Short Story: Times They Are A-Changin’

I was ten years old when I finally went fishing with my grandpa. He had promised the fishing trip for months. Before we left the house mom handed me a black Nike baseball cap that once belonged to my dad. She said it was going to be sunny and to keep my face out of the sunlight. She asked my grandpa if he had enough sunscreen. He showed her the bottle in his bag. Alongside the sunscreen, there were a couple bottles of water, a few small packets of chips, a four-pack of Jameson, an orange juice and two sandwiches which he had made that morning. Mine was without pickles and olives.

During the drive, I kept on looking at my grandpa. I was trying to sit like him, to look at where he was looking, to match the same expressionless features that were carved into his face. My dad passed away when I was young so I never really knew him. Grandpa became the man I wanted to be like. Every now and then he would glance in the rearview mirror as he switched lanes and I would look too but all I could see where the tips of the fishing poles sticking out in the back of the pick-up. They seemed naked and out of place.

We fished at lake Issac. We rented a small two-seater boat and rowed to the middle of the lake. There was a heart carved on the seat with the initial A + D inside of the heart. I traced it with my nail. I sat in between my grandpas’ legs and rowed or at least I thought I did. I went through the motions but my grandpa did the pushing and pulling. Once we were far away from the shore, somewhere in the middle of the lake, grandpa stopped rowing. We cast our lines and then waited. Grandpa said to be patient. He said that’s what fishing was all about.

“We learn to be patient and to sit still,” he said. “We learn to feel the motion. To go along with the movement of the water.”

  The breeze picked up and the mist from the water occasionally fell on my sunscreen covered arms and legs. We listened to Bob Dylan songs on the portable radio that my grandpa had brought along.

If your time to you

Is worth savin’

Then you better start swimmin’

Or you’ll sink like a stone

“How are you doing in school?” He asked.

“I got an A in history.”

“In Maths?”

I looked at the oblique dancing light of the sun in the water.

“B-.”

He tapped the brim of my hat. I pushed my hat back up.

“You need to study more.”

“Yessir.”

He tossed me a bag of chips and he took one for himself and we both ate listening to Dylan’s raspy voice, watching the fishing lines slowly move up and down with the rhythm of the water and feeling the warm touch of the sun. Every now and then my grandpa would hum parts of Dylan’s tunes and mimic the raspiness as he sang a few words out loud.

The sun was passed it’s prime for the day and fell on my back. There weren’t any clouds and the sky, in a way, mirrored the lake water. Clear, blue, endless and daunting.

“Mom said you were sick,”

“Did she?”

“Are you?”

He crumpled the empty chips bag and stuffed it into his bag pack.

“I am.”

“Are you going to be okay?”

“I don’t think so. Not this time.”

The sunlight seemed only to fall on me. Grandpa smiled.

“Want some orange juice?”

I fell asleep sometime in the afternoon. By the time I woke up, grandpa was rowing back to the shore with an ice bucket full of fishes. He said that I snore a lot for a kid my size. I said I didn’t snore. He smiled. Bob kept on singing about war, death, and change and I ate my sandwich and washed it down with the last sip or two of the orange juice.

Since that day I’ve had this reoccurring dream. I feel like this trip was the catalyst for my perpetual dream because in my dream, I am rowing in a little two-seater boat just like my grandpa’s and the wood is chipped and scratched in the same places and it even has the same love initials carved into it. I am rowing in the middle of an ocean and I can’t see land at all, no birds, no fishes, the water is perfectly still except for the bit I disturb with my push and pull. The only other thing that is a constant in my dream is the sun. No clouds to block it’s touch, no hat to cover me. It was me, the boat, the oars, the water, and the sun. Those are the only qualities that are the same. My attire changes every now and then. No more shorts and stained Mickey Mouse t-shirts, they are replaced by buttons ups and khaki pants. Sometimes the empty seat is occupied. But what never changes is that I am there, the sun is there, the oars are there, the boat is there and all of us are floating on an ocean, even the sun seems to float on an upside-down ocean.

The first time I had this dream my grandpa was there. His foot tapped along to his own humming and he hummed Desolation Road. The oars peacefully dipped in and out of the water. I wanted to say something but no sound came from my lips. We just stared at one another as I rowed nowhere but there was no sense of worry. The light from the rising sun fell upon my grandpa’s back, he shielded its rays from me and he had a smile on his face as he glowed from the light. His crystal blue eyes teared up but I felt like the one who was crying. After he passed I stopped dreaming about him. It was like he had fulfilled some rite or ritual by showing me how to row and now he could move on.

When I graduated high school I took a year off from studying. In that year I went to Vietnam and Thailand. I spent a week visiting my cousins in Australia and I had plans of going to Japan but those fell through. I had the same dream often that year. But for some reason it was unclear like I had been staring at the same spot for too long and the surroundings became blurry. I could clearly see my hands on the oars but the oars themselves were out of focus. The water was lighter. The horizon foggy but there was no fog. The sun seemed to be a distant star from another galaxy.

Once that year was over, I started university. The dream started to return to its clarity again.

I once mentioned my dream to this girl I was seeing. We were laying in bed, her head on my chest, we were coming down from both a literal high and a spiritual one, having just made love.

“You ever feel like you’re just floating around, not knowing where you’re headed?”

“How much did you smoke?” She laughed.

I brushed away her hair so I could look at the side of her face.

