A Monster in the Unmaking

by Kristen Bealer

Inspired by Mike Xeno's "Irredeemable Daria Characters" PPMB thread.

"Daddy? Ashley Amber? Can I talk you for a second?"

I looked up from the newspaper to see Brittany walk into the living room. I did a double take when I realized that she was wearing jeans and a t-shirt instead of her Lawndale cheerleading uniform, then reminded myself that she'd graduated.

Brittany kept glancing between Ashley Amber and me like she wasn't sure who to talk to. Whatever it was, it was important. She wasn't smiling and her voice hadn't squeaked once.

"What is it, honey?" Ashley Amber spoke first from her spot on the recliner, although I noticed she still had an eye on the Home Shopping Network. I usually tried to ignore how much the woman spent on jewelry and clothes every week, but damned if she didn't rub it in my face.

"Umm..." Brittany sat down on the edge of the couch next to me and sighed. "I think Kevin and I should break up."

"Oh, how sad!" Ashley Amber exclaimed immediately.

"Why?" I asked simply. I dropped the paper into my lap and turned toward Brittany.

She shrugged. "Well, I'm going off to Great Prairie State in the fall, and he's going to stay here in Lawndale. I figured it would be better for us both to break it off."

"Maybe so," I said quietly. Why were my hands shaking? "On the other hand, haven't you two been dating for awhile? Are you sure you can't make it work?"

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Ashley Amber give me an odd look, but I was still focused on Brittany. She looked back at me, confused. "I don't know," she said as she toyed with her hair. "It would be kind of hard, wouldn't it?"

"Well, of course it'll be hard!" Both Brittany and Ashley Amber flinched slightly. I hadn't meant to raise my voice. I lowered my voice, but the edge was still there. "Have you actually talked to Kevin about this, or are you making up your mind without even discussing it?"

Brittany glanced at Ashley Amber, then back at me again. "I just...I think it's time for me to move on. This is the right thing for me. For us."

Oh, shit. Those words, those eyes, and above all that expression. Brittany doesn't look serious very often, but when she does, she looks just like...

"Hi, I'm Vivian. Table for one?"

"Only if I can't convince you to join me."

She smiles but only plucks up a menu and turns to lead me to my table. I follow, disappointed but not so much that I can't appreciate her ass while she walks ahead. Damn. Usually I can at least get a phone number. Am I losing my touch?

"Here you go," she says, placing the menu at a small table. "Your waiter's name is Brad. He'll take care of everything you need."

"Not everything." I give her a sly wink.

"Everything you can expect to get today." She counters my smile with narrowed eyes and crossed arms. I raise an eyebrow in that way that makes most women melt, but she just stares back at me, unmoved. I hold her gaze, waiting for her to soften.

Finally, I blink and break the stalemate by saying, "I accept your terms." I lift my hands in surrender but give her my most winning smile. Nothing. She just heads back to her podium to greet the next restaurant customer.

Well, that's it. I'm hooked. Definitely coming here for lunch every day, or as long as it takes. It's a bit of a drive from the office, but it'll be worth it. I sneak another glance at the sexy little blond hostess. Absolutely worth it.

"Steve?" Ashley-Amber was staring at me. So was Brittany.

I cleared my throat, but my voice was still hoarse as I said, "Look. You can't bail out when things get rough. A good relationship takes time and work."

"But..." Brittany twirled the end of her hair around a finger. "...It's not a good relationship. We fight all the time. The only reason we stayed together this long was because of the great se--uh, se...se...sentimentality!"

I blinked, both at the obvious cover and the shock that my daughter knew a six-syllable word. Best not to think about either. "All couples fight," I insisted. "Even people who've been married for years."

"Married?" Brittany stared at me like I'd just told her the mall had burned down. "Oh, I don't think I could ever see Kevin and me getting married."

"Marry you?" Viv looks at the ring I'm holding, then back at me.

"Hey," I joke, trying to hide my nervousness, "I'm pushing thirty. It's about time I settle down, right? Might as well be you."

She raises an eyebrow at me. I've never been able to fool her. "Or is this just your way of making sure you always get a good table at Governor's Park?"

We both laugh, remembering the many weeks I spent pursuing her until she finally relented and gave me a chance. Except that by the time I was actually on a date with her, a one night stand was the last thing on my mind.

Right from the start, Vivian knocked me off my feet. She was smart, funny, and way too good for me. That one date turned into several, and before I knew it we were doing everything together. And now here I am, still kneeling in front of her with a ring, waiting for an answer.

"Well?" I ask. I'm shaking too much by now to say anything more.

Viv smiles at me and reaches for the ring. "I accept your terms."

