Hello everyone! In honor of the holiday, I thought I’d post another short story for you. This one is about a father and son watching the sunset together. Enjoy!
“Tell me about the sunset, daddy” Jack said, his feet dangling from the oversized bench. It was a request that I both loved and dreaded in equal measure.
I put one arm around Jack as we ate our ice cream. Dinner had been shrimp, gummy worms, and 15 Pringles each. Jack counted the chips out with solemn care and beamed when I said they were stacked perfectly on our plates.
Most parents would be appalled at Jack’s diet. But Jack didn’t have much time left, so I was less worried about providing him with a balanced diet and more concerned with helping him squeeze as much joy out of his few remaining months as I could.
Jack pulled out his color chart. The piece of paper was battered along all the edges, worn and wrinkled like a dollar bill left in circulation for too long. Jack had been told by Dr. Andrews that he was eventually going to lose his vision. Jack sat and sat and sat without reply. Dr. Andrews and I looked at each other, unsure if Jack was processing what that meant.
“I can still see colors in my mind though, right?” Jack had asked. Dr. Andrews hesitated. “I suppose so, Jack.”
Jack nodded as if he had been expecting the doctor to agree with him. “Then I’m just going to memorize all of the colors.” As if that settled it.
When we got home from the doctor, and after a lunch consisting of turkey salad and ice-cream sandwiches, Jack had me go online and find 200 colors with funny names. I’d watched as over the next month he memorized where each color was on the paper, and its corresponding name.
Jack sat side by side with me for the month he had vision, patiently coaching me on the correct colors as we watched each sunset. “No dad, that’s not Haitian Flower, it’s Tropical Hibiscus.” The truth was, I wasn’t any good at picking out colors. But Jack didn’t care – he was good enough for the both of us.
Even after 3 months, it was still amazing to watch him pull out the paper and without hesitation find each color as I called them out. I pulled out a sheet of my own so I could describe what I was looking at.
“Today the sunset is looking pretty dramatic. I think it’s putting on a show for you, Jack.” Jack gripped the paper tight and smiled. “It’s a bright, angry sunset today, as if the sun is cranky and doesn’t want to go to bed. Sounds like someone I know.” I nudged Jack, letting him know it was just a joke.
Jack laughed. “So I bet there’s lots of Fire Cracker and Flirt Alert, huh?” I watched as Jack touched the little colored squares as he spoke, so ingrained was the habit he touched them instinctively as he said their name.
I nodded, forgetting yet again that he couldn’t see my gesture. “Yep bud, there sure is. But we’ve also got Hot Gossip trailing at the edges, and the sky itself is looking like Apple Blossom.”
Jack very lightly touch a square that was so thin it had almost been ripped out entirely. “Do you see any Cherry Fizz?” Every night, Jack asked if I saw Cherry Fizz. And every night, I told him I did, whether I saw it or not. I was pretty sure he knew I didn’t always see it, but allowed me to say I did all the same.
“I sure do Jack. Nearly all the huge clouds are tinged in cherry fizz tonight. The clouds look so fluffy you could pull them out of the sky and they’d taste exactly like cotton candy.”
“Oh man, cotton candy! I haven’t had any of that since last year’s fair. It sure was yummy.” Jack turned toward me, though his eyes stared off into the distance over my shoulder. “Do you think I’m going to make it to the fair this year?”
I swallowed hard, fighting off my first instinct to pretend like everything was ok. Jack was a smart kid – he deserved more than that. He deserved more than me.
“I don’t know bud. I sure hope so. But I can’t make you that promise. But I can promise you we’ll get you some cotton candy. We’ll travel the world if we need to. We’ll go to France, birthplace of cotton candy and get you the very best there is!”
Jack laughed. “Cotton Candy isn’t from France, dad. Even if it was, we don’t have to go to France for some. We can just go to Lincoln – it’s so big they must have fairs year round there!”
“Deal.” I looked up at the sky again and noticed for the first time that a storm would be rolling in soon. “Can you smell that, Jack? What’s it smell like to you?”
Jack very solemnly put his nose into the air and was silent as he tried to tease out what I was looking for. “Rain. It smells like rain.”
I gave Jack a bump on the shoulder. “Good job. We’ll make a farmer out of you yet. It’s going to rain soon – probably a nice big storm. You want to head inside for dessert?”
Jack shook his head. “Let’s stay out here for a while. I like listening to the wind blowing through the soybeans.”
We sat for a time, listening as the wind picked up and the sound of distant thunder rolled over us. I paid careful attention to the feeling of Jack pressed up against my side, the rise and fall of his breath, and the heat that glowed off of him. They were things I would not get to experience much longer.
I could tell Jack was working up to something important. He always become completely still, as if so focused on ordering his thoughts that one mere muscle twitch would irretrievably scatter his thoughts. The first time he’d done so, I thought he was having a seizure or something. When he’d finally taken a breath, he told me that he didn’t like my cooking. I’d laughed so hard I cried, then watched enough Youtube videos that at least on most nights, Jack said thank you before asking for some chocolate.
Jack finally inhaled deeply, then let it out slowly. “Do you think mom will be waiting for me when I die?”
“Of course Jack, your mother will be so happy to finally meet you. It will be sad for me when you go, but I know your mother will be thrilled to see how grown up you are. Just be prepared, she’s a hugger.”
