Short Story: A Man With No Conscience
The Halo by Colleen Swan. Under 2000 Words
The growth of grandiosity
Troy Renard felt bemused as he drove towards his new house. It was too large to feel like a home as yet, in fact, too grand to need a postal address; it was simply called Echostone. Halting at a traffic light several seconds too long, he began to feel heady. The commands of car horns behind him made him jolt forward. Too many echoes, reflections, he thought, feeling forced to remind himself those impatient horns held no power to taunt him. Why must his past and present meld into each other? Surely it must be those Christmas wreaths, lights and ceaseless holiday carols, interwoven with owning this elegant home which made the area around his head feel encircled by brightness.
He was glad to feel his balance return as he approached the gates of his community. Even euphoria, in its extreme, could begin to feel eerie. Just prior to leaving his car, he opened the gates with a touch of a button. Then, having parked in his large, designated space, he strode towards his front door, flicked a further switch, then watched the door open.
A Husband's Regrets About His Marriage
“Hi, Daddy!” Laurel called, hearing his footsteps in the hallway. Wiping the snow from his boots on the doormat, Troy called back, “Hello, Lorelei!” using his pet name for his daughter. Amazingly, at only eight, she seemed to intuit things Joan never could. Troy felt relief in recalling Joan would be at one of those meetings which, more and more often, seemed to absorb her. True, Joan had her merits and qualities. Had she not, he would never have asked her to be his wife. Although lacking his affluence and education, they had both been aspiring, he towards his legal career, and she in hopes of improving standards of health care.
It had been twelve years since their marriage, or was it thirteen? chagrined, he realized he could not feel sure. Maybe Laurel could help him; Joan need not know. He sighed as he hung his overcoat on the rack, then brushed the sleet from its collar and sleeves. Lately, there had been an increasing number of things he had felt the need to conceal from Joan. In their early, joyous days, he had dubbed her “St. Joan”, but what had begun in playful tenderness had, through these last few years, edged towards derision.
Conniving With a Child Against Conscience
Having double-checked the lock on his front door, Troy felt a sense of serenity as he stepped into his living-room. Laurel beamed up at him as she said, “Daddy, I'm glad you're home; I’ve been feeling a little lonesome.”
“Were you? He asked, glancing at the mantelpiece clock, in the shape of an angel. “When did your mother leave?”
”Around twenty minutes ago,” Laurel said. “She wrote down her mobile phone number, and reminded me you would be home soon.”
“She should not have left you until I got home,” Troy said, frowning. “Still, I am here with my Lorelei now, and will be home all evening.”
Then, as he bent to kiss her cheek, he straightened his back and asked, “Laurel is that your mum’s laptop you're using?”
She nodded, then said, “Mom says I can only use it when she’s home, but I needed to e-mail Daisy. You won't tell on me, will you, Daddy?”
Troy gave a quick thumbs-up, then admonished, “Just don’t stay on it much longer, in case your mom comes home early.” He added, as an obvious afterthought, “And you should not disobey her.”
“Right,” Laurel said. “Besides, I've just about finished.”
She typed a few more words before shutting down the computer. Troy watched her place it back where it had been, wiping away any finger mark traces of use, with one of his white, newly monogrammed linin handkerchiefs. Why did he find the ease with which she carried this out a bit disconcerting? Then he dismissed it as trivial. Children needed to cheat on occasion, as long as they understood when, how, and did not risk so doing too often.
A Prelude to Conspiracy
Troy poured himself a glass of red wine from the carafe on the mantelpiece. For a moment, the redness of the wine shone under the light of the chandelier. He took a long slow sip, then another. He smiled as he sat down on the settee. Later, he could loll and luxuriate in the Jacuzzi. Then, letting his eyes half-close, he asked, “Lorelei, how has your ballet been going? It seems you haven't mentioned it lately.”
Laurel hesitated a moment, then said, “That's because it's gotten so boring, these last few weeks.”
“Why is it suddenly boring?” Troy asked, leaning forward. “I thought you loved those lessons. That's why I have paid so damned much for them.”
In his irritation, he set his glass down with such force as to spill a few drops on the pinewood side table, part of the set Joan had bought a few weeks after their wedding. Grasping the handkerchief Laurel had used, he tried to forestall any signs of his spillage before it reached the grain of the wood.
Why must that redness on the white cloth make him think of a bloodstain?
As if sensing his thoughts, Laurel asked, “Daddy, shall I throw that hanky away?”
“Probably, later” Troy said. “For now, come here and sit on the carpet where you can face Daddy.”
A Father’s Urge Towards Sabotage
As she sat down in front of him, Troy touched one of her sun-colored curls and said, “Sorry for getting so cross, Lorelei. I just thought you were proud and happy at being cast as the Virgin Mary in the Christmas pantomime.”
“I was,” she said. “I'm still glad, in a way. The thing is, it’s making me hate Daisy Gorse. I just make believe I’m still her best friend so she and everyone else in the class won't guess I’m so jealous.”
Leaning back, half-laughing, Troy asked, “Why on earth should you be jealous of her. You've said she’s only the angel.”
