This is a mainstream fiction piece I originally wrote in the early 90s. I was a teenager at the time. It was published locally under my real name. I’ve edited it heavily in the past few weeks, but I did try to leave the style intact. I’m posting it along with Branches and Fox. Hunting. to go with some upcoming writing tips.
Garrett’s got one thing he’s never doubted. His dad.
by Rose B. Fischer
Maybe a raw steak or something would help. They always seemed to be the magic cure for shiners in movies and TV. I squinted at my reflection in the bathroom mirror, sighed, and shook my head. Who was I kidding? I was going to be a laughingstock! I grabbed my backpack, slung it over my shoulder, and snapped off the light. Black eye or not, I still had homework. Most of it was literature. Ugh.
Leaving the bathroom, I trudged toward the landing and glanced through the open doorway of my bedroom. I could see the windows on the far wall, and the sight of golden afternoon sunlight pouring through such streaked, spotty glass just didn’t feel right. Those windows needed to be open. Literature could wait a few minutes.
I made my way to the window and tossed the backpack onto the bed. It landed with a soft thwack, jingling the keys and change inside. I shoved the window up and sucked in the clean, green-scented air. We wouldn’t have many more days like this.
The sun warmed my face and shoulders, and I leaned my elbows on the sill, lingering for a moment before I opened other windows. A dog barked down the street and I followed the sound until I saw him playing with his little girl. He’d chase her for a while, then stop and turn to let her chase instead. I grinned.
“Ow,” I grumbled. Every time I smiled, the stupid eye throbbed.
Once the windows were open, it suddenly struck me that I’d promised my dad that I would pick up the floor in here. He’d let it go for two days already, and chances were he wouldn’t say anything until Saturday, but there was no reason to press my luck, was there?
“Dickens isn’t going anywhere, right?” I shrugged and chuckled. “Ow!”
When I was through, I decided to open the windows in the guest room. It had to be really stuffy in there. It was hardly ever used. If I had guys from school over, we usually staked out the living room with sleeping bags. The only people who used the guest room were Dad’s friends from Queenston, or sometimes my girlfriend—ex girlfriend. I hadn’t seen her in a month.
I grabbed my bag, meandered to the far end of the hall, rounded the corner, and pulled open the door. Then I sneezed at the dusty, stale air. Inside, the first window opened an inch, then stuck and to budge no matter how hard I pushed. I took a step back, braced my legs, and heaved, but the window wouldn’t move. It was hopeless, I decided—just before the window shot upwards. I stumbled forward and smacked my head on the frame.
Light exploded behind my clenched eyelids, and I grabbed either side of the window, clinging as the room spun around me. Now my head was throbbing in time with my eye. I groaned and swallowed hard, carefully easing my grip on the windows. When the spinning room had slowed to a seasick kind of rocking to and fro, I inched my way over to the other windows and slowly got them open. By the time I was done, the dizzy spell had passed, so I walked back up the hall and descended the stairs.
In the living room, the windows were open, but the magazines on the coffee table needed straightening. I took my time over them, then stopped to check out the book that Dad had left on the back of the couch. The Brothers Karamazov. Last week it had been Dean Koontz. I shook my head and tossed the book where he’d left it. Then I wandered down the hall to what we called the music room. It was really more like Dad’s shrine to my mother.
In one corner, there was his flute and a beat up old Yamaha keyboard he’d had for as long as I could remember. There were a few Kiss Army posters and other memorabilia over there—he was an obsessive Kiss fan—and there were some songbooks with honky-tonk piano junk or more classical stuff he played on the flute. The rest of the room was spread out with Mom’s stuff. The paintings on the walls were ones she did, and the posters were all of folk singers from the late sixties and seventies. There were all kinds of hippy instruments—tambourines, bongo drums, a sitar, whatever that was. No one ever played it.