“I mean in general like in life or something.”

“I’ve got a pretty good idea about that.”

“You do?”

“I’ve already started sending applications for my summer internship. Once I get that, along with my grades and volunteering hours I’ll be able to attend Columbia for my graduate program.”

“That simple?”

“I don’t think it’s simple. It’s going to take a lot of work but I’ll get there.”

We listened to some Beatles and then I told her about my dream. 

“That’s a pretty dream,” she said.

“You think so?”

“Sure. We should go fishing sometime.”

“Just pretty?”

“What else could it be?”

“I don’t know.”

She raised her head and looked at me.

“Do you want to talk about it some more?”

I shook my head.

“Not if you don’t find it significant.”

“Is it significant?”

“You tell me.”

She reached over to my bedside table for some smokes. She took a cigarette out and I helped her light it. She smoked and passed it to me.

“It’s kinda silly,” she said.

“What’s silly about it?”

“I don’t know. You just rowed around in some water by yourself. Doesn’t it seem silly?”

I handed her the smoke.

“It doesn’t to me. I think there must be some meaning to it if I keep dreaming about it.”

“Maybe.”

“You don’t understand.”

“Explain it to me.” She let me finish the cigarette.

“I can’t explain it. I don’t know. It’s not silly, that’s all I know.”

“Okay, it’s not.”

I had told her about my dream because she had been in the boat last time I dreamt it. She was wearing a sundress that revealed her slim ankles and a cream coloured straw hat which she wore on our first date. She needed that hat as the sun was above us. She was humming Yesterday. I suppose that’s why I told her about the dream. That song came on as we lay in each others arms and she began to hum it, I felt the vibrations from her throat in my chest, in my heart.

I probably dreamt of that boat more than twenty times but less than thirty and each time she was there, even after she passed away in a car accident. Only after I graduated did I find myself all alone on the boat. The sun blinding me without her being there to shield it.

There were other women in my life but none managed to come aboard. I waited for a couple, especially my wife, I thought surely she would meet me there but she never came.

I once brought that up during our couples therapy session. My wife, still my girlfriend then or was she my fiancé? All I know for sure was that she was pregnant with our first child and the stress of the unexpected kid coupled with our work lives and perhaps her hormonal imbalances resulted in us seeking therapy as advised by my wife’s friend.

The therapist asked for a lot of money in exchange for simple questions that you may find in a fortune cookie. What’s bothering you? Is there something you wish to say but haven’t been able to put into words? Have you tried seeing things from her perspective?

One time we were asked to come alone so it was me and this therapist who seemed too young and too pretty to know about problems let alone have ways to fix them. When I think about a therapist I think of sages, old wise men, hell, even Gandalf or some wizard who can snap their fingers and make all that is wrong, right again.

The therapist asked if there was something I wanted to tell her now that my soon to be wife wasn’t in the room. I shook my head. This was her idea and I had nothing to say.

“Nothing at all?” She asked.

“Nada.”

“Just try and think of anything. Even something as small as the way she says hello or perhaps the way she sits.”

I thought for a moment.

“She never came on the boat,” I said.

“Excuse me?”

I told the therapist about the dream. The sun was descending. It no longer blinded me and yet I could not help but feel even blinder, lost, alone rowing endlessly watching the water swell as if something was about to break the surface, break the calm and I wanted, I needed, someone there with me.

The therapist normally had this rhythm about her when she talked as if she were a calculator and one had to punch an equation in and the answer appeared instantly. The only difference being that instead of answers she spat out more questions. But now, at least for a moment, an error sign flashed as if I had plugged in an incomputable number.

When she finally spoke she asked if I dreamt of this often.

“When I was in college I kept track of the dream for a year and in that year I dreamt of it a hundred and sixty-five times.”

“The same dream?”

“For the most part.”

She picked up her notepad. “Please explain any change or differences.”

“Well at first the sun was half consumed by the shoreline.”

“First?”

“When I was about ten or eleven.”

She wrote that down.

“When I started keeping track of it that year in college, the sun was directly above me.”

“And now?” She asked.

“It had started to descend.”

“It’s setting?”

“No, I wouldn’t say it’s setting but it’s on its way. Maybe in a normal day it’s about four pm, I think, so a couple hours before it really sets.”

“I see.”

Her pen scribbled with quickness and she flipped the page of her notebook.

“Does it anger you that your wife isn’t there?”

“No,” I said. “It doesn’t make me angry or sad or petty. I was just curious that’s all.”

“You believe if she were on the ship—”

“Boat.”

“Boat. If she were on the boat then the two of you would have fewer problems?”

I thought about that for a few minutes. The therapist was used to awkward silences but I wasn’t so I answered even though I was still thinking about it.

“No that sounds unlikely.”

“Have you told your partner about this dream?”

“No.”

“Any reasons why?”

“I don’t think she’ll understand.”

“Understand what exactly?”

I took a sip of water.

“Do you think it’s silly?”

“Not at all,” she said.

“Did you always know you wanted to be a psychologist?”

“Not always but when I sat down to think about it I was drawn towards helping people.”

“So you always knew where you were going?”

“For the most part, I guess.”

“That must be nice.”

“You don’t feel the same?”

