It’s that time again… another NYCM short story! My prompt this time around was Romance/A building demolition/An exotic pet owner. Not an easy challenge, and I floundered for several days with many false starts. This story reminded me that I have a writing community for a reason. One of my fellow NYCM participants (also known as some of my favorite people on the planet) helped bounce ideas around until this came out. Even though I wasn’t happy with the prompt, I really do love what came out! Hope you enjoy it, too!
And remember: YES you can share this link if you like this story. Please, feel free!
The Price of Progress
Faced with the loss of his home of forty years, Jeremy struggles with his new reality. With the help of voices old and new, he might just find his way through.
Jeremy cradled the cockroach within his cupped hands. “It’s okay, Mel,” he crooned. “I won’t let them get you.”
He opened his front door a crack to peek through. Police tape surrounded the property line. Workers in reflective vests pulled shovels and jackhammers from their trucks. The creases in Jeremy’s forehead deepened as he studied the mountain of a man climbing into a bright yellow backhoe.
“Mr. Halward, you need to come out,” Adrian’s voice bellowed from across the street. She adjusted her safety helmet and tucked her long, graying braid over her shoulder. Even from across the road, Jeremy could picture Adrian’s nose crinkle and her mouth pull into a thin line. He’d seen the expression on her face several times since she’d first come around, introducing herself as the demolition foreman and then repeatedly insisting that he leave.
Mel wiggled in Jeremy’s palm. His brow furrowed and he shook his head, but then he sighed, “No, you’re right, Mel. She is very pretty. And, yeah, she’s just doing her job. I still wish she’d stop trying to tear down our house.”
The backhoe moved slowly, sounding a steady beep.
“This is it, Mel! It’s now or never.” Jeremy took a deep breath. “I need you to be brave. Can you do that?”
He shuffled the cockroach into her tiny, plastic terrarium and snapped the lid shut. After stowing the box safely inside the doorway, Jeremy stepped outside with his hands up in surrender.
He took a few long, deliberate steps before glancing back. His white bungalow stood behind him like the last soldier on a battlefield, surrounded by the ghosts of his former neighbors’ homes. Splintered wood and glass littered the lots that once made up his quiet neighborhood. Every living soul had been forced out to make way for the freeway that was more important than block parties and summer bonfires.
He’d declined to sell. And when the two men in black suits and striped ties brought him official paperwork claiming eminent domain, he refused again… at least until the police arrived.
Eventually, the state came for his belongings and changed the locks. Good thing he always left that basement window cracked open. There were still memories to be made in his home.
There were still loved ones to protect.
The day they destroyed the Kirk residence was the day Mel scurried under Jeremy’s door. He was no stranger to having bugs creep through the failing weather stripping. The winters in upstate New York grew terribly cold, and the critters wanted some warmth. Typically, he’d let them stay for a while as his little pets before eventually putting them back outside.
But Mel hadn’t come in to escape the cold. She was there to salvage what was left of her life. Jeremy understood. He’d scooped up the little critter and listened. Through the chittering, he heard her voice.
For Jeremy, there would always be Mel, even if everyone else left.
And in fact, they had.
“Thank you, Mr. Hal-” Adrian started, but Jeremy cut her off.
“You may think you’ve come to demolish my home today,” Jeremy shouted. His knees threatened to buckle beneath him. A deafening silence filled the yard. “You’ve got this,” he whispered to himself.
He stalked forward and stopped just short of the backhoe. “I won’t have it.”
Jeremy pulled a set of handcuffs from the small of his back and snapped one ring on his wrist. He scrambled up onto the backhoe to clamp the other cuff to the hydraulic arm, and he sat on the loader with his legs crossed.
Adrian rubbed her temples in small circles. She emerged from behind her safety shield and crossed the road.
“Get. Down.” Adrian punctuated each word with a finger pointed at the ground.
“Nope.” He jutted out his jaw. “Not until you leave my house alone.”
Adrian threw her hands up. “You know we’re not leaving! And anyway, how are we supposed to go anywhere with you clamped to my loader?”
“Not my problem.”
“Who the hell’s problem is it?”
A meaty man with a ruddy complexion leaned out of the backhoe. “You want me to call in the cops now, boss?” Behind the backhoe, Adrian’s crew all nodded in solidarity with the driver.
Jeremy opened his eyes wide in terror.
“Thanks, Chuck. Not yet.” Adrian’s shoulders slumped. “Look, I know this is tough on you. I won’t call the authorities unless I absolutely have to. But there’s no stopping this demolition. Technically you’re squatting on state property.”
“You hear that?” Jeremy cast a glance back at the house. “She says we’re trespassing in our own home!”
Adrian held up a finger. “Um… who are you talking to?”
Jeremy ignored her question. “Have you ever had someone try to bulldoze through your house?”
“I’ve lived here for forty years. You know that?”
“Yes, Mr. Halward, I’m aware. And you were offered a large sum for your property, which you refused.”
Jeremy barked a laugh. “Money isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. Hell, it’s not even printed anymore! Just bits in a computer somewhere. Completely fake. Could be gone like that.” He snapped his fingers in Adrian’s face.
She took a reflexive step backward, but then moved in close, placing a hand on his shoulder. He tried to jerk away, but his arm caught against the cuff and held him tight.
“Do you not have somewhere to go?” she asked. “Family? Friends? I can call someone to come get you so you don’t have to watch.”
A lump formed in Jeremy’s throat. He swallowed it down. Mel. He had to think of Mel.