He’d kept their old hi-fi stereo system on the other side, along with shelves that were stacked with old vinyl records cassette tapes, and even 8-tracks. He said they used to go around to yard sales and pick the stuff up cheap. I knew the stereo worked because he played it sometimes, but when he did, the door was closed and the room was off-limits to me.
Sometimes I just liked to come in here when no one was around. There were pictures of them, jamming with some of their friends, and it all looked like a blast. I didn’t remember any of it. I was too young when she died, but if I used my imagination, I could hear and see it all.
I opened the windows, put some of my mom’s hippy music on, and laid on the couch. I closed my eyes, imagined that it was her singing and not Joan Baez, and started to daydream about how that hippy girl had ended up with the glam-rock guy.
I was still there when I heard the car door chunk closed outside.
I bolted off the couch, glanced at the clock, and raced into the kitchen. It was seven-thirty. He was an hour late, and I still hadn’t started dinner. I hadn’t even started my homework.
Tired footfalls crunched heavily up the gravel walk and clumped up the front stoop. I grabbed my book out of my backpack, flung myself into a chair, and…realized I’d left the hi-fi playing. I dashed back into the music room, turned everything off, and just made it back to the kitchen when my dad opened the back door.
“Hey Dad. How’s work?”
“Hey, kid. Not bad, I guess.” He yanked out a chair and dropped into it. “Homework okay?”
“UM. I kind of got distracted. “I didn’t start supper for you, either.” I apologized
“Didn’t ask you to. I want you to get started with the homework. Here,” he tossed his wallet onto the table, pushed himself to his feet and instructed, “Give me fifteen minutes for a shower, then get us a pizza and wake me up when it gets here.”
“Mmm-hmm,” I nodded, but, as I watched him disappear, slumped and dragging, into the dark living room, it seemed impossible that a thirty minute nap would do him any good.
My father reappeared in the kitchen an hour and a half later. I was just paying the delivery girl. He cocked an eyebrow at me, gazing pointedly at the clock.
“Well, you know how I’m always putting things off,” I said sheepishly, setting the hot box gingerly on the table.
“Uh-huh,” laughed Dad. “Sure, kid. Try another one.”
“Somebody’s gotta look out for you once in a while,” I told him as he straddled the chair I’d been using.
His smile faltered for a moment, then broadened into a grin.
“Remember this the next time I ask for a curfew extension,” I quipped, parking myself in the other chair and snagging the first slice for myself.
“We’ll see,” he chuckled. “Y’know, kiddo,” he remarked with a gusty sigh, “I must be getting old. Twenty years ago I could work an eight hour day and still take your mom out at night. Now, I come home and drop.”
“You’re not old, Dad,” I said. “I know plenty guys who’d kill to have your upper body.”
“I’m older than I used to be,” he snorted.
“So’s everybody,” I shrugged.. “Hey, how come you were so late today? Traffic bad?”
“No,” Dad began. “I, um, was going to stop off and shoot some pool with…some people from work. But I changed my mind and left after fifteen minutes.”
“Which people?” I asked as innocently as I could. He’d had this kind of a thing for one of the foremen… forewomen? forepersons? Well, anyway, Lynn, for months.
“Nobody really. Just Mark and Dennis…and a couple others.”
“Nice eye, by the way,” Dad shifted the subject.
Oh no, I thought. Here it comes.
“Oh, that?” I asked, feigning nonchalance.
“Nothing. Something hit me, that’s all. Want a Coke?”
Maybe he’d let it go at that.
But, as I returned to the table slid the icy, red and white can across to him, he asked, “So, what hit you?”
“A flagpole,” I muttered miserably.
“What?” Dad laughed. “Garrett, how did you get hit with a flagpole?”
“Well,” I explained, my face beating hotly with humiliation. “I was walking over the school lawn, y’know, toward the bus stop.”
“See, I guess I wasn’t paying attention, and, well, it just kind of…hit me.”
Dad threw back his head and roared. “I’ll lay money you were staring at Kristen Nichols again!”
