Herr Chuck Wendig, the new Dad and Head Penmonkey over at the Terrible Minds Website/Zombie Army Recruitment Center, has issued a 1000 Word Flash Fiction challenge involving that most imminent of all holidays, Independence Day.
This is actually a sequel/continuation/postscript to my novel, which I haven't talked much about since its publication lo these many months ago. You don't need to have read it to get the story, although if you have read it, the characters and their relationships will be a lot clearer. (And should you want to, purchasing information is conveniently located on the sidebar.) But there's enough exposition here that you'll get the important parts, even if you haven't read it. (Which puts you in good company- 99.99% of the other life forms on planet Earth haven't read it, either.) (And, in the unlikely event you have read it, don't fret- there is a character in here who isn't in the novel. So you're not losing your memory.)
The story is called "Hello Goodbye"
It was a weird situation, but we liked it. I watched Kate run, thundering after a group of other wet, squirming preschoolers, following her with one eye while trying to stay focused on the conversation around me. It was just like they taught you in basketball- when you guard someone who doesn't have the ball, you follow the ball with one eye while following your opponent with the other. You get holistic- you try to take in the whole scene, trusting your instincts to tell you when it's time to focus.
I wasn't anything to Kate- not her father, though I was with her so often people assumed that. I didn't really mind- the truth was very hard to explain. Angela, her aunt, all legs and teenage awkwardness, was no relation to me whatsoever. Angela's mother, and Wendy's, who we all took to calling "Mom-Mom" because of her antipathy for "Grandmother", was also not my relative. But we were a family, a 20th century amalgam of those who loved this sweaty, bathing suited blond who was now involved in trying to catch the family dog, a friendly greyhound who put up with the little grabbing hands with equanimity.
One of Kate's "friends" (at 3, do you really have friends?) was born on July 4, which, I reflected, had to be a miserable time of year to be 9 months pregnant. So the girl, a pig tailed wonder named Grace, wound up losing her birthday amid the traditional pomp and circumstance. Grace's mom, a super competent, frighteningly pretty dark haired mom of 5, has begun what she promises will be an annual ritual, a barbeque/pool party/Independence Day party/birthday party. Her plan worked, their frankly gorgeous house now thronged with friends of all her kids, their relatives, and seemingly anyone who drove by.
We weren't mixers by nature, this family that wasn't. Kate was, of course- at her age, all you cared about was what fresh adventure the next 15 minutes would bring. You loved hard, and lost hard, and whatever you wanted, whether it was lunch or the toy truck that little boy was holding, you wanted it NOW. She was exhausting, but a refreshing reminder that every moment was important.
I heard Kate's wail instantly, a mix of pain and surprise and fear. Mom Mom told me I would get like this: before you're a parent, which I wasn't biologically but was in every other sense, every kid cry sounds alike. But when it's yours, you can hear it from a hundred yards. Kate had misjudged a wet, muddy corner, her sandaled feet sliding out from under her. She landed on one hip, sliding as if she were stealing second for a yard or so.
I resisted the urge to go to her, as I had been taught. Mom Mom's wisdom from raising two daughters was to wait and see if they could sort it out on their own. Sometimes the joy of play overcame the discomfort and they would pick up and move on as if nothing had happened. Kate saw me look, and that brought her to her feet and over towards me. She probably sees the chance for some free sympathy. I was willing to give it. Mom Mom had heard the cry, drinking white wine with the other parents on the deck. She caught my eye, seeing that I had it controlled, and returned to her conversation.
One sandal unbuckled, Kate made her way over to me, full cheeks red with sun and anger. I crouched onto one knee, like I was in an on deck circle, fingers reaching for her tiny shoe. Since her birth, I had more experience with buckles, bows, and straps than I ever had before.
"Unca Ray," she began. I was Uncle until she was old enough to understand the truth. "I falled."
"Yes, you did fall," I told her, fastening her shoe in place. "Are you okay?"
She climbed eagerly onto my knee, wrapping both arms around my neck. She sniffled once.
"Yeah. I think I OK." She untangled herself and dashed off to rejoin the fray. I stood up. My T shirt, a silkscreen of a photo with the longhaired, bearded, about to break up Beatles, had a stain of grass, water, and mud across George Harrison's face. I had long since given up the expectation that any clothes of mine would remain unmarked.
Angela had wandered off in search of teen company, leaving Emmeline standing there to look at me bemusedly.
"You're so good with her," she said softly. She always spoke softly, almost like she was trying to make sure you cared enough to listen. She had on a pretty patterned dress, light and airy in the July heat. She looked lovely, perfectly able to fit in with the other moms at the party. But she was my age and childless.
The other parents are your age, too, I told myself.
"Thanks," I said, not knowing how else to respond.
"It's nice that she has you. I don't understand it, but it's good for her. She loves you."
"I'm not sure I understand it either. But it's there." I couldn't say it any clearer.
"I can't help but envy her."
"Em, she's three."
"I know, but she owns you. You're always there for her." Her words were curling at the edges now. She was biting them off.
"I'm there for you, too."
"I just know where I rank, is what I'm saying." Emmeline walked towards the porch, her wineglass empty. I watched her walk.
I thought about the Beatles. "You say goodbye, and I say hello."