Short-Story: Staccato

Ryan McCafee hadn’t spoken to his father in over twenty years. He’d seen him. He’d even exchanged words with him. He hadn’t spoken to him. They’d interacted millions of times, even come close, but to “no cigar.” It wasn’t for lack of wanting. It just never happened. If they’d been insightful, or traffic control tower workers, their perpetual status would be “failure to commit.”

Ryan knew his father’s health was failing him. He remembered the first phone call. Mom had called. He’d spoken to her. They’d spoken often, in fact. Usually, she was speaking. Ryan wasn’t immune though, his mother was simply a gusher. The type to call eight or nine times for trivial things. Then, on the ninth or tenth, she’d suddenly burst with joy, sorrow, anger– whatever she’d been bottling. Ryan always listened, waiting patiently. This was, after all, the person that had taught him to walk, tie his shoes, dance with girls– the sort of thing every good mother does.

For a while, Ryan thought that the source of it: maybe their inability to say anything meaningful was from lack of some paternal role. But, no. The more Ryan thought, the more he’d recalled his father teaching him to swim, to ride a bicycle, to get dates and tie a tie for them. He did everything in his factual, punctual way, but he did them. His instructions were short. His tone staccato notes. Others might have thought him cold. Ryan knew it was just his way. He’d watched Dad explain things to Mom, or anyone else for that matter, the same way.

If he thought hard enough, Ryan could almost see where the shift began. When the proverbial chasm opened. It was around his seventeenth birthday. He’d been caught drinking and getting high. Nothing unusual for the time nor place. His hometown was what some might’ve called “one-horse.” Most just called it boring, Ryan included.At that age, his friends agreed. A few got daring, and grew grass or smuggled it in from other towns. Everyone got a piece, and ended up lying around giggling and fat from junk-food.

They’d been doing just that in a friend’s basement when the party was raided by the friend’s parents. They took Ryan and the others out, lined ‘em up by the phone, and made them each call their parents. Most importantly, they were made to say why. The first kid that didn’t had the phone torn away and the situation explained. The phone returned to his ear and his face went white. The kid whose parents had done it didn’t even need to punish him further. The death-marches of his friends to the phones and their parents’ cars was more than enough.

Ryan’s parents weren’t particularly disposed to discipline, but even he’d feared the eventual return home. Rather than treat him like a wild-west outlaw, they sat him down to “discuss things.” It was like the sex-talk, but longer, and somehow ended with him feeling more ashamed. His parents had been disappointed, but that was it.

Still, if Ryan thought hard enough, the “silence” had begun there. Not totally. There was no hard-edge. No “boundary.” These lines were the real kind. Not the imagined ones on maps. The truth was, it started there, but the separation was a process. It left Ryan feeling as if he couldn’t honestly say he’d miss his Father once he was gone. He knew he would, but admitting it didn’t feel honest. There simply wasn’t anything more between the two than if they’d been strangers at a party.

Now, at thirty-eight, he lie in bed staring at the ceiling. He’d gotten another call: Dad was going. They weren’t sure how long exactly, but it wasn’t long. He was still active, still moving, but that was the “silent killer’s” MO– your death certificate was signed before you knew it was on the table. Then, a few days, weeks, or months later, tired from the fight, you were gone.

Ryan left the one-horse town over a decade before the call for the city. There was a liveliness to city-life he liked, no matter how exhausting it got. Mostly, the world was there. The jobs were there. Mom and Dad weren’t, but that was it. He’d gotten Mom’s ninth call around midnight: she was sorry to wake him, but on-cue, gushed. Ryan said he didn’t mind, wasn’t sleeping, and listened to the sopping utterances.

He’d done his best to comfort her. He’d never been good at it. She wasn’t much in need of it anyhow. She’d always been the strongest of them– the warm, goose-down during the family’s sorrowful colds. Ryan did his best out of obligation, knowing it would never be enough. She was grateful anyway. They ended the call with the promise that Ryan would sleep then drive to One-Horse in the morning.

He hadn’t lied. He meant to sleep, but just sort of laid there. He must’ve fallen asleep at some point though as he found himself sitting in a strange, white room. It looked like an airport terminal, a train station, or a harbor, but didn’t at the same time. As if it were nowhere, everywhere, and those places and more all at once.

Ryan had just enough time to get his bearings in the uniform ubiquity before the odd shape of a person materialized beside him. It shimmered, fluttered into form. Even before it was whole, Ryan knew it was Dad. Once finally corporeal, Ryan gave his father a deranged look. He knew he was dreaming. Yet he was too conscious of it. It was like the room: the more he tried to convince himself of one thing, the more it felt like the other.