“I wasn’t staring,” I laughed back. “Just looking, that’s all.”
“Right,” Dad rolled his eyes. “Have any other misadventures?”
“Sorry,” I grinned, “It was a pretty quiet day. Oh! There was something I kind of wanted to ask you, though.”
“What’s that?” he asked.
“Remember Uncle Roger sent me an email a while back asking about college and stuff?”
“Mmm,” he said as he picked up his Coke.
“Well, I got another one today and he said he wanted to give me the money…”
Dad pounded his can back down hard enough to set off a dull metallic echo.
“Garrett, we don’t need Roger’s money.”
“End of discussion, Garrett!” he ordered sharply.
“Why are you being like this?” I shouted, leaping to my feet. “Why won’t you even listen to me?”
I knew he and Uncle Roger didn’t get along, but this was different! This was my education, and Roger had tons more money than we did. He was family—what was wrong with him wanting to help with my college expenses?
“Tell me why! That’s all I want!”
“Lower your voice. Now.”
“Stop giving me orders! Just because you’re too proud to take help from Roger, I get doomed to some grunt job on a construction crew like you did?
Dad’s face grew pale and the muscle in his lower jaw quivered. He rose to his feet slowly. “I think you’d better go to your room,” he said through clenched teeth. “Stay there for the rest of the week”
I stalked past him; my shoulder accidentally brushed him as I passed.
Thoughtlessly, I shoved him out of my way, then cringed. What was I doing?
His big hand clamped over my shoulder, spinning me back to face him.
“Dad! I cried, flinching as I saw his fist rising.
Dad blanched, dropping his hand, eyes wide with shock and horror. I broke away, bolting for my room.
“Garrett!” I heard him shout, but I couldn’t stop. I slammed my bedroom door and pressed my back against it, my head spinning with confusion.
“We almost had a fight!” My voice sounded strange to my ears; hoarse and choked. My whole body shook, my heart felt as if it was going to pound its way out of my ribcage.
Suddenly, the back door slammed, rattling the windows and I jumped. “Dad, wait!” I shouted, tearing open my door, but by the time I reached the stairs, I heard his motorcycle revving, and by the time I got to the bottom of the stairs, it was blasting past the front windows.
The low, drawn-out moan of the wind, and a stinging spray of water on my face, dragged me out of sleep. Grumbling, I flung back my blanket and staggered out of bed, snapping on the lamp. I shivered, bumbling my way to the windows to shut out the raw wind. Puddles of rain slicked the hardwood floor and I skidded, flinging out my arms to brace myself against the side of the bookshelf.
Kicking around the dirty shirt I’d neglected to put in the hamper before bed, I lazily mopped the floor.
“I don’t believe this!” I complained as I snatched up the soaked clothing.
A blast of thunder cracked in response.
We had a hamper in the hall, strategically placed between Dad’s room and mine. I flung the clothes in, yawned, and was about to turn back I realized his bedroom door was open. The room was empty.
The bathroom was empty too .
“Dad, you up?” I called half-heartedly around another yawn.
When there was no answer, I trudged to the landing and yelled down. A faint touch of ice crept along my spine when the only reply was the echo of my own voice through the darkened house.
I leapt down the stairs two at a time, straining to see into the dark living room below. I kept yelling, and suddenly there was a shrill clamor in response. I yelped before I realized that it was the phone, then dove at it before I’d even cleared the stairs.
Snatching the handset from the cradle, I did an ungainly jig to keep my balance as I shouted.
“Hi.” His voice quavered slightly as he spoke. “Relax. Everything’s okay.”
Everything’s okay? Why would he say that unless it wasn’t!
“Where are you?” I cried.
“The hospital,” replied my father. “Now, don’t—“
“What do you mean, the hospital!” I shrieked into the phone. “What are you doing there!”