I finished the glass of water. “When I sat down to think about it I couldn’t really find anything I wanted to do. Things just kinda happened, you know, I never planned for none of it, I feel like I’m always catching up to things, trying to steer the right way as the wind changes. Sometimes it feels like it’s all for nothing. Sometimes I feel like I wasted my life. I don’t know. I feel like, I feel like—-” I don’t know why I started to cry.

The alarm on her phone buzzed. Time was up. She said that we had made good progress and that next time she’d like to discuss what I said along with my wife. I asked her what she and my wife talked about but she said she can’t tell me that.

It was soon after my wife gave birth to our son and we stopped going to the counselor. I didn’t dream my dream for a long time after. Probably because of the stress of raising a little human and not knowing the instructions for it. Then came our marriage and then our daughter. In that time I realized I was an adult and that I was old.

I dreamt of it again after I took my son on his first fishing trip. It wasn’t even the trip that triggered it but rather the Dylan song that randomly came on. It’s strange how sometimes what we consider important and significant can slip from our memory. I had spent a good part of my twenties thinking about this dream and then it’s significance almost left me. I guess having kids can do that too you. Their needs takeover your own and you spend your time thinking about them to the point where you forget to think about yourself. I told my son about my dream and like a kid he asked about the boat and what it looked like, if it was wet, if the water was cold, if I had sun screen on, a life jacket and if I was afraid of sharks. If it wasn’t for his line catching I would still be answering his questions.

That night I dreamt it and my son was there. Almost identical to what I had worn when I first dreamt of the dream. I could not see the sun but I felt its presence behind me. The setting sun cast a faded blood like image on the sky.

Another thing I noticed was that I was no longer rowing. My son was. He didn’t know how to. I could see the strain in his face and feel the rhythmless pushing and pulling. I wanted to reach out and show him how it’s done. To tell him how to breathe in and out with the oars and feel the water, using it to help you rather than fight against it. But I woke up before I could say or do anything.

As we ate breakfast that morning my son started to hum Times They’re a Changing.

“Where’d you hear that?” I asked.

“You were singing it in my dream.”

He said the sun was rising behind me.

Short Story: The Bus

Recently I experienced my first car accident. It was just an ordinary winter day and the roads were a little slippery from the snowfall the previous night. I was driving downhill towards a set of lights that turned red and I applied the brakes. Everything was normal until my tires locked and I couldn’t stop and I hit the ford pick up truck in front of me. The crash was so slow that the airbags didn’t even go off. The driver of the pick up got out and came by my window with a smile on his face, waving his hand, I could see him mouthing it’s all right but that smile left him when he saw me and I imagined I mirrored the paleness of the snow which surrounded us and he knocked on the window asking if I was okay, his voice muffled by the window pane. I mustn’t have said anything cause he quickly called 911.

I was frozen in place. My knuckles were white from gripping the steering wheel. My heart felt as if it were trapped underneath a layer of ice and it was hammering against the icy sheet, trying to draw attention to itself while on the other side of the ice, gentle wind blew harmlessly without care.

The paramedics said I went into shock. They said it happens, it’s the fight or flight response but because I didn’t have anywhere to go, I froze up. They had to get my wife on the phone and once I heard her voice I began to unwind, the frost thawed out and my heartbeat slowly settled and I came back to myself. The whole thing was embarrassing. I was sitting in the back of an ambulance with a blanket around my shoulders and a cup of hot chocolate in my hands. I kept on apologizing to everyone but they were all too kind. They suggested I head back home and rest but I had work to do so I kept on going. Maybe that says something about me.

When I got home that evening, my wife asked if I wanted to talk about what happened. I told her not to worry about it. I made some half-hearted attempt at a joke which got a sympathetic laugh from her. She suggested that maybe I was overworked and stressed and she said that it’s a good thing Christmas was just a week away. Christmas rung a bell. Maybe the bell was always ringing but I piled on so much other noise on it that I stopped hearing it. That night I sat down with a pen and paper, slowly shovelling away at the flakes of clutter which I had knowingly or unknowingly gathered in order to repress a moment, a memory, an incident which happened on Christmas day when I was eight years old, back when I still lived in India.

Mama tell him to give them back, I said as I tried to get the bus tickets from my brother. The three of us were sitting on a bench waiting for the bus to come. I was wearing a grey Nike jumper which my brother once wore. My brother had on a navy jacket which he got for his birthday a month before. Christmas time in India was much different than most countries. The sun was blinding and yet there was a coolness in the air that required most people to layer up. Under the layered clothing the warmth caused me to sweat but my mother told I couldn’t take my sweatshirt off.

Mama, mama, mama, my brother mocked me.

I pulled at the tickets again and he dug his boot into my shin which made me cry out for my mother again.

Stop it you two, she said with quiet anger as the other passengers stood around us. She took the tickets from my brother.

But you said I can hold them, I said.

She ignored me. My brother smiled because I didn’t get what I wanted. He got up and I followed him with my eyes, keeping a track of where he went but all he did was go a few feet from us to kick a rock towards the edge of the road.

A patch of dirt separated us from the road. We sat on the bus bench alongside an old grandmother who covered her head and ears with a shawl and I thought it wasn’t that cold. Cars, bicycles, rickshaws, trucks and buses passed by in a continuous loop. The smell of manure was heavy and a few people had their noses covered with their shawls or handkerchiefs. To the left of us were a couple cows lounging under the trees, their tails whipping away the flies that hovered around them.

How long will it be again? I asked my mother.

Four hours, she said.