Jack had put his hand in mine as I talked, and I squeezed his hand tight. For the hundredth time, I started to tell him about what happened, and how I’d given him cancer when all I’d wanted to do was keep him safe. And for the hundredth time, I swallowed my words.
I was too chicken to explain to Jack what really happened that cold, winter day 4 months ago. I’d been busy going over the books in the house and asked Jack if he’d go outside and check the wire around the chickens to make sure it was still in place. Jack had been ecstatic to get to help with the farm, since I did most of it myself.
I didn’t want to him try and fix it if he found a gap, just to let me know there was one. I still don’t know what actually happened, but when I hadn’t heard from Jack in 15 minutes, I threw on a coat and walked outside to give him a lecture about the importance of getting work done before play.
I found him lying on the fence. I don’t know if he stumbled, or if slipped on an unseen patch of ice, or had just not been paying attention, but Jack had gotten tangled into the barbed wire. He must have thrashed about trying to get up, because he’d opened massive gashes along his arm, and more worrisome, across his throat. There was so much blood on the ground, and Jack’s lips were going blue.
The nearest help was too far away to do anything for Jack. Maybe if it had been summer I could have stopped the bleeding and gone inside to call 911. But in the cold, I couldn’t stop the bleeding, keep him warm enough to survive, and go open the gate for an ambulance to get through. So I gritted my teeth and used magic.
The first time I realized I had magic was during a science experiment in 10th grade. We were tasked with keeping 3 bean plants alive in different conditions and recording how they responded. Being the somewhat forgetful teen I was, I’d left all the plants to die for a week before remembering I needed to be taking care of them. When I saw them again on the window sill, all 3 looked wilted and brown. I was desperate to do well on the project, because a good grade in science meant I could go to a movie with a friend, all expenses (including popcorn and soda) paid by my parents.
The plants looked beyond saving, but when I touched one of them, it sprang to life as green and vibrant as it had been on the day I was given it. Fascinated, I touched both of the others and they too came to life. I had been obsessed with agriculture ever since. At 18, I went to work for my father’s friend on his farm. After 4 years, Geoff decided to retire and gifted the farm to me. The only catch was that I paid him 15% of my profits since I was getting the farm (and farm house) for free. It had been a profitable arrangement for us both.
Through flood or drought, my gift had allowed me to keep the farm productive. I had developed a name in the business, and I had several contracts with prominent restaurants throughout the country. I’d come to love walking through the endless rows of soybeans, touching a drooping plant here, bringing back from the brink a struggling plant there. For a while, my life had seemed blessed beyond all measure.
I’d met Jenn, and life seemed somehow to become even richer. We’d met, fallen madly in love, and married all within 6 months. I’d kept the key to my success a secret from her, and from everyone. I’d read enough comics and watched enough movies to know what happened to people with gifts, with magic. The ones who weren’t burned at the stake were experimented on by the government.
When Jenn got pregnant, we’d sat on the porch for hours at night, talking about all of the things we’d do together with our child. But the pregnancy had been hard on Jenn, and at delivery, something had gone terribly wrong. I was given a beautiful, healthy baby boy, but left with no one to raise him with.
I tried to fill the void with Jack, telling him stories about Jenn and all of the amazing things she’d done in her life. It wasn’t enough, but it was what I had to offer.
So when I realized the only way to save Jack was to use my magic on him, I did it. God help me, I did it. I’d used magic on a living creature once before, when Jenn’s cat was about to die. Jenn loved that thing to pieces and was heartbroken that it could barely move without crying. So when Jenn went off to work, I thought I’d give her a surprise when she came home by presenting her with her cat, healed from its ailments and ready to curl up on her lap for years to come.
I’d very gently picked Whiskers up and laid her on my lap, stroking her fur gently as she purred. Then I gathered a bit of will and let it flow into her. The reaction was immediate and violent. Whisker’s screamed at the top of her lungs and rocketed out of my lap, dashing madly through the house until she smashed her head against the wall. She’d broken her neck, and I watched helpless as she took her last, shuddering breaths. I buried Whiskers and told my tearful wife when she came home that Whiskers had died peacefully in her sleep.
Even with the memory of Whiskers fresh in my mind, I’d still gathered my will and attempted to heal my little Jack. The wounds on his arm and throat healed and I was able to pull him from the fence. But he lay against me, limp, and when I got him into the house he was burning up. I rushed Jack to the hospital and told them I’d found him with a massive fever.
The doctors ran every test they could think of. When the results of Jack’s head scan came back, they told me as gently as they could that Jack had a brain tumor. After the word “inoperable”, I didn’t hear much else of what they had to say. I sat there, stunned, unable to do anything but think I did this, I killed my little boy over and over again.
“Dad? Dad? Are you ok?” Jack was shaking my shoulder, concern drawing his mouth in a thin line.
“Yeah buddy, I’m good. Sorry – I was just thinking about Mom and how much she’d love to be here with you tonight.”
“Sorry Dad. I know how you get when I ask about mom. I’ll make it up to you and go get our ice cream sundaes with chocolate sprinkles and chocolate shavings ready.”
Jack held out his little fist, which I bumped in appreciation. “Thanks Jack. I’ll be in in a second, ok?” Jack grinned and took off inside, deftly stepping over they toys he’d left scattered earlier.
I sat on the porch and looked out over my last harvest. The rain came down in sheets, playing a tune on the roof and accompanied by thunder on bass.
“Alright dad, desserts ready! I even dribbled some caramel over it, just like you like!”
“Coming!” I shouted.