The flies are really starting to get on Lisa's nerves. The old men sitting around the older whiskey barrels playing chess and checkers don't seem to mind them, so intent are they on their games. At a barrel by herself, on a stump, she's uncomfortable, tired of swatting flies and completely annoyed at how long it's taking Keith to fetch the most important item on his list (starred and circled mind you) that he of course forgot to bring.
This "lil' old town", three blocks square if you count the block with the closed gas station, hair salon, and pawn shop, has one general store, which she is sitting outside of. Keith has driven off to, “There's a guy down the road on a farm who probably has propane.”
She lets Jace and Tim take off to explore. “You know Dad will get distracted because the farmer probably has all kinds of old equipment he'll want to see and talk about.” True. Keith loves antiques, especially old machinery.
This town isn't turning out to be quite as creepy as Jace had first said when she asked him to stop.
“Mom, it looks like a ghost town. WHY do we have to stop?"
“I can't really explain it, Jace. Let's just stop and get a snack at the general store, OK? I just really want to.”
“Fine! I want a Red Bull.” He expertly parks the truck pulling the camper. From the back seat comes, “Mom, can I have one, too? I'm 14 now. You said when I turned 14 I could try one.”
“Sure, whatever, Tim.”
At least this tiny place has a cell tower. I guess if you're the only town within 50 miles of anything else, that's where the tower goes. No data though, just talk and text. She can't even check her email, she's left her book in the car, and forgot her journal in the camper. Of course, the camper is parked across the street but Keith has the keys, and Jace the other set. She gave it to him when he got his license. His beaming smile in return makes her grin just remembering.
“Mo-om!” Jace is rounding the corner, Tim straggling behind, probably wishing he'd taken his inhaler as suggested, but no, he decides for himself now. Jace doesn't wait. He never waits. He tolerates his little brother. That is an improvement from years before when he actively tormented him. Oh, how she longs for the days when they'd played so nicely together in the sandbox. Seems eons ago, yet also yesterday.
“Mom, we found a pool hall, but my phone died and Tim left his at home, so we came to ask you if we could play. And get some money.”
Lisa lets them. There's just no telling how long Keith is going to be.
“Alright, we'll pick you up there. Where is it?”
“Around the corner, MOM. It's like the only place open. There are beer signs in the window. You could have a glass of wine and lose the attitude. Or sit here and stew and then yell at Dad like you always do when he's late.”
“Thanks dear for the oh-so-keen observation. I'll keep your suggestion in mind. Sarcasm font now off.”
“Geez mom, I know when you're sarcastic, no need to act all weird about it. It annoys the crap out of me.” At least he didn't say “shit”. They're working on the language thing. One battle at a time.
“Luv you Mem!” This from Tim who grins at the unexpected privilege and hurries to catch up with his brother.
How long has she been sitting here now? Looking at her phone, she realizes that it's been over two hours. Plenty of time to buy propane AND look at antique farm equipment. She is eager to get to the campsite. She can see the mountains from here, and longs for the forest. She gets her best writing done at campsite picnic tables while Keith takes the boys hiking.
“Ready 2 go. Come bck pls.”
It shows her text as delivered.
“Hey lady, wanna play a game? Chess or checkers?”
“You've been sitting there stewing long enough, c'mon over and play.”
What the hell, what else is she going to do?
Clarence is a good chess player, but so is Lisa. She thinks fondly of their family's cruise four years before when Tim had learned to play using the life-size pieces by the pool on the Lido deck.
They battle on, and Lisa is glad for the distraction.
“Mom, they kicked us out. Said we weren't old enough.”
“That's ridiculous,” she says, never taking her eyes off the chess board.
“And Tim says he feels weird. And I'm kinda scared. I don't feel so hot myself.”
Now they have Lisa's attention. She would have expected Jace to say, “And I feel like shit, too, Mom.”
She turns to look at the boys and grows instantly still. Jace has short hair, not the unkempt mop he so loves; his zits are all gone, and his clothes look many sizes too big. Tim looks ready to cry, while holding onto his shorts, with his t-shirt reaching his knees.
“Come sit down with me here, and tell me what happened.” She pulls them to the far side of the porch.
“Well, we walked in, I paid the bartender to play, and we were playing. Having a good time. Then the next thing was the bartender coming over to us like he'd never seen us before and saying, 'Kids can't play here unsupervised" and told us to leave.”
“Well boys, if you still want to play, I'll go with you, and supervise, and Jace, you're right, I think I will have some wine and calm down.”