A silver Honda honked as it went around an old Fiat that slowly made it’s way up the road, hissing and moaning as a wisp of smoke snaked from the hood of the car. The Honda squeezed back into it’s own lane just in time before the oncoming traffic barrelled by, its honking lingered in the air along with the manure smell which stayed once the hoking left. The normalized danger went unnoticed by everyone but me. That morning, when we went to pick up the tickets, I caught a glimpse of a news story on the TV in the back of the ticket office. It was showing a car accident where a Suzuki had been flattened completely. My brother came and sat down beside me.

I leaned closer to him and asked, are you nervous?

He didn’t reply.

I poked him to get his attention and he swung his arm, striking my hand away.

Mother told us to stop again.

The bus came with a sticker of a Pepsi advert on its side. An actor, Salman Khan, was drinking the Pepsi or had just finished drinking it. He flashed a smile at everyone and good thing it wasn’t a colgate advert because his teeth were painted with specks of dirt.

Mama you said I could give them the ticket.

Mother sighed and handed them to me. I immediately showed my brother that I got them and he tried to punch me in the shoulder but I moved quickly to the other side of my mother.

The bus doors opened in a mechanical fashion as if it were just going through the motions and it made a yawing sound, tired of working. The conductor wore a grey jumper and a fuzzy maroon toque which made my brother and I laugh. His brow glistened with grease and sweat. The other people quickly formed a line and the three of us fell into place. I stayed close to mother, sheltered by her hip. My brother led the three of us and I felt as if I should be like that too. I edged my way by my brothers’ side.

You think it’ll be fun, I asked him.

I don’t know.

Mama said they play a movie now. What movie do you think it’ll be?

Probably some boring one.

You think so?

He didn’t reply. He was older than me by three years and this was his first time too. I wanted to ask him if he was nervous again but I didn’t. He was like me but he was older so I followed him.

We stopped in front of the conductor. I handed him the tickets. He looked at the for a quick second and then nodded, giving the tickets back and motioning us through.

We followed my brother in.

Go to the back, mother said.

All the seats were painted blue and you could see the white plastic underneath the peeling paint on most of the chairs. There was a red and black cushion placed atop the seats and particles of dust shot in the air when you sat down on it. The bus smelled like the deep part of the attic where you keep all your old photo albums and luggage that you don’t use. That area which is best of hiding when you play hide and seek.

My brother picked out the seats and began to scoot inside, going to the window seat.

I quickly turned to mother, you said I could have the window seat, I said.

Does it matter, she asked.

You said I could have it.

Let your brother have the window seat, she said in a tired voice.

My brother looked to protest but before he could mother raised her hand and I knew I had won. He threw himself onto the middle seat.

As I walked by him he stuck out his leg and tried to trip me but I knew that was coming and I stepped over it. I smiled at him, letting him know I won. When I sat down he leaned over and pinched me under my arm where mother couldn’t see. I cried out to her but she ignored the two of us.

I looked out of the window, rubbing my arm. It was like a school bus, I told myself. I had been in plenty of those. Every morning at eight I waited for the bus outside my house along with my brother. I rode the same bus back in the afternoon. So twice a day…for…I tried to count how many times I had ridden the bus in the past three years but I ended up settling on a lot. The door closed and the bus started, jerking us all back. The windows opened slightly at the top to allow the air to circulate. Mother was right. There was a television at the top corner of the bus, straight ahead. It played a bootleg movie that was still in theatres. You could see the silhouettes of the heads of the people in the movie theatre watching the movie and occasional a shadow stood up and sat down. My brother was right too. It was boring.

How much longer, I asked my mother.

Almost halfway done.

So two more hours?

More or less.

My brother was asleep. His head tilted back, his mouth slightly open, arms crossed over his chest. I tried not to laugh. Apart from the occasional fit of cough from one of the older passengers, there had been the usual sound of the movie playing and people snoring. I played my game most of the ride. Trees lined both sides of the road and their shadow fell on the road. The objective was to not let the shadow hit the bus. Whenever the bus approached the shadow I would unclench my teeth, separating the bottom row from the top and imagined the bus jumping over the shadow and when it cleared it I would clench my teeth again which meant that the bus came back down on the road. Then, once more I waited for the next opportunity to jump and land. I always played this game on the school bus. I was concentrating on the road, my teeth clenched, when a truck rushed past us, I caught a glimpse of the driver smoking a cigarette as the red and white stripes on the side of the truck almost grazed the bus. I stopped playing that game.

The bus slowed down. I asked mother what was happening. She told me not to worry. The bus came to a stop at the side of the road.

Mother asked If I needed to use the bathroom and I shook my head. I did need to go but for some reason I felt as if I left the bus it might leave me and I would be left alone on the side of the road. I stood up and leaned over my brother to see where everyone was going. There was a restaurant on the other side of the road.

My brother woke up and he elbowed me in the chest and told me to get off of him. I sat down rubbing my chest. He saw that mother was not here.

I told him not to worry, mama will be back soon. She just went outside.

He stood up to leave as well.

I called his name and told him to sit down. Mama said to stay here and don’t go anywhere.

Mama said—

He left.