“Dad?”

“Hello, son.”

This can’t be real, Ryan thought.

“It is,” Dad said.

“Huh?”

“This,” he said with his factual way. His arms widened to encompass the place. “It’s real. As real as anything.”

Ryan craned his neck to eye every nook and cranny of the ethereal landscape. Dad’s tone put him at ease. Like everything else, this was his way of saying, “It is what it is. Whatever it is.”

“Okay,” Ryan replied aloud. “So, why’re we here?”

Dad eyed him, “I’m here to shuffle off. I ‘magine you’re here to see me off.”

The uncertainty gave Ryan pause. That pause lasted an eternity and a breath. However long it really was, he couldn’t say. All those emotions he thought they’d missed appeared full-force. Atop them were all the others he’d expected to have but hadn’t. He sucked in a pained breath that shattered the misty silence of that ethereal place.

Dad’s hand laid atop his shoulder. Suddenly, everything was muted. He found himself back where he’d been: Calm. Punctual. Like Dad. He exhaled a severely longer, deeper breath.

“One of us should speak.”

Ryan cleared his throat, “We haven’t spoken in twenty years, Dad.”

Dad nodded. “You’re right. But this’ll be our last chance. Might as well. Right?”

“Why was it that way?” Ryan asked for two reasons: One, it was a sensible reply. Two, if there was anything he felt could be worth speaking about, it was their lack of speaking.

Dad shook his head, “I taught you everything you needed to know, son. What I missed, your mother filled in. When I felt you were ready, I stepped back. Not because I didn’t love you, but because I did. I let you take command of your own life. I had confidence. I was ready to step in, if need be. But you’ve been immutable. When I thought you might falter, I waited. It took everything in me. But I waited. You stood tall. Every time.”

Ryan felt he knew the answer, but asked anyway, “Why? I spent years struggling. You couldn’t even say “congratulations” when I pulled through.”

For the first time in his life, Ryan’s father visibly winced. “It was a difficult decision. You might have resented me for it. We both know you don’t. If you did, I’d have been forced to step in. I knew, if you looked hard enough within you, you’d know I was proud. Now, you know I did it to help you be strong.”

Ryan felt like a broken record. “But why?

Dad shook his head. He rose beside his son. Ryan found himself following suit. Suddenly the pair were walking along a long hallway. They stopped at a boarding hallway. Or atop the start of a train platform. Or the edge of a pier. Maybe it was all of them and more– or none, and less.

Dad hugged him, then stepped back. “A man’s life is his own. I love you, Ryan. I’d tell you to take care of your mother, but we know she won’t need it. She’s strong. You are too.”

With that, Dad began the walk to the end of the path ahead. As he’d materialized, so too did he flicker and flutter again to disintegrate.

A sudden growling from Ryan’s beside table tore him from the place. His phone was ringing again. He eyed the clock; he’d slept only a few hours. Darkness still pervaded outside. All the same, he knew. Even before he saw Mom’s photo. Or heard her sopping words. Or felt reality’s sting. He knew, but he was at peace. Dad was too.

Whether a dream or real, he understood. In the end, he decided, that was all that mattered. Like father, like son. Short. Staccato. Truth. Facts. Love.

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Short Story: Space Rock

An orange dart streaked across the sky, brighter than even the moon. It made fireflies of the stars, lit up the treetops as it curved toward Earth. Somewhere in the Northern area of Indiana, it struck the ground with all the force of its cosmic ejection. In a shower of dirt and demolished foliage, it came to a rest in a nondescript forest with the world largely unaware of its presence.

Two figures emerged from the trees to the glow of red-hot rock in a small crater. The first figure was taller than the second, but neither beyond the height of childhood. Eric Williams and his younger sister Linney crept nearer, felt the meteorite’s heat even from the distance. They were still clad in airy, thin pajamas, both intermittently glancing back to ensure their distant, tiny tent remained where they’d marked it in their minds.

They ambled, step-by-step, toward the meteorite, until its heat was too intense to go any nearer. Linney made to step forward again, but Eric’s hand was firm on her wrist. Instead, she stood transfixed, staring.

There wasn’t anything inherently interesting about the meteorite, save its pulsing glow. The longer Eric stared, the more shapes swirled in the glow; tiny little ovals or cylinders squirming and writhing, as equally agitated by the heat as fueled by it.

It was just his imagination, he knew, but it disturbed him. He tugged at Linney’s arm, “C’mon. We’ll come back in the morning.”

