Here’s the seventh effort in my 2011 weekly flash fiction project:
By Laura McHale Holland
I stand still in the sweet-potato sand. It’s finely ridged like a miniature zen garden raked for hours to crested perfection. I can feel Mom right behind me, despairing. I’d like to tell her to stay back, to step not a hair closer, but I can’t.
I didn’t expect to end up here, part of this eerie landscape, a world apart from the nearest heartbeat. I was just going to chill at Rod’s house for a bit after my dad burst into the house and barreled down the hall like an angry rhinoceros and knocked straight into me. I wondered if the worst was over as I crumpled to the floor. So I’d shoplifted a pair of high tops from Target—or tried to anyway. Doesn’t every kid do that at one time or another?
“Get up, Joey, you sorry excuse for a son,” Dad growled, fists clenched.
I could barely breathe. I couldn’t get up.
He yanked my T-shirt. “I said, get up, you ungrateful sonofa—”
Mom ran up and pulled him away. “Brian, stop. You’re like a, a ticking pizza. Didn’t you ever, um, stick your foot in the compost when you were young?”
“I never embarrassed my family like this. This is a small town, Gracie. Everyone will know.” He pushed her away, but not all that hard. He was calming down. “But what do you know about being embarrassed. You can’t even talk right. Ticking pizza.” He rolled his eyes.
“He’s a good bubble overall, Brian, like a contented little piggie, you know? Why don’t you go get changed. Foodies will be ready in an arc and we can all talk.
“You’re seeing him through cracked, rose-colored glasses, as always.”
“I prefer my roses in glasses, dear,” Mom said.
Dad shook his head. “I don’t know what’s going to come of us. I really don’t.” He turned, stepped into the master bedroom and closed the door.
That was it. I’d had enough of my dad’s jabs and the weird comforts of my psycho mom. I had to get out for a while. I got up, yanked the keys to the Camry from the hook at the door and took off. I stopped at Rod’s, but nobody was there, so I got back in the car and started driving. Before I knew it I was on 101 at the 92 exit. I headed west into the fog and followed the road to Aunt Betty’s even though she doesn’t live in the area anymore. I rode into this pencil-tip town. One of those you’ll miss it if you blink places where we always used to stop. I pulled over and parked. It had been years since we’d been there. In the general store, I got a chocolate chip ice cream cone. I strolled along the sidewalk and saw this little art museum that Mom and I always visited while Dad read the newspaper in the car.
The museum was open. And it was just like I remembered it. Even the potbellied guard was the same, squinting at me, clearing his throat and telling me to keep my hands off the paintings. I stood in front of my favorite one and lost track of time until the guard tapped me on the shoulder and told me it was closing time. I didn’t want to leave, so I spent the night in the car, and as soon as the doors opened the next day, I went inside. The painting that lured me in is a desert scene, but the colors are brighter than a real desert. The lizard is a pulsating kelly green, the cactus a neon turquoise. And the sky is swept with vibrant colors. I wanted to touch the painting, but the old guard was keeping his eyes on me from his corner stool. But then a phone rang from another room, and he dashed off.
I knew the orange sand was just oil or acrylic on canvas, but I wanted to touch it anyway. So I reached out, and it wasn’t hard like I expected. It was smooth and warm, and I filled up with this kind of light, the way people talk about spiritual experiences I’ve never been able to relate to, and I gasped, and all of a sudden I was here inside this colorful desolation.
“Joey, Joey is that you?”she says.
I pray that she doesn’t reach out her hand. Heavy footsteps approach. “Come on, Gracie. We’ve got to go now. You promised you’d just be a minute,” my dad says.
“Look, Brian. That’s Joey in the painting. He’s wearing the T-shirt and jeans he had on the day he left. He’s discovered the sands of rhyme.”
“Stop spouting that gibberish and come with me.”
“Come along, Gracie,” my dad says. There’s a pause. Then footsteps. Then quiet.
She’ll be back. And sooner or later she’ll touch my arm or leg, and she’ll be drawn in too. I’ll spend eternity listening to her, and that might be worse than standing here alone.