I sat alone gripping the metal railing in front of me, trying to look outside the window to see where my brother was going, I wanted to go after him but mama said to stay put and I wanted to go find mama and let her know that he left and that we should find him because what if the bus left without him but I told myself It wouldn’t, it wouldn’t leave, I repeated it over and over but the other thought stayed firm, It might leave, It might leave now, without him and without her, It could, some of the people had returned and took their seats and I was still alone with the fear growing in my heart I felt it itching in my throat as the conductor came back and I wanted to go up and tell him not to leave but I couldn’t move because mama said not to, he was talking to the bus driver and as the noise grew in the bus, the more noticeable the lack of sound of my brother and mother became and the more alone I felt, I saw the conductor looking, counting the people, I tried to draw attention to the two empty seats beside me and I wanted to ask him where the bathroom was, the feeling reaching deep inside of me and the thought of it made my ears burn and I wished the windows would open some more as I felt my body shaking but didn’t know if that was from inside myself or from the motor of the bus, which had just started up again, and my feet wrestled to be in top position as I felt the need to cry.

An older man came up the steps and the conductor helped him. Behind him was my mother and I stopped shaking. Behind her was my brother, drinking from a juice box, holding a bag of chips in his other hand and I let go of the railing and sat back. I looked out of the window as if I had been doing so the entire time.

Mother came and sat in the middle seat. She opened her purse and took out a juice box for me and she was smiling. She always brought the same lemonade flavour. I could smell the fruity lotion on her hands as I took the juice from her. I took it without giving away what had just been in my head. She also placed a bag of chips on my lap and then leaned back in her chair, watching the movie as the bus got back on the road.

I tried not to think about the thoughts I just had but they kept creeping back into my mind like thoughts always did, especially the bad kind, the kind which kept imagining what will happen at night if the closet door was left open. I wanted to stop thinking and thinking about that made my ears burn again. I was older now. I should be more like my brother. He watched the television screen, gently rocking back and forth with the rhythm of the moving vehicle. I had finished my food and washed it down with the juice box. I placed my head against the cool window and watched my breath fog the glass. The sirens grew louder at once and an ambulance went past us and the sirens died away.

When I woke up it took me a moment to realize the silence that lay inside the bus. It was almost crushing if anyone spoke it would bring it crashing down upon us and I knew this instinctually for when I awoke I grabbed my mother’s arm and asked her with my eyes what happened and she slowly shook her head.

We were no longer moving. My brother was gripping the metal railing in front of him with one hand. Outside the only thing that was still unconcerned were the leaves of the trees. They kept going with the gentle wind. The uneasiness inside the bus made me want to move around. I felt the same whenever I took a test at school. The quietness of classrooms always made me more nervous as if everyone could hear or sense the little boy in me. I wasn’t a little boy anymore, I reminded myself.

I heard then the squeaking of metal chain. In the quietness, it spoke loudly. An old man, with a checkered shawl wrapped around his shoulder and head, rode his bicycle down the side of the road. He was hovering slightly above his seat and he was not looking ahead of him but rather at the inch of concrete directly in front of the rubber tires. I still remember those unblinking eyes. He disappeared.

The bus door opened. A family of three walked up the steps and the conductor did not bother checking their tickets. The family stood still for a second at the front of the bus, like new school children waiting to be told where to sit by the teacher. The father’s face resembled the colour of his white shirt which was neatly tucked into his trousers except for this one part at his right hip which was coming out as if he had been leaning to the other side for too long. The mother was holding the daughter’s hand and she was looking straight ahead but not looking. My mother put an arm around my shoulders. The daughter’s open jacket showed a pretty blue dress, the kind you wore in school plays. Her hair was done in the style of a ponytail which was held together was a butterfly pin. The mother clutched the daughter tightly. Both her hands were gripping the daughter’s shoulders as if she let go, the little girl will float away like some balloon at a fair. I noticed then the tears from the mothers’ eyes. Even they fell in silence. The father put his hand on his wives back and motioned her to go to the backseat. The three of them were in unison as they walked down the aisle, heads turned to watch them from the back. When they passed us my brother stared at the ground and so did I. My mother kept her arm around me. There was something haunting about them. It was as if we feared to look at them because whatever haunted them could haunt us too.

People made room for them in the back. Giving them plenty of space as if they were also aware of the haunting thing that accompanied them. The mother sat in the corner and then the daughter and the father beside her. The father leaned in towards his daughter and wife and kept a tight hold onto them. I could see the part of his shirt that was wrinkled.

The bus jolted in motion. The television started once more but the conductor turned the sound down. People’s heads turned towards the windows as we went past the scene. The back end of the bus came in view and soon after, too soon, the front. The bus had been compressed as if it’s inside had been taken apart, accordion like it stood, with its shattered glass sparkling on the ground, it looked so pretty, the sun glinting off the glass, fallen stars, hints of the setting sun painted upon certain glass pieces which had been stained with blood. Where the front of the bus ended, the front of the truck started and my mother made me look away.

I looked back and I saw them too. The white cloths covering something on the side of the road. So many white cloths covering the same thing. The image of the flashing lights from the ambulances engrained in the darkness of my eyelids when I closed my eyes.