“Shhh. Easy,” soothed Dad. “I cracked up the bike a little; ran off the road, but I’m—
I didn’t feel my knees give out. Somehow, I was just on the floor in the dark room, my whole body shaking uncontrollably. His voice seemed to be coming to me from down a huge tunnel.
“Garrett, I’m okay,” he repeated firmly. “The bike’s in worse shape than I am. Are you hearing me, kiddo? You all right”
“I—uh—yeah—yeah, Dad.” I scrubbed my face with my hand, drawing a shaky deep breath. “I’m listening.”
“Good. Now, Uncle Jerry’s here with me. We’re just about to leave for the house. I don’t have my keys. Unlock the door for me and wait. Make some coffee.”
“Coffee,” I nodded numbly. “Okay.”
“All right. We’ll be there in a little bit. I love you, kid.”
“Me, too. We’ll talk about it later, huh? Uncle Jer’s waiting. I gotta go.”
“Yeah, sure. Bye, Dad.”
As I went into the kitchen, it struck me how pointless it was to be making coffee at a time like this. We hardly ever even drank coffee. I supposed Dad thought it would be better to have me doing something (even making coffee in the middle of the night when I doubted anyone would be able to get to sleep again anyway) than sitting here worrying and brooding. It didn’t work. I was quite capable of making coffee and brooding at the same time.
This is insane, I thought as I rinsed out the coffee pot and put a new filter in the carafe. Only inexperienced goofs crack up motorcycles! Not guys like Jayce Newfield who’d been riding for more than twenty years! It didn’t make sense! My father knew what he was doing! How could he run the bike off the road?
“Man,” I realized, flopping down at the table while the coffee brewed. “What if he wasn’t okay? What if he died and we just had a screaming match!”
I barely remembered my mother. Dad was the only parent I’d ever known! “It would’ve been my fault,” I berated myself. “It is my fault. He’d never have left if I hadn’t talked to him like that!”
I’d worked up a huge guilt trip by the time I heard Uncle Jerry’s car pulling in. I bolted outside, leaping down the front steps. My father was standing with his hand against the passenger side door. Heedless of my shoeless feet, I ran down the gravel walk and slammed into him, and flung around him. He staggered back a little, leaning heavily on me, and I could feel him shaking.
“Daddy! I’m sorry—whaddid I do?”
My dad was a giant! Nothing shook him up—and here he was almost falling over because I’d hugged him!
“I’m fine, Buck,” he assured me . “I’m just a little dizzy,” he added. “I hit my head.”
“Come on, Gar,” coaxed Uncle Jerry, who’d come around from the driver’s side. He laid his hand on my shoulder. “He’s going to be fine. Let’s just get inside out of the rain.”
Slightly humiliated, I backed away from Dad. Abruptly, I realized that I was standing outside in my stocking feet in the pouring rain, with no shirt on, and, to make matters worse, I was standing on gravel. I hurried back up to the house. Then, guilty over not having waited for my father, I paused on the porch.
“Jer,” called Dad as they mounted the steps, reaching for my uncle’s shoulder.
“Get inside, Garrett,” ordered Uncle Jerry sharply, moving to support my father.
They followed me in and Uncle Jerry helped him to a chair. “Okay, Jayce?” he asked. My father slumped at the table, holding his head in his hands.
“I just wanna lay down,” he said, voice muffled against his hands.
“You can’t,” Uncle Jerry said, “C’mon, sit up now. Garrett, you wanna get us some of that coffee?”
I nodded, but my body wouldn’t obey. I just stood watching them. Was this real? He couldn’t lay down? I wracked my mind, trying to remember what that meant. Finally it dawned on me.
“Does he have a concussion, Uncle Jer?”
“Yeah. Make that coffee black. We’re going to have to be up all night.”
“Okay,” I nodded again and finally made myself move to the cabinet and find a couple of mugs.
“Jayce!” my uncle barked. “Sit up!”
I jumped, splashing hot coffee on the floor. It struck my foot, and I leapt backwards. I glanced at the table and saw my Dad starting to slump forward.
