I spent the morning rearranging the toolbar on my site (took far longer than it should have 😦 is it me, or is it WordPress?) to make navigation easier, the toolbar cleaner, and to make room for a new feature here: fiction.
Now, on occasion, I’ll be posting short stories for you to read at your leisure. Some will be flash fiction, some will be longer pieces, but none of the pieces I post will be published anywhere but here.
A link to this story, and all future stories, can always be found under the “My Work—Freebies” tab.
I hope you enjoy this feature, and visit often.
Cara glared at her son. He hadn’t packed a single bag, hadn’t unloaded one item from the car, hadn’t gathered a twig. He had done nothing since they arrived except laugh while she was engulfed by the pop-up tent they were to share. Once she had it sturdily anchored, he lay on a sleeping bag—the good one she had brought—and put his headphones in while she gathered wood for the fire and struggled to get the flames started. She almost allowed a feeling of accomplishment to creep in, almost, when that first drop fell. The hiss of the raindrops on the hot rocks was as welcome as the rain would be on the fire it took her twenty minutes to build. Cara glowered at the ominous thunderclouds roiling over each other in their haste to cover her anemic campsite. She poked at the kindling with a long branch. It reminded her of the saying, Don’t poke the bear. It felt like she was poking at disaster. Another drop fell and she heard the sizzle amid the crackle of the flames.
“Take your headphones off, please.”
Mason still had the headphones on, so she reached over and pulled one out.
“I asked you to take the headphones out.”
“You didn’t ask, you told. And they aren’t headphones.”
She sighed and gripped the branch tighter. “Fine. What are they?”
Ah yes. Dr. Dre’s Tour ControlTalk Beats. She scrimped and saved to buy the damn things, she should have known what they were called. “My apologies. Would you please take the Beats out?”
“Why should I? You’re listening to your shit.”
“Mason, don’t use that language.”
The “shit” currently playing was a CD of metal hair bands from the 80s. She had brought an old boom box and a selection of CDs to play while they roasted hotdogs and made mountain pies and S’mores. Her music collection hadn’t been updated since he’d been born… so what? Music was better when she was young, anyway.
Cara sighed and turned off “Still Loving You” by the Scorpions. Nature made its own music. She was there to bond with her son. She could listen to hair bands on her own time.
“Now I’m not listening to my music and you don’t have to listen to yours. We can just talk.”
He wrapped his Beats around his iPod and shoved them in his front pocket. He lay with his arms behind his head while Cara poked at the fire. The crackling continued to be interrupted by the occasional hiss of raindrop spatter.
“I thought you wanted to talk,” Mason said.
“I’d love to.”
“So say something.”
But she was at a loss. She no longer knew her own son. Gone was the little boy who used to give her sweaty hugs and sticky kisses, the boy who she’d read stories to or played catch with in the yard. Cara used to know just what things would make his face light up, and one of those things used to be her. Now she didn’t know what any of those things were. She only knew that she wasn’t one of them.
“I know you come here a lot with your dad. I thought maybe you’d enjoy camping with me, too.”
“I enjoy camping with Dad because we fish, or hunt, or hike. We don’t just sit and listen to some crappy music on an old relic.”
Cara was silent for a while before she answered. “I just thought we could use a little alone time.”
“I have alone time with you constantly. I live with you.”
“You just always seem so excited about your camping trips. I thought I’d see what all the fuss was about.”
“It’s Dad. Dad makes them fun.”
Does Dad? Dad’s so fun. Dad’s so special. Where was Dad when you had a fever of one hundred four degrees? Where was Dad when you had to be at school at five in the morning for a field trip? Where’s Dad for all the dinners and the laundry and the homework help and the rides you need everywhere?
The branch she was poking the fire with splintered in her hand. Cara started picking slivers of bark out of her palm.
“Mom, it’s raining harder now.”
Cara had been so preoccupied with her mental tirade against her ex-husband that she didn’t notice the increase in the rainfall. “Let’s get in the tent.”
“Let’s get in the car.”
She merely stood and stared while he doused the fire by kicking dirt over the twigs and stones. It had been such a pathetic fire that it died out without much fight.