Laurel’s chin began quivering, nearly always a sign of oncoming tears, as she said, “I only have one dance and it’s with that blotchy creep playing Joseph. Daisy’s in two longer dances, and her first is a solo. I could be OK with that, but my costume is a hand-woven dress, almost as plain as that handkerchief.”
”What’s so horrible about that?” Troy asked, tossing it towards her.
She let it lie on the carpet between them as she continued, “Her costume is all made of satin with wings of lace and her halo is sewn from silver threads, with golden glints and stars gleaming through it.”
“A halo, did you say?” Troy sat upright, alert. Then he added, “I should have remembered most angels wear those. I will tell you this though; if anyone there wears a halo that night, it will be my Lorelei.”
Should Ruthless Paternal Values be Embraced or Ignored?
Swallowing the last of his wine, Troy refilled his glass, then gulped it down faster than he had intended. Pouring himself a third glass, he resolved to sip it with greater caution; Alcohol, while of use in its way, must not be allowed to impel him towards folly.
Sitting back down, he patted Laurel’s cheek, then said, “We both like secrets don't we, Lorelei?"
“Do you mean we both like to be sneaky?” She asked.
Troy hesitated a moment, then said, “There are times when winning means choosing a goal, and then deciding no-one else matters, as long as we find some means of achieving it.”
Raising her eyes as far as she could to meet those of her father, she asked, “But what if someone who has been nice to us winds up feeling cheated and hurt?”
Troy looked about, uncertain how to answer. Then, regaining some equilibrium, he said, “Whatever resulted would be their own fault for trusting too soon in someone they should have known was more clever than they were.”
The Pivotal Moment
Pausing for what he hoped would be long enough to allow laurel to absorb his philosophy, he asked, “Anyway, getting back to the pantomime, how soon is Daisy’s earliest dance?”
“At the beginning. The whole first scene is her solo.”
“And where will you be, just before she begins.”
“Backstage, waiting with everyone else.”
“So, let’s both just imagine this for a moment. Suppose you, as Daisy’s best friend, were to squeeze her hand, kiss her cheek, and then give her a thumbs-up, the way I gave you a bit earlier, Daisy would be looking UP, would she not?” Seeing Laurel nod, he continued, “So, if, absolutely by accident, one of your feet were to get in her way, and in her hurry, poor Daisy tripped and fell, hard, what would happen?”
“I would need to dance in her place.”
“And would you be able to do that?”
“Yes, for sure. I've had to memorize all her steps because Daisy and I are each other’s understudies.”
”Neither you nor I should ever be under anyone for any reason.”
“I agree with that, Daddy; I hate it.”
“I see,” Troy said. “In that case, tell me this: do you hate it enough to find some way of wearing that halo?”
Laurel’s Final Decision
By way of answer, Laurel walked across the room towards the desk, and sat down on the swivel chair.
Troy asked, “Any homework you haven’t finished?”
Seeing her shake her head, he asked, striving to hide his rising annoyance, “OK, so what’s up with you, Lorelei? You know you can tell me anything on your mind.”
“I've been thinking a lot about Daisy,” she said
“Thinking what?” Troy demanded. “You just said you hate that brat.
Putting her hand to her forehead, she said, “I think I hated her getting that part, but not Daisy herself as a person. When I started the class, she had been there longer, and when I had trouble with some of the steps, she helped me learn them.”
Troy nodded, then looked about for his newspaper. For the first time he could recall, he found Laurel boring.
Still, seeming not to notice, she added, “Also, when some kids called me “rich bitch”, Daisy said it wasn't my fault if my parents had money, and besides, it’s not right to make fun of anyone.”
“She’s right on that score,” Troy replied. Assessing his silhouette in the mirror behind the settee, he smiled at the knowledge that, in his well-designed suit, if a bit less than slim, he could ensure that, for the rest of his days on this earth, he would never again evoke ridicule.
For a second, he let the recollection return of himself as a squat, fat boy on a school playground, held down while older boys stole his lunch money, while taunting, “You don’t need lunch, fat-so.” Now, glancing towards Laurel, he made himself yawn; would she never stop talking-and it was getting worse.
“Mom says, when we hurt other people, in the end, we hurt ourselves even more, because the guilt becomes part of us.”
“Right, Troy snarled, that sounds like your mother’s St. Joan’s doublespeak.”
At that point, they both heard Joan’s footsteps in the front hallway.
“Hi, Troy and Laurel" she called. “The meeting ended early, so I am home before I thought I would be. It’s chilly in here, so as soon as I change into my nightclothes, I’ll make all three of us mugs of hot cocoa.”
“Back early, just as I feared,” Troy muttered, then called, with no pretense of pleasure, “Glad you're back, Joan.”
Then, startled, he saw Laurel leap up, as if lifted by an invisible force from some source deep within her. She ran, like an animal freed from a trap, leaving one leg behind as the price of its freedom, with her human child’s voice crying out, “Mom, Mama, Mommy.”
© 2015 Colleen Swan