ellen set her mug in the dishwasher and left the room. Jake heard her telling the twins that it was time to go upstairs and change into their clothes for the day.
He looked down at his own mug and saw it was almost empty so he reached for the dishwasher. When the handle loosened in his grip he thought of having to find his tools and fix it later and, in frustration, threw the mug onto the floor, where it shattered into pieces.
Ellen rushed into the room with Liam in her arms, wailing.
“Why don’t you get them dressed,” Jake said with clenched teeth, aware that he didn’t feel as ashamed as he should have. “I’ll clean this up.”
Jake didn’t notice until Marisa arrived that Ellen had stayed after all. He refrained from mentioning it as she gave Marisa instructions for the day and kissed the twins good-bye. Ellen gave Jake a look, but if it was of anger or sorrow, he couldn’t tell. Then she was gone.
Jake gave the twins a kiss each as Marisa watched and left. He wasn’t in the mood to exercise any longer so he drove to the office building.
Jake parked his car in the lot and sat there for a moment. He had some work to do, but nothing urgent. He had to clear his head. He left the car and took a few minutes to walk to a nearby park where he found an empty bench and sat down. It was a warm day, unusual for the late fall weather, and many people passed in front of him on the trail. Dog walkers, moms and their babies in strollers, joggers and runners. Jake tried his best not to notice them and wonder if they felt comfortable in whatever lives they led.
He felt a person occupy the middle of the bench and was annoyed they couldn’t have taken the opposite end farthest away from him. He became even more annoyed when he heard the crinkle of a wrapper.
Jake turned to see an older woman, perhaps late sixties, popping a sucking candy into her mouth.
“Would you like one?” she asked, reaching into her bag.
Jake held up a hand. “No, thank you.”
“What a beautiful day, eh?” she said, and Jake heard a trace of an accent. He guessed it was Eastern European.
“It is,” Jake replied, but he felt a sudden chill and pulled his light jacket closed.
“You don’t look too happy to be outside on such a nice day.” She chided him as though they knew each other. Jake stayed silent, knowing he was coming across like a petulant kid. “Come on, handsome man, what is the matter?”
“My problems are no greater than anyone else’s,” Jake said with sharpness in his voice.
“So it may be. But everyone is still allowed to have problems. It helps to talk. I know this.”
Jake looked at the woman directly. Her face had many wrinkles, and by her right eye it looked like there was a faded scar, but there was something about her that made Jake think she had been very pretty once. The way she looked at him was with interest more than kindness, but Jake realized he wanted to say out loud what he was feeling, and to say it to a stranger whose judgment meant nothing to him was appealing.
“I don’t like my life,” Jake began. “I have so much but I don’t want it. I have a beautiful, smart wife and most of the time I can’t stand being around her. I have two healthy children that I dread dealing with every morning. I used to love my work but now I have so little of it. I know I’m scum and most of the time I just don’t care.”
Jake almost hoped to get a shocked response from the woman, but she didn’t sound fazed.
The woman shook her head. “You sound honest. Tell me, does your wife know how you feel?”
Jake winced at the thought of the shattered mug and Ellen’s face when she entered the kitchen. “Yes, for the most part.”
“This seems obvious but have you thought of divorce?”
Jake nodded. “We should divorce. My wife deserves a better husband than me. She’ll find one too, and the kids will love him best, and then I’ll hate my life even more.”
The woman sighed and put the candy wrapper into her purse.
“So, you either stay married and hate your life or divorce and hate your life even more.” She paused. “Or, the third way.”
“What third way?”
The woman smiled at Jake. “Start a new life. Away from here.”
Jake snorted. “You mean leave? I can’t. I couldn’t afford it, and I have nowhere to run to.” Jake shook his head, annoyed now at himself for talking to this woman. She didn’t look crazy in any obvious way. Her outfit, consisting of a long dark skirt draped almost to her ankles and a knitted sweater, would have seemed odd on a younger woman but Jake never expected older women to wear anything pleasing. Her blonde hair was turning white in many spots but was in no disarray.
“Of course you couldn’t do it by yourself, that’s a given,” the woman said and Jake glanced at her.
“What, you’d help me?” he said and tried not to laugh.