As though the gods themselves were against her, the clouds chose that moment to empty in a tirade. “Damn it, Mom. Aren’t you going to do anything? We’ll be soaked in a minute.” He had the tent folded up before she willed herself to move.
Cara did about as much packing as Mason did unpacking. She grabbed her boom box and CD collection while he grabbed the rest, and they threw everything in the car. As Mason predicted, they were pretty well drenched by the time the car was loaded and the campsite was clear. “Thanks for the help,” he said.
“You didn’t do anything!”
“I got my music. The rain would have ruined it.”
“It could only be an improvement,” he muttered. Before she could defend it, he continued, “Didn’t you want to leave?”
“I thought the tent would be enough protection from the storm.”
“It wasn’t even put up the right way. The first strong gust of wind would have taken it down, and drenched us with it.”
“If you knew it was assembled wrong, why didn’t you help me put it up?”
“I just wanted to see what you did when it fell, I guess.”
Cara sighed. “Mason, if you had just helped to begin with, we would be dry right now.”
“You wasted time putting out the fire when the rain would have done that.” She could hear the bitchiness in her voice, but couldn’t stop it.
“You can never be too sure about forest fires.”
“Let’s just go.”
There was no point in being angry on top of the frustration she already felt. She tried to swallow it all and dug her keys out of her pocket. Putting them in the ignition, she turned and… nothing. She tried again. Nothing.
“It’s your battery.”
“How can you tell?”
“Because when I was loading the car the interior lights never came on. I wondered why the car was dark, but I was rushing too much to give it a second thought. And while you were turning the key, the car didn’t sputter or try to turn over. It’s the battery.”
“Where did you learn that?”
Of course. St. Michael taught him about cars even though he didn’t have his license yet. Wonder what else Super Dad taught him before he was ready?
“You better call AAA.”
“I don’t have AAA.”
“Dad says all drivers should have AAA.”
“I really don’t give a flying… fig what your father says about AAA. I had a membership, but I let it lapse.”
“What did you do something stupid like that for?”
Because a certain sixteen year old who only wears brand name clothes needed braces and joined Ski Club and insisted on getting his own pads for football because the school-supplied ones were sub-par. Wonder who that could have been?
“You make choices in life, Mason. That was a choice I made.”
He took his phone out of his pocket.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m calling Dad.”
“Oh no you’re not.”
“Well, I’m not sitting here in this storm.”
“I’ve got jumper cables in my trunk.”
“That’s great. Do you have a battery to connect them to?”
Damn it. She stayed quiet, unwilling to answer him.
“Do you have anyone else to call?”
The rain splashed on the windshield, each drop a splotching disapproval of her predicament. “Do you?” she whispered, ashamed to ask but even more fearful of his not bailing her out.
He shook his head and dialed. “Dad, I need your help.”
The wait was interminable. Part of her wanted Michael never to show up, part of her wanted him to just get there and get it over with. All of her wanted the ground to open and swallow her whole. She hated that she was in this predicament. Why did it have to rain? Why did her battery have to die? Why did it have to be Michael to the rescue?
She and Mason had said nothing since he called his father. She watched dusk fall in silence. A solitary swath of purple streaked across the horizon, the reds and oranges oppressed from view by the indigo storm clouds billowing across the heavens. True blackness of storm and night descended without a single word passing between her and her son. The only sounds to break the monotony were the rumbling of thunder and the pounding of rain on the car. Occasionally a flash of lightning illuminated their surroundings, and Cara could see the stubborn set of Mason’s jaw in his profile. He was staring out the windshield and hadn’t moved.
About an hour into the storm, Cara made out two points of light in the distance. The moment she dreaded had arrived. Michael was approaching.
“Finally,” Mason muttered.
“You know he does things on his own schedule,” she said.
“Give it a rest, Mom. He didn’t have to come at all.”
No, he didn’t. But then he couldn’t win Parent of the Year if he left his son in the woods during a storm.
When Michael got to them, they both got out of the car, but Mason was faster. He clambered into the backseat, leaving Cara to take the front. She dreaded being so close to Michael again, but she dreaded delaying him with her dawdling even more. She squared her shoulders and opened the passenger door.