Linney was enthralled. She didn’t hear him. He tugged harder, began walking backward, pulling. Her eyes finally swiveled with her body to follow him. Every few steps he’d have to tug her again as she lagged, neck craned over a shoulder to watch the glow fade. They returned to their tent, nestled themselves into their sleeping bags.

Eric laid awake, thinking on the strange shapes he’d seen. He feared sleep; Linney might fake it, sneak out and back to the crater. It wouldn’t have been the first time. These camp-outs were common, and given the family’s massive property, Eric though it a shame to waste the opportunity. Linney though, liked to think that eight years old meant smarter and stronger than anything in the world. She was smarter than Eric, he knew for sure, but she couldn’t be allowed to think that. He forced himself to stay awake until his eyes fluttered, and he succumbed to sleep beside her.

In dreams he found himself standing in a fluid that glowed red-hot like the meteorite. All around him thrummed and thronged creatures he couldn’t distinguish. He felt their presence beside him. They writhed and squirmed, hummed and rippled, as the glow nearly blinded him.

He opened his eyes to sunlight peeking in through an overhead, mesh-window. It splayed over his face, as blinding as the glow in his dream. He scooted backward to lean upright, rubbed sleep from his eyes. He yawned a deep “good morning” to Linney.

There was no reply.

His head snapped toward her empty sleeping bag. He was suddenly up, sprinting. He screamed Linney’s name between heavy, terrified pants. It was futile. If Linney didn’t want to be found she wouldn’t be. Even if she did, she might still remain quiet in fear of incurring his wrath, or worse, Mom and Dad’s.

Eric bee-lined for the crater, calling to her. The nearer it came, the further his voice carried its fitful projections. He was hyperventilating when he stumbled up beside the crater, came to a skidding halt on his hands and knees. Across the now cooled, jagged form, Linney lay unconscious.

Eric scrambled over, knelt to shake her. She merely bucked and jostled, limp against his grip.

He screamed at the meteorite, “This all your fault!”

Tears streamed down his face, body wracked by terrified sobs. He knew there was something he was supposed to do, some type of thing doctors did, but he wasn’t sure what.

He reacted in the only way he could. With a massive heave of a twelve-year old strength, he lifted his little sister and sprinted for the house. Linney was dead-weight. Foliage crunched and swished under his agonizing, break-neck speed.

He burst through the kitchen’s back-door to find Mom and Dad eating breakfast, reading their respective newspapers. He shook and stammered, his parents dumbfounded. They were suddenly up, rushing Linney to the living room couch. Mom took out a few medical instruments. Explanations and pleas fell from Eric in a terrified, jumbled din that his parents barely heard. Mom and Dad seemed to agree Linney would be alright just as Eric exhausted his other emotions and collapsed in a blubbering heap.

It was around noon that Linney finally awoke. The family had been in various states of dismay around the living room. Dad paced and muttered a lot. Mom cried in silence, stroked Linney’s hair. Eric just stared, his mind paradoxically both empty and overflowing.

She awoke with a sore “umph,” and shook away sleep like a puppy. Questions raged atop silent mutterings of relief. Someone finally addressed her directly with, “What did you think you were doing, young lady?”

For a moment, she stared off, and then, with an almost whimsy replied, “I was dreaming.” It was obvious even to her young mind this wasn’t sufficient. “I… went to see the space-rock. It wasn’t hot, so I touched it. And then I… started dreaming.”

The family mocked disbelief, but were too relieved to interrupt.

She paused for a long time, then finally explained, “I was dreaming. But it wasn’t a normal dream. It wasn’t one of my dreams. It was someone else’s. Like a boring documentary about people and Earth, but not one I’ve ever seen on TV. It was… different. The people didn’t look like people, and the cars flew in the skies, instead of riding on roads.”

Her face made confused shapes. Mom and Dad gave one another a deranged look. Eric merely stared, breathless, hanging on her every word. She couldn’t be lying. He knew that much. Linney didn’t have a very good imagination. She’d always been more “grounded in reality” as Mom put it. That’s why she always wandered off, because curiosity “got the best of her senses.”

Tears began to well in Linney’s eyes with a sorrow beyond her meager years, “And then… a-and then there were space-ships. Screaming. Fires. It was terrible. So terrible.” She choked on her next thoughts, piercing the family’s hearts with it. “And there was someone saying something over a lot of beeps and screams and fires and the smell of dead things. Millions of voices and different languages. I couldn’t understand them. But then I heard ours.”

She choked into silence, weeping and sniffling. Eric had to know. “What did they say, Linney?”

She screwed up her face to reply to her brother, inflecting something he’d only seen a few times– a sort of sibling code that said to take her deathly serious, “I-it s-said… they’re coming.”