“You know what’s not fake?” Jeremy asked.
Adrian shook her head. “What?”
“An honest to God, built-by-two-hands home. My house is bought and paid for. We still live here, and we intend to stay.” Jeremy looked back over his shoulder toward the house. “Isn’t that right? We’re not leaving, are we?”
Adrian sucked in a breath. “Is there someone still in the house?”
“Yeah, a friend,” Jeremy said.
Adrian pulled a cell phone from her belt and dialed. “We have a situation here. The house is still occupied.”
“The house will remain occupied,” Jeremy insisted.
Adrian waved him quiet. She nodded as the voice on the other end spoke. Jeremy strained to listen, but he only heard “investigate.”
“Do you have a key for those things?” Adrian stuck the phone back in her pocket.
“Nope,” Jeremy said.
Adrian rolled her eyes. “Chuck, I need bolt cutters.”
“Sure thing boss.”
Within moments, Chuck had cut the cuffs and manhandled Jeremy to the ground. Jeremy didn’t put up a fight, knowing his aging body didn’t stand a chance against the man who looked like he could lift his backhoe with one hand.
“Let’s talk this over inside, okay?” Adrian said.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Chuck scoffed. Adrian shot him a dirty look. Chuck gave up the argument without another word. He might have been all muscle, but Adrian had a fire to her. Jeremy admonished himself for admiring Adrian’s strength of character, but it was impressive. He’d always preferred the company of strong women. He followed Adrian into the house.
His home was devoid of furniture, and the smell of days-old urine permeated the air. The water and heat had both been shut off. Jeremy gave up on using the makeshift honey bucket he’d fashioned outside, at least during the coldest parts of the night. A little urine smell from the toilet was better than leaving the warmth of the hearth.
He felt exposed bringing Adrian into his home in this state. Not so long ago, there had been a plush sofa and framed pictures on the walls. His wife had always insisted on keeping the oak coffee table that he’d built himself in high school shop class. Now, that was gone, too. So was the scent of fresh baked cinnamon rolls and coffee that would wrap them in comfort on cold winter mornings.
All that was left was the bedroll he’d spread out on the floor and a plastic chair beside it. A half-eaten can of cold beans–the remnants of his breakfast–sat open next to the hearth.
“Sorry, I… it’s not what it once was. The state took everything.”
“I understand.” Adrian scanned the room. “So, who else is here?”
Jeremy picked up the terrarium. Mel skittered against the side.
Adrian yelped, then her expression darkened. “I’m going to be out…” she checked her watch, “…an hour of O.T. for sixteen crew because of a cockroach?”
Jeremy held the terrarium up so he could look at Mel. She turned in quick circles, searching for the warmth of his hands. “She doesn’t understand, my love.”
“She doesn’t know what she’s taking from us.”
“Jeremy, I’m going to have to call the police.” Adrian pulled her phone from her pocket.
Jeremy ran a hand up the doorframe. He leaned against the wall. “She doesn’t understand that this is all I have left.”
Tears flooded Jeremy’s eyes. He sank to the floor, cradling the terrarium in his arms. His voice came through ragged sobs. “I can’t lose anything else. First you. Then the neighborhood. This is all I have left of us, Mel. I can’t just leave.”
Adrian lowered the phone. She squatted beside him.
He looked up. There was compassion in Adrian’s eyes.
“Mel was your wife, wasn’t she?” she asked.
Jeremy nodded. “Melanie.”
“When did she–?”
Pain wrenched at Jeremy’s heart, threatening to rip it from his chest. “A week before the state came in and tried to take my house. Cancer. We found out January twenty-ninth. She didn’t make it to her birthday in March.”
Adrian wrapped her arms around Jeremy. He sank into her embrace. She held him until his breathing steadied.
Jeremy sat up and rubbed his eyes. “How can you take people’s homes like this?”
Adrian leaned her head back against the wall. “Honestly? I’ve been a demolition foreman for nearly thirty years, and you’re the first person who hasn’t eventually given in. The homeowners make a lot of money in these deals.”
“You ever think of what they had to leave behind though?”
“I try not to.” She looked Jeremy in the eye. “It’s all for progress. That’s what the state tells us.”
“Progress.” He let the word hang in the air. “For years, life is like the same day on repeat.” Jeremy held the terrarium and watched Mel run from side to side. “Day in, day out. Work, eat, sleep, maybe get to spend a little time with people you love. It isn’t bad. In fact, it’s pretty great. But no one stops to appreciate it. Not really.” He popped open the terrarium lid and plucked Mel from its confines. She ran over his fingers as he moved one hand in front of the other.
“Then one day,” he said, “everything changes. And it changes so fast you can’t keep up. And then…” Jeremy watched the cockroach in silence for a moment before lowering her to the ground. Mel skittered across the floor and slipped beneath the door. Jeremy touched the place she had been. “Then, everything you love is gone. But you’re still here, wondering why. Thinking, ‘what now?’ But not knowing where to even start, or if you can. Or want to, for that matter.”
Adrian squeezed his hand. “Starting over is something I understand all too well.”
“Yeah?” Jeremy asked.
She leaned against his shoulder. “I lost my husband two years ago. I like to think I’m still here because there’s more in store for me. It keeps me going.”
He looked into her eyes and noticed the fine lines around them that betrayed the trials of life. Wisps of gray hair escaped her braid to frame her delicate features. She wore no makeup. Her expression held nothing but sincerity.
Mel had been right.
Adrian was very pretty.