As if calming down is possible. What is happening? Where is Keith? What is she going to do?
“What are you talking about, Mom?”
SHIT. She and Jace always joke about how much easier she is to get along with after a glass of wine.
She takes them back into the pool hall.
“I'll have a glass of your house chardonnay, and my boys would like to finish their game. I'm here now so they have supervision.”
“Alright, but I've never seen kids so young play pool.”
She turns around to the boys, and a wave of nausea rises in her throat.
Lisa swallows hard. The boys are changing before her eyes. It's like watching a slide show of their school pictures in reverse.
They are even younger, and dressed in what had been some of her favorite outfits of theirs. Tim in the jeans shorts and white t-shirt. What summer was it that he only wore white t-shirts? Jace has on his tie-dyed t-shirt and jeans. That boy never wears shorts.
Ok, brave face, Mom. Pretend everything is normal. Maybe with the physical changes come mental changes and they won't know what is happening. She prays that will be the case.
“Tim, you want to try pool? I've seen Dad play it at Bill's house, you know the guy with all the pinball machines?”
“Yeah, OK, sure.”
Lisa gulps chardonnay and texts Keith again. The boys seem oblivious to the changes now, so she's not as worried about them. But what if something weird is happening to Keith?
Suddenly Tim is crying and Jace is trying to console him. And they're younger still. About three and five. Sandbox age.
Hastily throwing a bill on the bar, Lisa grabs the boys and heads back to the general store.
“Hey Lisa, wanna finish our game? Mighty fine boys you got there, how old are they?”
“Um, I don't feel like playing right now, I need to take care of them. Sorry.”
Holding each by a hand, she leads them to the snack aisle.
“What do you want, boys?”
“Oreos” says Jace.
“Oh ba dubba babba!” says Tim, grinning.
Lisa has to sit down, and she doesn't care if it's the cement floor, badly in need of sweeping. Tim didn't talk until he was three and a half. Well, he talked a LOT, it just wasn't English. He had speech therapy. Child Find. Intervention before entering the school system. Holy shit, he really can't be much older than three.
“Just pick it off the shelf, Tim” Lisa says, tears threatening.
He grabs the Cheetos.
Back at “their” barrel and stumps, they eat their snacks and drink milk from the sippy cups she bought in the store, happy for the treat and none the wiser to the hell their mother is going through.
Suddenly her phone rings. It's Keith's ringtone. Imperial March from Star Wars, that ominous riff played when Darth Vader appears. She chose it because frankly, calls from Keith aren't always welcome. He's so difficult to get along with sometimes.
“Where have you BEEN!” Lisa screams into the phone.
“Calm down, Lisa, I'm on my way to pick you up. I'm not that late. Be there in just a few minutes.”
Keith soon pulls up in the truck, and for once she doesn't have to ask him to buckle the boys in. He just does it.
He just buckles them in? Doesn't he notice that they were 16 and 14 the last time he saw them?”
As he drives, Keith feverishly explains about the unexpectedly spectacular time he's been having since moving here. She looks him in the eye. He is not her Keith. He's some other version of Keith, not younger, just not...right. Not the Keith she drove into town with.
“So I've finally found what I'm supposed to do with my life! I'm already hired as a senior design programmer! I have a group I'm in charge of! And wait until you meet my wife. You'll love her, she's everything I've dreamed of!
He's way too animated. Besides, Keith hates programming. He's a design engineer. He hates management. They've been trying to get him to manage throughout his entire career.
“Pull over right now, I'm going to throw up.”
Keith is used to Lisa's ridiculous penchant for getting carsick at the slightest misdeed in his driving, but he hates cleaning up vomit, so he's learned that when she says pull over, she means it. He pulls over.
All the angst, anger, fright and confusion of the day come pouring out of her. It doesn't stop. Her stomach long since empty of the one glass of chardonnay which is all she's consumed that day, she continues to dry heave. She feels like her body is being turned inside out, and the spasms just won't stop.
Keith gets out of the truck.
“Are you OK? What's the matter? I've never seen you so sick before.”
The dam breaks.
“You leave me at a general store oh, eight hours ago, with no answer to my texts, the boys were 16 and 14, LOOK AT THEM NOW! THEY'RE 3 AND 5! YOU'RE SAYING YOU'RE MARRIED! I'M YOUR WIFE! WE'VE BEEN MARRIED 21 YEARS!” She begins to heave again.
“Hey, Lisa, I have no idea what you're talking about. How much did you drink? I'm sorry, I was only an hour late.”