Even now I can see those lights. I see the cloth peacefully fluttering with the wind and above them, the leaves of the trees still moved, unconcerned and above it, all the sun was so wonderful. That family was together but with the addition of something else, something new they had to carry with them but they couldn’t carry it alone so everyone who was there that moment had to take a small piece of it, to lessen the burden which would always be the heaviest on those three. Knowingly or unknowingly I had participated in some kind of human obligation and after all these years that thing that had haunted them showed itself. A part of me was exchanged for a part of that burden. That part lies under those covers. The part that wished to be sheltered by my mother’s hip. Know I know what that old man’s look meant. He was trying to erase what he had seen, to forget what was imprinted on his mind but it doesn’t work like that. We can’t pick or chose what affects us, what shapes us, what leaves a mark on us. We don’t have the will to decide. I wonder what kind of ripple I have started in the life of the man whose truck I hit or the paramedics who came after or all those cars that drove by and turned to look at my ashen state inside my own car.

Short Story: Older Than Older Brother

When the train came to a halt he stayed seated and a part of him wished to keep going west. Another part wished he wore something other than his uniform. He could see his mother and father waiting for him on the platform. Mother was so old now. She studied the faces that were getting out of the carts, her light brown eyes the same as her dress, seemed to sparkle as they filled with a thin film of sadness. She must be wondering if her other son was gone for good too. She turned to his father and asked him something, he shook his head. She stood on her toes, trying to look into the train windows.

The frequent assault for her worrisome thoughts had etched itself in the folds of her face which resembled the trenches where he had spent his innocence. The grey in her hair seemed to have come in an instant, like a snowstorm in April, the beauty and youth of the budding flowers covered in a pile of harsh winter just as that, her beauty had waned under the weight of her unpleasant contemplation. Perhaps he could alleviate her troubles a little bit by his presence but never entirely.

When she saw him, her face broke into a smile and those fearful tears now fell down the ripples of her cheek with content. She tugged at his father’s sleeve and pointed at him her finger shaking. She still knew him. His mother could still see him.

“Oh, Henry!” She cried. She wet his cheek with her kiss and further marked it with her tears.

His father’s handshake was firm but not as it used to be.

“Good to see you again,” his father said. His eyes lingered on the side of his face for a few seconds before he cleared his throat and looked away. Henry’s face was scarred from a shrapnel blast. The metal had tore pieces of flesh from his cheekbone and up into the side of his head, even the tip of his ear was gone. It was as if a wild cat had swiped across his face. The doctors had said that the blast had damaged parts of his nerves. They said he might never feel that side of his face and so far they were right. However, he could always feel the stares.

His mother was glued to his side as if he was still a little boy. She was afraid that if she let him go he will get lost or maybe it was the other way now, maybe she held on to him because she knew the feeling of being alone. She walked with a slump as if the little cross that hung around her neck weighed her down. She glanced at his face a few times thinking he did not notice.

“When did you start wearing that?” He asked her.

Her hand automatically clenched the cross and she tucked it under her dress.

“Our prayers have been answered,” she said, “Oh, my handsome boy,” she rubbed his hand, “Handsome boy.”

His father’s presence was what it used to be but his body was no longer that. He was thin and tired just like everyone Henry knew. He reminded him of an old sergeant because he was respected for what he used to be able to do and not because of what he can do now. He walked slightly ahead of them in a plain white collared shirt which hung loosely around his shoulders. His brown leather boots, polished right before he left home, clicked on the train platform which had a few crimson leaves scattered on it.

Both of them didn’t comment on his appearance except for his mothers “handsome” talk which he knew to be the symptom of coping. Henry thought this might look like a lovely family reunion but they all knew there was a piece missing. You could hear it in their steps. There was supposed be another beat in the rhythm. It was like the orchestra played its tune without the violin.

Something beeped on his father’s belt and he looked at it.

“He just got that thing,” his mother said, “Apparently it’s the new thing to have. Did you see anything like that in Europe?”

“Sure ma.”

“Its always beeping,” she laughed, “It’s bad enough with all the people coming and going in the house but now they even come and go when we aren’t there.” She lowered her voice, “Don’t tell him but I know he feels like a big shot ever since he got that thing.” She laughed again.

Her hands cradled his wrist. Her touch was comforting, it had a calming nature to it, the kind only a mother possesses but at the same time, there was a foreign feeling too. It was as if she wasn’t his mother, wholly. That he didn’t belong to her completely since a part of him never came back and that part could have been the one that was the closest to her. She smiled every time he locked eyes with him.

They lived in a small town in Illinois so small that even the railroad had forgotten to come there. It didn’t matter much anymore, not as much as it did when he was younger when only the Robertsons had a car and he would fight with his brother about who gets to sit in the front seat. His father briefly explained why he bought the Ford as they left the station behind. He told him about the Fords reliability and its efficient gas mileage. He sounded like a car salesman himself.

“The car manual is in the glovebox if you want to look through it,” his father said.

The metal chain from the dog tag rattled when he opened the glove box. It snaked further into the dark corner. His father didn’t hear it and neither did his mother. He closed the glove box as his father turned up the radio.

He flipped through the ford manual as his mother talked for talking sake talking about all the things he had missed while he was away. All two and a half years worth. He listened and didn’t talk much. His father didn’t talk much either but he did look at him every now and then as if to make sure he was still there.

“They’re renovating the school down the road. It’s going to look really nice. Maybe we can finally get a station there too. Wouldn’t that be nice? We wouldn’t have to make this drive if we had one there but then again it’s not like you will be leaving any time soon right?”

“No.” He said pulling the seatbelt to relieve the tension in his chest, “Won’t be going anywhere soon.”