I shook off the memory. "Listen, Brittany, why don't you take some time and think this over. Sleep on it. We can talk about it tomorrow, okay?"

Brittany shrugged, but didn't look convinced. "Okay."

As soon as she left the room, Ashley-Amber turned toward me. "Are you okay, Steve? You're kinda pale."

"I'm fine," I replied, not meeting her eyes. "Work stuff."

"Oh." Ashley-Amber always dropped the subject when I brought up my job. It hurt her brain to try to understand what I do, so she didn't even try. I once tried to explain what a focus group was and her brain damn near shut down. She turned back to the Home Shopping Network and immediately forgot what we were talking about. The woman was gorgeous, but dumber than a brick.

"God, you're dumb. Do you know how lucky you are to have me to fix your damn mistakes? What would you do without me?" I know she's not really dumb--far from it--but I'm pissed off. I'd just bought that car and she plows it into a telephone pole within a week.

"I'd be a lot happier," Vivian replies sharply, then glances at Brittany. She's only three years old, but old enough to be troubled by our arguing. "Sweetheart," Viv says, forcing so much perkiness into her voice she actually squeaks a little, "Why don't you go to your room and play with Mr. Meow?"

Brittany smiles, comforted by her mother's cheerful voice. "Okay!" She grabs her favorite stuffed cat and heads out of the living room.

As soon as Brittany is out of hearing, Vivian whirls back towards me, glaring. "Could you be any less sensitive? Can't you at least avoid insulting me when Brittany is in the room?"

I laugh. "If I did that, I'd never speak to you when she's around."

"Maybe this house would be better off if you did shut up once in awhile."

"Maybe this house would be better off if you starting buying your own damn cars instead of totaling all of mine." She flinches, and I go in for the kill. "Oh, that's right. You'll start paying your share as soon as you get your big break. When will that be, again?"

She crosses her arms and huffs, "I'm trying. If acting doesn't work out, I'll try modeling."

"Oh, right. You're past thirty, Viv. What are you going to model? Adult diapers?" I snort. "I think you've passed the point of making money on your looks by now."

"What's wrong with you?" She takes a step back, staring at me. "It's like...it's like you enjoy this. Like you're some kind of..." She trails off.

"Like what? A jerk? News flash, Vivian: I've always been brutally honest about what I think. You used to say you liked that about me." I hold out my arms, inviting her to finish. "Come on, say it. What am I?"

"A monster," she chokes out before turning and walking quickly toward Brittany's room.

As we got ready for bed, Ashley Amber paused and looked at me. "Steve, honey, is something wrong? You seemed really upset earlier today."

"I'm fine." I threw a weak smile her way as I finished unbuttoning my shirt.

"It's just..." God, there's nothing worse than watching that woman try to think. "...well, when you were talking about married couples needing to work through problems, I was wondering if maybe you were thinking about..."

I tensed up, suddenly afraid that she knew I'd been thinking about Vivian. The last thing I needed was to talk to my current wife about my ex.

"...about that fight we had yesterday about my spending."

I relaxed. Should have known better than to assume she was that perceptive. "No, it's all right. Don't worry about it."

"Okay. I mean, if you really want maybe I could try to cut back or something?"

Yeah, like that would ever happen. I knew the thing Ashley Amber loved most about me was my bank account, and she'd probably die before she gave up even one of her credit cards. But if that kept her happy, then so be it. "Nah, you go ahead and do as much shopping as you like. It's what you're good at, after all."

The insult flew right over her head just like all the others. It was just as well, though. If she ever caught on, she'd probably walk out on me. Along with most of my money.

"Viv, think about what you're doing!"

"Trust me, Steve, I've thought this through completely." She glares at me and tightens her grip on her suitcases. "I've had enough. You can keep the house, the money, everything. I just want out."

"We can work through this! You can't throw away six years of marriage just because--"

"Six years too long. I'm done. I think it's time for me to move on. This is the right thing for me. For us."

"But what about the kids? What'll I tell Brittany? And Brian...look at him; he's just a baby." I hold up Brian, cradled in my arms. She doesn't even look at him. "Can you really turn your back on our children?"

The twitch of contempt on her face when I say "our" is all I need to see. She turns away and reaches for the door. I'm too stunned to even notice, staring at Brian as if it's for the first time.

I sat up in bed. The dream was so real, I could almost smell her perfume again as she walked out. Settling back down, I looked over at Ashley Amber. She was still asleep and drooling slightly. I rolled my eyes in disgust and tried to get back to sleep.

After a few minutes of staring at the ceiling, I finally gave up and got out of bed. Heading to the kitchen, I turned on the light and froze when I saw Brittany sitting at the breakfast nook. "Britt? What are you doing up?" I glanced at a clock on the wall. "It's three in the morning."