The woman sat up straight and looked at Jake in the eyes. “Yes, I would,” she answered, with such assurance that for a moment Jake felt his breath fall short.
“What are you talking about?” he asked, feeling nervous. “How would you help me? Why would you help me?”
“Is this something you’d want?” she asked, and gripped his right arm so tightly with her hand that Jake was amazed at her strength. “If you could do it, would you allow your current life to cease to exist? Your wife will no longer be married and your children will no longer have a father but they won’t have a sad man to look at anymore. They would be happier without you, you know it’s true. They would be worried at first but learn to move on. And you would live in another state you’ve never been where no one knows you. There’d be no family to answer to and a job you enjoy. You’d have a life where you get to make the decisions every day all on your own. Would you want this?”
Jake let out a deep breath. “Yes,” he replied. “In this crazy hypothetical situation, yes. Why are you saying this to me? To make me feel guilty for wanting it? I already know I’m an asshole.”
“No. I told you, you are being honest. Well, so am I. You asked me how I would help you. I would help you by making it all happen. It’s what I do. I’ve done it many times before.”
“Then why,” Jake asked. “Why help me?”
“Because I can,” she replied. “Why did anything happen in your life to lead you to this place of such unhappiness? It was all chance, wasn’t it? Meeting your wife and what happened with your career and two children you don’t want. It was all chance, wasn’t it?”
“Yes,” Jake said, wanting to cry. “Who are you?”
The woman released her grip on Jake’s arm while still looking directly at him. “You can call me whatever you’d like. But I deal in trades, that’s what I do.”
“And how many trades like this have you dealt with?”
The woman chuckled. “Oh, they’re not all exactly like this. But many, many trades. Too many to count. The tales I could tell you.”
Jake didn’t want to hear her tales. “For me to have this supposed new life, what’s the trade-off? I can’t afford anything.”
“You wouldn’t need to pay. All I need from you is a promise. You need to promise to start a new life and never look back at the old.”
“That’s it?” Jake said in disbelief and part of him had already begun to hope it was true.
The woman’s mouth curved into a slight grin. “It’s not a light promise, handsome man. It’s always been a tempting thing but in this day and age, when you can turn on your phone and research anybody on the planet in seconds, you might think it won’t be a big deal to take a peek at what your old family is doing. Your old friends and acquaintances. But your promise is that you won’t. That you’ll forever move on.”
Jake paused to look down at his hands and turned his wedding ring. He slipped it off his finger and then back on again.
“This is crazy,” he said. “I don’t know if any of this is real but if you can do what you say and make me a new life then…well, I’ll keep that promise.”
The woman gripped his arm again, but more lightly this time. “Believe me, I can do it.”
It took Jake well over a month to truly believe his life had changed permanently. Every time he opened the front door to his apartment building he anticipated seeing Ellen or a police officer waiting to talk to him. Sometimes at work or walking down the street he expected a reality television crew to jump out and question why he thought it was anything more than an elaborate set-up and how did he feel about being exposed as the worst family man in the world.
But after he received his second paycheck as assistant graphic designer for the website sadlittlehipsters.com, Jake began to relax. He’d read that missing persons were usually found in the first week or not at all, and the more time that passed the less likely Ellen would believe he’d gone unwillingly. He imagined Ellen confused and scared at first, but agreed with the woman who created his new life that Ellen would eventually move on and be happier without him. The twins would surely wonder about their father as they grew up, but Ellen would be able to tell them whatever she wanted. And they were so young they’d soon forget he was someone they used to see every day. Jake knew his sister wouldn’t try to look for him years after they stopped speaking over a falling out from settling their parents’ estate. And if any of his friends were worried, well, it wasn’t like they had the funds to help in a search.
Jake eventually began to notice he was sleeping better at night with less anxiety about being found out and he was able to start enjoying his new life. He slept in on the weekends, far later than felt comfortable at first. He ate sugared cereal or took time to make an omelet, uninterrupted, and had a pantry full of non-organic snacks. Jake brought his running shoes to the office and ran wherever he wanted to after work and for as long as he liked. Sometimes he’d run into a coffee shop if he saw an attractive woman in any sort of exercise clothes. It was so easy to strike up conversations with them. And once he started to meet women, Jake had a hard time stopping. Sure, he’d come to form a few relationships. There was Amy for two months, Maddie for a couple weeks and of course, Leigh, who lasted almost half a year even with the occasional transgression. But at some point they’d mention something about a future trip together or remark how cute a toddler at the restaurant table next to them was, and Jake quickly ended things. He’d feel both relief and sadness for a day or so. In that time he’d wonder about Ellen and what she was doing. If she had met anyone new. He guessed against it as she’d be so busy with work and the kids on her own, but he couldn’t be sure.