The strange thing about memory is that it sort of has a mind of its own. Whenever he thought about his home all he could recall was the squeaky third step that lead up to the patio or the way the screen door let out a long, agonizing groan as it slowly closed or the faded gold colour of the doorknob, the silver of the metal underneath showing itself from the repeated twists and turns which had scrubbed the gold off. All of which was no longer there.

The step was fixed, the door hinges were oiled, the gold knob was freshly painted and a new set of wind chimes hung at one end of the patio which sang peacefully with the wind and it reminded him of shell cases dropping. On the other side of the patio were two rocking chairs, in between was a wooden table with a chessboard on it.

“We’ll play some chess later,” father said, “Remember how much you loved it.”

“Haven’t played it in a while,” he said.

They made no comment on the changes. For them, nothing had changed, it had just evolved. Naturally flowing from the past to the present. For him, the evolution had skipped a step, disregarded the past and jumped into the future.

“Come on you two,” his mother called.

He coughed walking inside and his mother asked him if he was okay. Her hand jumped to his forehead and started feeling his temperature and he gently pushed it away.

“Debra I said not to leave these candles burning.”

“Oh, I thought Henry would like it. Do you like it?”

“Sure.”

Mothers candles had impregnated the wooden walls and the couches and floorboards. The new aroma couldn’t be escaped and he knew it would be on him too. It reminded him of the smoke which used to rise all around him, mixing in with the rising moans of people he loved, that smoke which kept on climbing, heaven-bound like the silence of people he loved, knocking at heaven’s door, asking if the rain was ready, that moment before the rain fell upon them, cleansing the blood and dirt away, revealing the shame and guilt. All of that flooded into his mind and he wondered if he had really left that place.

His father’s touch snapped him out of it as she gestured towards the football that was on the sofa.

“We can throw the pigskin around later,” father said.

“Like old times,” he said.

His father echoed his reply with masked sadness.

He looked around at the pictures. His own face looking back at him in most of the frames. He could tell from the shadowy imprint on the walls that certain pictures were moved. The ones with the familiar face of his brother, Jake. The mantlepiece above the fireplace revealed the lingering effects of a box that had been removed because there was a square four-inch spot which had less dust than its surroundings. Medal of courage, the same one he got for his service.

Mother saw him looking and she said, “Henry it’s so good to have you back.” She grabbed his wrist and pulled him away.

He remembered something. Something that he had been looking forward to for a long time now.

“Wheres Charlie?” He asked.

“Poor Charlie,” mother said.

“He was a good dog,” his father said.

That’s all they said and he didn’t want to know how because he knew enough.

“Why don’t you go freshen up. Take a nap. Your mother will get the dinner ready,” father said.

He carried his luggage upstairs careful not to hit the walls his father hated that. He passed by the closed door that would remain closed and went into his old room. A cross hung above the bed, above where his head would be. That was new.

He put the bag at the foot of the door. The bed was neatly made his mothers touch evident in the folds. He sat at the edge of it disturbing it as little as possible. Before coming here he had stayed in a few hotels overnight. The strange rooms with strange beds and strange walls felt more familiar than his own room.

He straightened out the blemishes he had made on the mattress and it looked as if he had never been there. He sat down on the wooden chair by his study table. He leaned back into it and folded his arms across his chest and stared at the cross above his bed. He watched it as he tried to put together what his life used to be here but he couldn’t find all the pieces anymore and perhaps that was a symptom of dying. He looked down at his belly but there was no wound there. He wondered why he only remembered the things he wished to forget.

He accepted the glass of whiskey from his father. This was the first time his father had seen him drink. Steam rose from the bowl of mash potatoes which his mother placed on the table. Beside it was a plate of mini sandwiches with the crust cut off, just the way you like it, she had said. There was salad, garlic bread, tomato sauce pasta with big slices of mushrooms in it, you love mushrooms don’t you, his mother said. She had even cooked steak for them to enjoy.

The dining table was the same as before but it was covered by a new cotton cloth which had flower pattern embroidered on it. The window was slightly open to allow the evening air to come in. The curtains fluttered against the grandfather clock in the corner of the room. It’s ticking was the background to every noise. To match the ancientness of the clock, there was a glass cabinet parallel to it on the other side of the dining room. Inside which were old plates and glasses which were only taken out on special occasion such as this one. Above the cabinet was a family portrait. The portrait was positioned in such a way that the curvature of the dresser blocked the figure standing by the hip of his father.

He finished his whiskey. “Want some more?” His father asked.

“Love some.”

Father handed him the bottle from across the table and he topped his own glass to the brim. His father watched him carefully.

“Everything okay?” He asked.

He took a sip from his whiskey. He put on a smile and said, “Yeah, everything is great.”

Mother came in carry a small plate of strawberry cheesecake and set it right in front of him.

“Let’s pray before we eat,” she said.

They all held hands and his mother whispered and thanked the good Lord for bringing him back home, thanked him for the blessings and thanked him for the food. After they said amen, she kissed his cheek.

“Handsome boy,” she said. Her fingers crept up the side of his face and the tips brushed over the scarred ridges and he grabbed her wrist and moved her hand.

His father scooped some mash potatoes, a little bit of pasta along with some salad. He stabbed a piece of steak and moved it onto his plate. The knife sliced through the flesh and the blood spilled out.

Henry wasn’t hungry but ate nonetheless. His mother watched him eat and took satisfaction as if every bite he ate filled her up. His knife gently piercing the tough skin of the meat and the blood drizzled out onto the plate and tried not to look and his knife scratched the bottom of the plate.

