Chuck’s Flash Fiction Challenge of the week: Bad Parents.
I struggled with this one because my parents are actually pretty good ones by virtually every yardstick I have by which to measure them. And, you write what you know, right? So I was stuck. I thought about writing to the news of the week, with the guy who essentially cooked his kid alive in a car, but the thought of getting inside a mind like that turned my stomach. Then I remembered this story which was told to me by a sweet old lady at the mall while we were chatting about my boy about a week ago.
So I decided to steal it and spruce it up.
Just a Sec, Ty
The dull hum of the food court is the roar of Fenway Park. Tyler checks the runner, catches a signal, tips his brim with sweaty fingers and draws back. His arm coils backward and slingshots forward, a striking serpent launching itself toward home plate. The ball hurtles through space, its seams blurring in a wicked curling dive.
But Tyler is ready.
His hawk eyes track the ball’s impossible movement, down and away. Like an unraveling slinky he plants, turns, swings, and connects. The ball goes screaming away into the stratosphere, a meteor streaking through the sky, shattering the sound barrier as it sails into the night.
Tyler starts to run.
His locomotive legs pound the turf as he races for the wall, its ivy expanse stretching off on both sides. Home run shot, no doubt about it, but only just. The wind whistles in his ears as he sprints, looks over his shoulder, and leaps. His legs like giant springs, he bounds into the air; an impossible leap, but he’s done it. The momentum of his catch sends him tumbling head over heels, til he stops, flat on his back, cradling the tiny ball in his glove. He hides it for a long moment, savoring the moment for himself. Then he leaps to his feet, thrusting the bit of horsehide into the air. His world erupts in a blinding spray of camera flashes.
The elderly man at table twenty-three claps and whistle at him over a plate of soggy lo mein. “Nice play, champ,” the gentleman says, his wrinkled features pulling into a warm grin. Tyler throws a glance over his shoulder. She hasn’t noticed. He trots over.
“Keep practicing,” the man says, “and you’ll be making those catches on TV one day.”
Tyler’s six-year-old eyes shine, and he pulls his two-sizes-too-big pants up at his waist. “You think so?”
She still isn’t looking. She missed the pitch, missed the home run swing, missed the miraculous catch. Tyler tugs his cap straight and meanders off through the food court. He walks past kids his age, older kids, toddlers and babies in strollers. This one’s parents are holding both his hands and swinging him through the air, this one’s mom is licking a napkin and dabbing at her face, that one is screaming holy hell while dad pats him on the back, mumbling soothing nonsense at him.
Tyler’s feet carry him into Sears, past the shelves of shining silver appliances and the rows upon rows of brilliant television screens, until he sees it: his chariot of fire, a fully-loaded formula one racer with brand new tires and green paint, luminescent in the sun. He jumps in, buckles his belt and helmet on, feels the engine snarl all the way down to his butt cheeks. The checkered flag goes up and his world narrows to the road in front of him and the cars on either side, blistering past him like angry bees, roaring in his head like a rampant Tyrannosaur.
He blinks. What’s this old lady doing on the race course? But the cars are dissolving, his helmet is gone, and now he’s just Tyler, sitting on a shiny new John Deere lawnmower, with this janitor looking at him. It’s concern on her face, and he doesn’t quite know what that means. All he can do is stare.
“Pretty nice driving, there.”
She’s wearing a red polo shirt, she works in the mall. He hops off, doesn’t want to get in trouble.
“Where’s your parents?”
Tyler shrugs. Don’t talk to strangers.
“I followed you from the food court. Where’s your mom?”
Another shrug, a shuffle of his feet.
“Can I help you look for her?”
Tyler looks in her eyes for the first time. Kind eyes, like the old guy watching him hit home runs. Like his grandmother’s, in a dim memory from when he used to visit her. Half a lifetime ago. She’s not dead, mom just doesn’t take him to visit anymore. He nods and thrusts his hand out for her to hold, which she does. Her hand is dry and warm and big, and her fingers close around his and he feels safe.
She’s still on the playground, amidst the raucous toddlers and kindergartners and first graders, seated on a bench at the back, next to a plastic padded mushroom. She doesn’t look up. Her fingers fly across the face of the little black device in her hands, her face free of any emotion.
“Mom!” Tyler runs to her, hugs her knee.
“Just a sec, Ty.” Click click click click.
The janitor clears her throat. “Excuse me, miss?”
Click click. “Hmm?”
“Just thought you ought to know I brought your boy back from Sears.”
Mom looks up. “What?” She glares at Tyler. “Is that true?”
Tyler’s face flushed and he stares at his shoes. The woman in the red shirt kneels next to him and puts a hand on his shoulder. “He was all right. Driving him a race car. But I thought he ought to be getting back to you.” She gives Mom a stern look.
Mom snatches Tyler’s hand and pulls him away. “I don’t need you to touch my son.”
Mom yanks him out of the playground, and tears spring into his eyes. Tyler throws a glance backward at the janitor and thinks he sees tears sparkling in her eyes, too. But then his mom’s hand isn’t a hand at all. It’s a thick, ropey vine, and the jungle is singing around him as he swings through the trees, dodging the legs of passersby like so many tree trunks in the wilderness flashing by.
A momentary distraction as Mom’s voice breaks through the vision: “wouldn’t believe what just happened to me, the nerve of this woman…” and Tyler’s heart lifts, because he knows now she’ll be talking about him all day.