“Could you take any longer, Cara? You’re going to get my seats all wet.”
She swallowed a sigh and shut the door with just a little more force than was necessary. “I’m sorry, Michael. Thanks for coming to get us.”
He pulled out before she was even strapped in. “Well, I couldn’t just leave Mason out here.”
Not both of us. Mason. “No, I suppose not.”
“Why did you cancel AAA?”
Here we go. “There were many factors to consider. It was the right decision for me.”
“Well, not for me, obviously.”
“Otherwise I wouldn’t be out in the middle of a storm hauling you all over God’s green earth. You better get that renewed.”
“I’ll look into it.”
“Did you even check the weather? What were you doing out there tonight?”
“I did check. It said slight chance of rain. And it was my night off.”
“My report didn’t say slight chance. It said ninety percent. You should listen to Channel Two. Or get the app I use for my phone. I’ll check which one it is and send you the link. It’s not too expensive.”
Cara didn’t have an iPhone, so she didn’t really care what app he had. She had no use for it, and if she did have an iPhone she couldn’t afford to buy an app anyway. She willed herself to keep her mouth shut and just stared out the window. She still had bark in her hand and she picked at it blindly to pass the time.
They sat in silence for a while, Cara peering into the darkness. The road home wove through dense forestland and over a river. The moon and stars were blanketed by strata of storm clouds, leaving only Michael’s two halogen headlamps and the occasional flash of lightning to illuminate the way. Occasionally he tried the high beams, and when he did all Cara saw were spears of rain pelting the car. She preferred it when he used the low beams and just raised the speed of the wipers. She looked up. Tree branches interlaced above her, forming a giant leafy blanket. As the wind blew, the boughs moved as one undulating mass, shaking leaves and buds onto the windshield. The wipers cleared the mess away. The sights unnerved her, so she focused on the sounds: the grind of the tires on the road, the pounding of the rain on the car, the thrum thrum of the wipers on the glass. The sounds outside the car were almost soothing. The silence in the car was nerve-wracking. But it was worse when Michael spoke. And of course he spoke again.
“Who goes on a trip with a bad battery, anyway? Either you haven’t been maintaining your car properly, or you didn’t check the car before the trip.”
“It was my fault, Dad.”
“Your fault?” Cara and Michael said together.
“I was excited when we got there and I left the hatch open after we unloaded the car. The interior lights being on that long probably ran the battery down. Mom didn’t neglect the car’s maintenance. I was just careless.”
“Oh. Well. You should know better. I’ve taught you about cars and responsibility. You’ll have to wait a month before I take you to get your learner’s permit.”
“Michael, that’s not—”
“Don’t argue with me about this, Cara. He needs to be accountable for his actions.”
“It’s fine, Mom. I’m okay with it. Really.”
Cara turned to look at Mason. He nodded his head toward his dad then shook his head. She fought back tears, not wanting to betray her son’s lie. Then she turned and watched the rain again. She tried to ignore Michael and focus on what soothed her until she got home: the grind of the tires, the pounding of the rain, the thrum thrum of the wipers.
Finally they stopped in front of Cara’s townhouse.
“Thanks for the ride, Dad.” Mason didn’t wait for an answer. He just ran to the door.
Cara saw Michael roll his eyes and shake his head almost imperceptibly.
“Nothing. I just expected him to wait for me to say goodbye. I would think you’d be teaching him better manners than that.”
She bit the inside of her cheek before answering. “Thanks for the lift, Michael.”
“The storm’s supposed to let up tomorrow afternoon. Will you need a ride back then?”
“We’ll let you know.” There was no way in hell she was calling him again.
“I’d like some notice. I can’t sit around all day waiting for your call.”
“I’ll let you know. With advance notice.”
Michael was gone before she reached the porch. She leaned in to kiss Mason’s cheek, and he let her. That was her sweet little boy. “Do you want some hot chocolate?”
“Sounds great. I’ll make a fire.”
She smiled at him and was heartened when he returned it. Cara unlocked the door, and he headed toward the fireplace. She’d make them a snack while Mason built a fire, and they’d spend the night talking and listening to the rain.