Jake would think about pressing Ellen’s name into a search engine, and thought of asking to borrow a colleague’s computer to do it or use one at a library, where the search couldn’t be traced back to him. Every once in a while he’d even feel the desire to check online for photos of Liam and Lily. When their second birthday came, Jake took a personal day from work and walked by a public playground. There were no sets of twins and no children who looked anything like his own. He noticed a nanny kept glancing at him and when she spotted a police officer walking by, Jake left. He tried to fall asleep early that night, but even glass after glass of wine didn’t help and Jake went to work the next day feeling more tired than any night he had when he was awakened by the twins.
He tried to avoid seeing young children after that. It wasn’t entirely possible of course but he never became friendly with any parents and that helped. One day when he was sitting in a coffee shop he overheard a child who looked to be around three tell his mother that he needed to go potty. His mom, overjoyed that he remembered to tell her, rushed her son to the restrooms in back. Jake wondered if the twins would be potty trained soon or already were. They must be talking now and sleeping well. Jake ached inside for missing what he knew would be a nice stage of their lives and again thought about looking them up.
He didn’t really think the trader woman would ever find him out and if she did, what’s the worst that would happen? She’d send Jake back to his old life and he’d have to figure out how to explain his absence. But Jake supposed if the trader could create this new life for him she could have the resources to make it all go away as well, and he didn’t want to return to his old life. Not yet at least. He’d have to figure out a good story first to tell Ellen and he still needed a little more time for himself. So Jake didn’t take the chance.
A rekindling with Leigh would change that. Jake didn’t fault himself too harshly. It was the holidays and while he appreciated his independence, he was only human, and watching work colleagues describe their holiday plans with family and loved ones made Jake lonelier than he had since he first started his new life. So he texted Leigh, wishing her happy holidays, and when she replied that she missed him he texted back the same.
It was a good few days, just the two of them. Leigh always knew the best places to order take-out from and had a similar interest in what shows to watch. They only left Leigh’s apartment once, on a run to the supermarket and the drugstore. Leigh insisted on ringing up her purchases herself at the drugstore and Jake worried she was buying him a last-minute gift. He hadn’t gotten her anything and didn’t want giving gifts to be expected. So when she took a shower later that night he satisfied his curiosity by looking into the bag she had brought home.
When Leigh came out of the shower, her hair dripping and draped in a towel, she found the pregnancy test on her bed with a note, “Fucking trap someone else you bitch. I already have a family.”
Jake rushed back to his apartment and immediately turned his computer on. He searched for Ellen and didn’t find any mention of her. He checked her law firm website and couldn’t find her by last name so he tried by first name. Her bio page came up with her maiden name and a classification of partner. Jake put his old name into a search but after looking through the entries for ten minutes he could only find other men with the same name. There were also no mentions of the twins anywhere, either with his past name or Ellen’s maiden name.
The cell phone rang but Jake didn’t recognize the number and ignored it. The phone rang again but when it stopped there was no message. Unnerved, Jake packed a small bag and left his apartment to find a nearby bus. A few bus changes later and he was on a shuttle to the airport. He smiled with relief when the ticketing agent told him there was a seat available on a flight leaving in twenty minutes.
“I’m sorry, sir, but your credit card isn’t working,” the ticketing agent said, handing it back to him.
“I can pay in cash,” Jake said, producing from his wallet the needed amount. He inwardly cheered at his outsmarting of the trader — she obviously didn’t anticipate him returning to his pre-married days of hoarding half his paycheck in cash in a small safe instead of putting it all in the bank.