His attention kept on falling on the empty chair beside his father. It used to be filled with laughter. The whole room, the whole house, his whole world used to be filled with the distinct high pitched laugh which belonged to his brother. With it missing, it was like writing a sentence without a noun. The subjectless writing which was noticeable by even the comprehension of a toddler. But for some reason, his mother and father acted as if they didn’t see the glaring mistake. 

“What took you so long to come back? Summers boy came back two months ago.” His father said.

Henry took a sip of his whiskey.

“Just random difficulties getting back, you know, there were so many of us.”

“I can only imagine,” his mother said.

“Do you sleep well enough at night?” Father asked.

“Sure.”

“Cause if your not you know I can help you,” his father could always tell when he was lying or at least when he masked the truth.

“Sure, thanks.”

“Summer brought her boy to see me the other week. He had been having a nightmare—”

“Is it necessary to talk about things like that at the dinner table?” His mother interrupted.

His father observed him some more and then went back to his steak.

“We should all go on a vacation someday,” mother said. “Did you ever get to see Paris?”

Henry shook his head. “‘Fraid not.”

“Oh, what a shame, it’s so beautiful, your father and I went there for our honeymoon, didn’t we?”

“Beautiful,” his father said with a mouthful of potatoes which he pushed to the side, bloating his cheek momentarily.

“We went by it,” Henry said, “I think I heard someone say that the smoke was coming from Paris but I’m not sure. I guess I shouldn’t say we went by it.”

He felt his fathers eyes on him so he took another sip of his whiskey.

Mother suppressed a laugh.

“What’s so funny?” Henry asked.

She looked at his father and said, “Remember when you beat up those two boys in Paris?”

“Debra, please.” He replied with an embarrassed flick of his wrist, “No need to bring that up.”

“What’s this?” Henry inquired, “I never heard this one.” He was smiling.

“It’s nothing,” father said.

“Your father really laid it into these two guys who kept bothering us.”

Henry had to laugh at that.

“I can’t imagine you even throwing a punch,” he said.

“Oh, your father was a real hothead back in the day.”

“You’re lying?”

“No I wasn’t,” father concentrated on slicing a piece of his stake.

“Anyone looks at me for more than two seconds and he’d be eyeing them down,” mother leaned closer to Henry and said softly, “He’s the jealous type.”

Whatever father said went unheard as Henry and his mother laughed. His mother’s laugh above all as if she was making up for lost time. His father had a hint of a smile on the edge of his mouth.

“Still can’t imagine you fighting anyone,” Henry said.

“How do you think my boys got the fighting spirit,” he said with pride but that erased the joy from his mother’s face and like a wave, that sadness washed over his father as well. His father cleared his throat and took a sip of his whiskey.

“Henry!” Mother covered her mouth.

“Your face,” father said standing up from his chair.

Henry’s hand quickly went to his face and he felt the beating, pulsing, vibrations which spread up and down his cheekbone and the side of his head like the after effects of shell bombardment which makes every nerve and tendon in the body twitch with fright long after the silence had settled.

“It…it’s nothing, it, sometimes, it just happens,” his hand was shaking as well as he reached for a napkin to cover his face so that they didn’t have to see him like this. As he leaned across the table his elbow struck the glass of whiskey which dropped over, staining the pure white cloth with its insides and the glass rolled to it’s side and fell down the table, splitting into multiple pieces on the floor. Mother was standing and father had come around the table and was saying it’s all right, don’t worry about, he patted him on the back. Henry covered his face with the napkin, continuing to apologize over and over.

Mother hadn’t said a word. Tears welled in the corner of her eyes.

Henry was in the washroom, staring at himself in the mirror. He had splashed his face with tap water which now streamed down his face like rain on a car window. There was a knock at the door.

“Yes?” He said.

“Everything okay?” It was his father.

“Everything’s fine.”

“Did you take the pills I gave you?”

He stared at them in his hand.

“Yes.”

“Okay.”

“I’m sorry pops,” he said.

“Don’t worry about.”

“Tell ma I’m sorry too.”

“She fine. Everything’s fine. Don’t worry about it.”

His father left after he said goodnight.

Henry went back to staring at his own reflection. Even as he touched it, he didn’t feel the pressure of his fingers. However, at night, when he was alone with his thoughts and memory he could feel it going all over the place like that part of him didn’t want to be connected with him anymore. As if it wanted to leave him.

Maybe it was all a dream and he would be called back and the Germans weren’t really gone and they needed him back again and he didn’t know he could do it again, he didn’t know if he could stay whole again but he wasn’t whole and he hadn’t been whole ever since Jack left. Maybe Jake will be the one to tell him. No it can’t be Jake. Jack was still alive. Jack was alive because he thought about him. He hadn’t thought about Jack for a little while and that killed him. He thought about Jack now and that meant he was alive. As long as he kept thinking about him Jack will stay older. If he stopped then he will become older than his brother.

Was he really here? He realized how much life had bled out of him. It must have gone out of him slowly, drop by drop, perhaps at night when he was asleep so that he didn’t notice the life leaving him as he dreamt those dreams that belonged to someone else.

There was another knock at his door.

“Henry are you okay?” It was his mother.

He couldn’t tell if the wetness on his face was from the water or his tears.

“Yeah, ma. I’m fine.” He said.


 

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