"I couldn't sleep," she said, then looked sideways at me before adding, "either."

"Still thinking about Kevin?" I asked, taking a seat next to her.

She nodded. I drummed my fingers on the table, trying to think of something fatherly to say. I was never good at this whole parenting thing.

I walk a few steps behind Brittany and our guide, only half-listening to their conversation. Brian's too young to come with us on the actual hunt, but even at fourteen Britt is picking up every bit of survival and tactics information the guide can throw out. She may have barely passed the eighth grade, but she can soak up combat techniques like a pro.

Man, Brian whined like hell when I told him he was staying at the hotel. I saw him eying my guns when I first took them out. I think I even saw him reach for one of the rifles, one eye on a dog barking outside, before I locked them up. That kid is only eight and he already has a blood lust. Seems odd, but maybe he's got my--maybe he's got a hunter's instinct.

"Look," I finally told Brittany. "I can't tell you what to do with your life. If you think your relationship with this guy is worth saving, then do whatever you have to do to save it. If not, then don't. Just be sure you aren't throwing away something special, okay?"

I had no idea where that came from.

Brittany nodded, still staring at the table. "I'm just afraid that...what if I don't ever find anyone else?"

"Of course you'll find someone else," I stated, almost indignant. "You're still young. Hell, you only just graduated from high school."

Perking up a little, Brittany looked up. "Yeah, you're right. I've got plenty of time to find my soul mate. I mean, you found Ashley Amber after mom left."

I flinched slightly at the mention of Vivian, but I was mostly stunned by the thought that Brittany thinks Ashley Amber was anything close to a soul mate.

"Or how about this one: 'I'll cure what ales you!'" I smile at the fat, balding guy standing next to me, trying to remember his name. He's vice president of something or other at St. Peter Girl beer, but at the moment I'm more interested in the models standing on the other side of the room. The blond one in the bikini turns around and--

God. I almost keel over, but after a few moments I realize that that's not a twenty-something Vivian. She just looks a hell of a lot like her. I tear my eyes away and turn my attention back to the VP of whatever. "Sorry, what was that?"

"I said I love it! I'm going to pitch this to the guys upstairs." I nod, trying to look surprised and pleased. In reality, I knew walking in that I'd get the account. Not only am I just that good, but St. Peter Girl beer has been in desperate need of better advertising. They just needed someone to explain that to them. This was fish in a barrel.

I shake his hand and say all the pleasantries, and at last I'm free to get a closer look at the blond model. I approach slowly, reminding myself it's not Vivian, it's not Vivian, it's not Vivian...

The difference becomes all too clear the second she opens her mouth. "Hi! I'm Ashley Amber! I'm a model. That's a really nice suit," she gushes before I can even stick out my hand to introduce myself. I finally get the chance when her flow of words grinds to a halt, and as she shakes my hand I notice how long she looks at my Rolex.

"So," she purrs. "Would you like to go get some lunch?"

It's almost four in the afternoon, but I figure, what the hell. She's hot and maybe there's more to her than what's on the surface. "I accept your terms."


"Never mind." Long before we leave the restaurant, I realize that Ashley Amber is nothing but surface, but that doesn't stop me from accepting her invitation back to her apartment.

I hung up the phone and collapsed back into my desk chair. What the hell was wrong with me? As I rubbed my temples, I tried to figure out why I was stumbling over my words and struggling just to form a coherent sentence. Normally I was a born schmoozer, but suddenly I sounded like a flustered moron.

I buzzed my secretary to let her know I was taking the rest of the day off. I needed to get my head together.

When I pulled into the driveway at home, I noticed that Ashley Amber's car was gone. She was out shopping, like always. Brittany was probably with her. I'd met Ashley Amber shortly after Brittany started her freshman year in high school, and by the time we'd gotten married a few months later, the two had bonded. I shouldn't have been surprised; God knows the kid needed some kind of female role model. But was Ashley Amber really the best she could do?

I stepped into the house and started toward the study to get one of my cigars. I needed to figure out what was bothering me. The sooner I got over this nonsense, the better.

That's when I heard the yowl. It had to have come from outside, though. Our last cat ran away weeks ago. Then I heard it again. It was definitely something upstairs. Turning away from the study, I climbed the stairs and followed the noise to Brian's room.

I opened the door to see only the back of Brian's head, but I wasn't looking at him. I was looking at the cat he'd cornered. The look of agony and terror on its face. Then, a moment of pure relief. It saw the door was open and flew past me. Brian turned to watch it leave and saw me. The malicious look in his eyes was more than I could stand.