The three-hour flight felt both too long and too short for Jake. He ran through various reasons he could give to Ellen for his absence. Kidnapping would require a trip to police and too many details he wouldn’t be able to think of in time. A concussion or other medical reason wouldn’t work as he didn’t have any proof from a doctor or hospital. Amnesia might be the way to go. He woke up one day not knowing where he was or who he was. His wallet, jacket and shoes were gone, he was unshaven, and the police officer he saw first thought he was a crazy homeless person. He lived in various shelters and on the street until something jarred his memory. Maybe seeing two Asian twins would be the reason he remembered his old life. Ellen would like that.
Jake anxiously waited to leave the plane when it landed. He hurried to the taxi line, which was empty, and jumped into the first cab and gave the driver his old address. As the driver pulled away from the curb, Jake closed his eyes, realizing how tired he felt. Christmas songs played on the radio and after a time Jake wondered if he should arrive with any gifts.
“Can you stop by the card store on Bennet Avenue first,” Jake began to ask when he looked out the window. He didn’t recognize the streets they were driving on. “What exit did you take?”
The driver didn’t answer but pulled onto a side street. It led to an entrance to a park, one that Jake did remember. And the woman sitting on the bench was memorable as well.
“Your stop,” the driver said, and went to open Jake’s door. Upon seeing the driver’s large height and bulk, Jake voluntarily grabbed his bag, stepped out, and slowly made his way to the bench to sit. The trader stared ahead and Jake did as well. They watched the taxi drive off and a white van pull up. Two men who looked to be about the same height and weight as the taxi driver got out and stood in silence by the van.
“I thought it would be appropriate that we have a little chat before your next destination,” the trader finally said.
“I’m sorry I broke my promise, but I know my wife and kids need me. I’ve been gone for too long,” Jake told her.
The trader smiled. “Tell me, I’m always so curious, why do you think I helped you?”
Jake hesitated, not sure of how to answer. “You…you said you’d help me because it’s what you do. I don’t know why. I thought I met you because I needed you. I needed a new life to appreciate my old one.”
“You know, one person said she thought I was a witch,” the trader said and laughed. “I guess I do create magic in a way.”
“Please, let me go home to see my family,” Jake implored.
“Why would they want to see you?” the trader asked.
“They would have been missing me all this time. Worried about me.”
“The kids will have forgotten all about you. They were too young when you left.”
“I’ll make it right with them. And Ellen…”
“Ellen is why you’re here.”
“Yes, I need to see her.”
“No,” the trader said and looked at Jake. “She’s why you’re here.”
Jake shook his head, understanding but not believing her. Still, fear rose in his chest. “That doesn’t make any sense,” he insisted. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. She didn’t know you.”
The trader grinned. “I met your lovely wife through a professional acquaintance. He has, how shall I put it, an overlapping business to my own. She greatly helped him with her professional expertise, free of charge. I felt the need to repay in kind.”
Jake shook his head again. “I know we were having some problems but Ellen wouldn’t have wanted me to go away completely.”
“I presented all available options to her. She wanted you to be happy. To at least give you that chance.”
Jake’s bag slipped from his fingers onto the ground. He knew that the woman was telling the truth.
“Let me return to her, please,” he pleaded. “I’ll make her happy again. I won’t ever want to leave.”
“You had your chance,” the trader replied.
“Then what happens now?” Jake asked, and looked at the two men by the van. “You’re going to kill me?”
“Oh no,” she replied. “I’ve already arranged for another trade.”
“I don’t understand.”
“In my line of business, a person’s life always has value to somebody. And luckily I found someone right away who will trade me money for yours.”
Jake began to feel weak and he grasped the front of the bench with his hands.
“I’ll tell them who I really am,” he said. “I still have family and friends who will come for me.”
“Oh,” the trader clucked and waved her hand in dismissal. “The last time one of their new shipments told them things they didn’t like hearing, I believe they cut out her tongue.” She then motioned for the two men to come and they began to move towards Jake.
“Ellen won’t want this!” Jake screamed in desperation. The two men grabbed him and forced him towards the van.
The trader got up from the bench and followed behind.
“Yes, you’re right,” she said as one man secured tape over Jake’s mouth while the other tied his hands behind his back. “I do like to keep my clients happy. So I’ll tell you what, I promise that she’ll never find out. And believe me, I keep my promises.”
Photo By: Ian