It's no use. She's the only one who remembers the past. Might as well play along until a better idea surfaces.
“I'm sorry. I did drink too much waiting for you. Let's go see your new job, OK?”
Climbing in, it takes every ounce of her motherly instincts not to dissolve into the mental breakdown she longs to have.
“You OK, Mom? I hate when throw-up needs to come.”
“So do I, Jace. I'm OK. You know I get carsick.”
“Yeah, remember how I did that one time I threw up in...”
“Jace, please don't talk about throw-up now, OK?”
“Sorry, I forgot, Mom.”
After several dusty, winding roads, and enough curves to truly make her carsick, they pull into the parking lot of a dilapidated, long since abandoned hotel.
“Isn't this place swanky? I can't believe I work here now.” Once inside, he's actually right. Five-star all the way.
“Wait right here. I'll go get Jennifer.”
Lisa swallows hard. Takes her boys’ hands. Thinks about sandboxes and sippy cups, diapers and speech therapy. Takes herself back to those days. Steels herself for the hurt to come.
“Lisa, I'd like you to meet my wife, Jennifer.”
Lisa politely shakes the hand of the tall brunette with the long, flowing, curly hair, perfect figure, and slight baby bulge. She wants to hurl again. Jennifer is her exact opposite in every way.
“Hi!” Jennifer giggles. “I'm so excited to meet you! I've heard so much about you and your adorable boys. I'm glad Keith has such a good friend in you.” She giggles again.
“Lisa is a waitress here at the hotel.”
Oh. My. God. She's a total bimbo. Keith is all smiles and vacant eyes and hands all over Jennifer. He stops at her stomach.
“Lisa, we're having a baby. Four months along. Aren't you excited for us?”
Lisa is anything but excited. She's confused, heartbroken, nauseous, and wanting to leave this town. Everything is wrong, and maybe if she crosses the city limits, she'll have her life back. Sure, Keith can be hard to get along with, caught up in his projects, easily distracted, but he is hers. Always. Since high school. Loyal and true and full of integrity to the bone. She has no idea who this man is, but she wants to get away. Before she pukes on the expensive carpet.
“Well, nice to meet you, Jennifer. Congrats on the baby and take good care of Keith.” Her voice cracks as she says her husband's name. The husband she didn't fully appreciate until now that he's gone.
“Bye, Keith! We've got to go now.”
“But you haven't seen my office, or our apartment, or anything.”
“I'm really just not feeling well. Some other time, OK?”
“Sure, sure. Want help buckling in the boys? I know how you hate that part of being a mom.”
“Nah, I'll be fine. Thanks. Good luck with the new job.”
She buckles tired boys into their seats, and starts the engine. It's not long before she's out of town. She holds her breath as she thinks about turning around to look at them. She's not ready. She comes to that decision many times before she realizes that what she really needs is to close her eyes. Just for a second. She pulls over and tilts her head back. Just a few minutes. For sanity.
“Get off my earbud cord you idiot! You've got your shit everywhere!”
“Sorry, Jace, I was sleeping. SORRY!” He receives a punch in the arm for his apology.
Lisa is instantly awake. And being lectured.
“Why the hell are you driving, Mom? You know I said I'd drive. You haven't driven the rig since Dad died. You're too nervous and emotional and shit.”
“Jace, Dad isn't dead. He's stuck in some weird time/space alternate universe thing in that weird town we stopped in yesterday.”
“Alright, Mom. Out of the driver's seat. You're not making sense and you're scaring the hell out of me. It was your idea to go camping so you could 'feel closer to Dad' so we came with you. But we never stopped in a town. There's NOTHING out here. That's why we brought the extra...never mind. Just MOVE OVER. I'm driving.”
She lets him. It's all too much. They keep heading for the mountains. Jace knows the way. They've camped here many times. He's right. There are no towns to pass through. Maybe she really is having the mental break her therapist warned her might come with the unexpected death of a spouse. That's right. She's thinking more clearly now. Keith's dead. Car accident. It's been three months.
“Hey Mom, do you have a trash bag? I'm like buried in crap back here from all of the snacks.”
She wearily hands him the trash bag. As he hands it back to her full, something heavy hits her leg. She opens the trash bag to make sure he hasn't thrown away a 3DS or something else valuable.
It's not anything like that. It's a sippy cup half full of milk.
Tina Downey lives in Colorado with her engineer husband and two boys. She blogs at Life is Good. http://kmdlifeisgood.blogspot.
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