He was...it was a defenseless animal...oh God. Before Brian's actions had even fully registered, I was halfway across the room.

"You goddamn turd!" I screamed. He flinched. "You little brat!" In a moment I was right in front of him. "You..." I pulled back my arm.

You monster. My hand stopped inches from his head when I recognized the look on his face. It was the same expression I'd seen on the cat only a minute earlier. It was also the same expression I'd seen on Vivian after every insult I'd hurled at her.

And at that moment, I realized I'd been completely wrong for twelve years. Brian was one hundred percent my son. The resemblance was uncanny; it was no wonder I was always yelling at him. All that time I'd thought I was just pissed off because he wasn't mine. Turned out I couldn't stand seeing my own sadism and pettiness staring me in the face.

I stammered out a few stern words to Brian and left, closing the door behind me. I found the cat cowering under the dining room table and let it outside, and that's when the other shoe finally dropped.

Brittany. She was sweet, friendly, and completely free of malice. Of course she wasn't mine. But she was definitely her mother's daughter. Hell, she practically was Viv, although not nearly as smart--and that was Ashley Amber's influence.

I sank into a chair in the living room and groaned. Ashley Amber. There was a road I didn't want to go down. And right on cue, the door opened and in she walked: my desperate attempt to replace my ex-wife.

"Hi!" she chirped. "I dropped Britty off at a pizza place on my way home. She's going to talk to that boy." She added a special emphasis to the word "talk," and I realized that Brittany had finally decided to break up with Kevin. She was right, too.

Her mother's daughter, indeed.

I pick up the phone and realize that my hands are shaking as I dial the number. While I wait for an answer, I nervously smooth my hair before remembering that she won't be able to see me.


I can't do it. My mouth opens, but no words come out. What words could there possibly be?

"Is someone there? Hello?"

She's going to hang up soon. Come on, Steve, be a man, just be a man and... "I'm sorry."

"What? I'm afraid I don't--" There's a long silence, and then: "Steve?"


"Oh, God." She sounds too shocked to be angry. I don't know if that's good or bad.

"Look, I know we haven't talked to each other since the, uh, divorce was finalized, and that's my fault I admit, but I thought I'd call to try to tell you, and I really mean it..." I'm babbling, so I cut it short. "...I'm sorry."

"Uh huh." Her tone is guarded, and I don't blame her.

"Um...I should have asked before, but if this is a bad time I can--"

"A bad time?" Okay, now she's angry. "Jesus, Steve, it's been more than ten years."

"I know." Dammit, that sounded lame. "There's a lot I wish I could take back, but I can't. All I can do is apologize for what happened." I wince. I came up with that ahead of time, and it was all true, but I didn't intend for it to come off sounding like a prepared statement.

"I see." Now her voice is cold. Over a decade later and I still remember this is a bad sign.

"Please," I say. I'm begging and I sound pathetic and I don't give a shit about either. "I just want to talk. We left things pretty bad and if nothing else I think we could both use some closure."

"'Closure'?" She sounds confused, but still a little mad. After a moment, she asks, "Steve, are you in AA or something?"

I sigh. I didn't want to talk about this yet. "Not exactly. I'm seeing a therapist. Brian, too." I hesitate, wondering if I should tell her about Brian, and decide it can wait. He's making progress, but it's too soon to dump those issues on her.

"Oh." The anger is gone. "And Brittany?"

"She went to a few family sessions with us before she left for college. She started at Great Prairie State a couple of months ago. You'd be proud of her." I pause, shifting the phone from one ear to the other before adding, "I didn't tell her."

She doesn't say anything right away. Finally, she responds, "I guess I owe you an apology, too."

"Don't," I start to say.

She presses on anyway. "I didn't--I mean, it wasn't..."

"It doesn't matter now."


"Okay. I forgive you."

Another awkward silence. She finally breaks it with, "Are you seeing anyone now?" Almost immediately she adds, "Oh, God, I don't mean it like that."

"I know. I was, but we divorced recently. It...wasn't what I thought it was."

"Steve," she says, and the anger is creeping back in. "I'm not coming back. I don't care how sorry you are--or how sorry you say you are--if you're looking for some kind of a, a twisted rebound thing then--"

"I'm not! Swear to God, I'm not."

"All right." She doesn't sound convinced, but at least she doesn't sound angry, either.

"Listen," I say after taking a deep breath and saying a silent prayer, "What I would like is a friend. I'd like to be able to call you and chat, and maybe sometimes you could come visit me and the kids. I want to be in your life again. I know it'll take awhile, but I want to try. Do you think you'd be willing to give that a shot?"

There's one last long silence.

"I accept your terms."

Thanks to RLobinske for beta reading.