“You all right?” Uncle Jerry asked me.
“Yeah,” I muttered, setting the two mugs on the table. Dad let out a slow breath and leaned back.
Burned foot, black eye…what next?
I yanked out a chair and sat down to peel off my wet socks. For the first time, I noticed the small bandage over my father’s right eye and the ugly bruise forming on his cheekbone. I winced, averting my eyes.
“You might as well hit the sack, kiddo,” Dad said. “Try to get some sleep.”
“What!” I cried. “But what about you?”
“I told you I’m okay,” said Dad. “Uncle Jer’s here. No sense you being up all night, too. There’s school tomorrow.”
“School!” I protested.
“Yes, school. And my head hurts too much to argue with you.”
“Okay,” I sighed as I got up to hug him, “but I’m not going to be able to sleep anyway.”
I was right. The morning came way too soon, jarring me out of sleep I’d only too recently fallen into. I fumbled my way through my morning ritual, half asleep even after my shower. As I trudged downstairs, I could hear Dad and Uncle Jerry talking.
“Maybe it’s not a bad idea,” I heard Uncle Jerry saying. “Roger ought to be the one putting him through college. He owes him that much.”
“I don’t care!” Dad snapped. “I want Roger as far out of Garrett’s life as I can keep him. That’s what he wanted anyway, till now, and I don’t like the sudden change.”
“Jayce, you’re making decisions for Garrett that he’s got to make for himself sooner or later.”
I held my breath.
“I’m his dad. I can do that.”
“What kind of attitude is that?” argued Uncle Jerry. “You’re being irrational. How long do you think you can hide it from him, anyway?”
Hide what? I thought, feeling my whole body go cold. I let out the breath I’d been holding, forced myself to take another. I was sure they could hear me breathing, but they kept arguing.
“What reason is there for him to know? It’s my name on the birth certificate. I’m the one who raised him. And I’m going to make sure he has a chance to do whatever he wants with his life.”
His name on the birth certificate? Whose birth certificate? Mine, of course. It couldn’t be on Uncle Roger’s, they were brothers. My head was spinning. What were they talking about? Dad’s name had to be on my birth certificate, he was my—
“No,” I tried to whisper, but my lips were shaking, and no sound would come out of my suddenly dry, constricting throat. Pictures flashed through my mind: ones I’d seen on my Grandpa Newfield’s desk before he died, others in the family albums I used to hunt through for pictures of my mom. Three boys, now grown men, two sitting in the next room, all with the same orange-red hair and blue eyes that I had. I always thought I looked like Dad. I always thought—
“No!” barked Dad suddenly, making me jump. “You listen, Jerry. Garrett’s my responsibility. That’s it . I don’t need you telling me what’s good for my kid!”
“Whoa! Relax, will you?”
“Look,” said Dad, “Roger never wanted him, never offered me or Rachel any help, even when she got sick. Now, he’s after something. That’s the only reason he’d want to shell out money.”
I shook my head and ran for the door. I had to get out of there! I didn’t know where I was going; I wasn’t thinking at all. The door slammed behind me and everything was a blur; everything but the wind in my face, the pumping of my arms and legs and the rush of blood pounding in my head.
My watch alarm was bleeping. I dropped to a walk, then stopped and tried to catch my breath and get my bearings. I turned, found a street sign, and threw up my arms.
Garfield Park Drive? Oh, no! Why couldn’t I have taken off toward the school?
There was no way I’d make it in time now; I had my watch set to go off with ten minutes to the final bell. I groaned and let my backpack slide onto the sidewalk. I wiped my sweaty palms on my jeans and sank down next to it.
“I’m going to be so late!”
I’d have to go home first and get a note. I was all sweaty; I’d need to shower and change, too. Maybe Uncle Jerry could give me a ride. Dad was going to kill me!
Dad… who wasn’t my dad at all. His words began to beat through my head, keeping time with the pounding of my pulse.
“Roger never wanted him…Roger never wanted him…Roger never wanted him.”
I clamped my hands against my ears to shut it out. When that didn’t help, I covered my face and cried. How had everything gotten so crazy?
Suddenly, I realized there was something else I didn’t know. If Roger hadn’t wanted me, had Dad? He loved my mother, that much I knew—loved her probably enough to forgive her for anything, even cheating on him. So, if she’d cheated on him, had he taken her back and just ended up with me as part of the package?
Had he kept me out of some obligation toward Mom, thinking that if my real father didn’t want me, he had to keep me because I was part of her? How could I ask him that question? How could I go home and face him?
My throat ached. I was so thirsty. The first thing I had to do was get a drink. I picked up my knapsack, fishing through it for money. There was a convenience store up the block. I’d walk up there, figure things out, and then call home.
By the time I reached the store, though, I knew I couldn’t call. If I did, I’d have to explain what I was doing here. How could I just come out and tell my father I knew?
I bought a bottle of water and a package of mini doughnuts, left the store and walked over to Garfield Park. I still didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew I couldn’t face Dad. I sat on a swing, drawing aimless zigzags in the sand with my toe, and ate my breakfast. Every so often, I felt tears beginning to well up in my eyes, but I held my breath and fought them till I was ok again.
Across the street, the towers of the Rollins Highrise Complex shone as grand and impressive as they had been when they first went up, six years ago. I used to brag to the other kids about those buildings.
“My dad built those, y’know.”
At the age of nine, it had been totally logical that he could have built those gleaming steel giants single-handedly. He was Superman back then. I guessed I still saw him that way. Except now, suddenly, my Superman dad wasn’t mine. On the other side of the globe, in Hong Kong, there was a stranger, an uncle I knew mostly from birthday cards and occasional emails, that I had to call my father.
Hot anger rushed through me, and my hands curled into fists against my thighs. He wasn’t my father! Just a deadbeat who’d walked out on me. Well, he wasn’t going to get away with it. He owed me. He owed my real dad for taking care of me while he lived his high life. I wasn’t gonna watch Dad work himself to death to put me through college while Roger got off scott free—and I didn’t even care what Dad had to say about it, either.
When I left the park, I told myself I was going back to the store to call my father. I ended up across the street at the Rollins Complex. I leaned my hand on the side of the first building, staring at the little plate there which read, “GREYSON AND SONS CONSTRUCTION, LTD—1989.”
“Wha—” I jumped, spinning around. A petite woman with short, almost boyishly cut blond hair smiled prettily up at me. A taller guy, about my age, in a dress shirt and khakis, stood beside her.
“Hi,” she said. “I’m Lynn Davers, you might not remember me. I’m your dad’s foreman.” “This is my nephew, Ben.”
Ben nodded, offering a half-unsure but friendly smile. I decided I liked him even though he didn’t look like someone who’d hang out with my crowd.
“Is everything okay, Garrett?” Lynn asked. “Shouldn’t you be at school?”
“Well, Dad got into a motorcycle accident and I stayed home,” I told her “I wanted to get out of the house, so I ended up going over to the park.”
Lynn’s eyes widened and she grew startlingly pale. “An accident?” she repeated. “He’s all right, though? I wasn’t at work today, I didn’t know.”
“He has a concussion,” I said, “but I think he’s fine.”
“Oh, good!” She sighed, and some color came back into her face. I flicked my gaze to Ben, and he smirked.
All right, Dad!
While we exchanged looks, she tore a scrap of paper from the bag on the ground beside her and was jotting something on it.
“Here Garrett,” she said, pressing it into my hand. “It’s our new number here. We’re just moving in. Tell Jayce to give me a call if he needs anything.”
“Sure,” I said, sharing another smirk with Ben. “Thanks.”
“Oh, no problem,” she said, picking up her groceries. “Your dad’s a great guy.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. Then I gestured at the buildings. “Y’know . My dad built these.”