Monday, March 5, 2012

Once Upon a Moonlit Park

Carl traced snowflakes on the frosted window pane. His parents were arguing again. They were always arguing. It didn’t seem to matter what the subject was, his parents found a way to argue. He thought it might have started with something about who was supposed to pick him up from school last week, when he had sat an hour afterward without a parent in sight. Then, it had escalated to how the other parent never took responsibility.

His parents were standing over the kitchen table, gesticulating and spitting with ferocity. Everyone else’s parents always seemed so happy. They always laughed and kissed each other, hugging their kid often and well. Everyone else was never left at school for an hour. Everyone else’s parents never fought about them.

Carl felt someone tap his shoulder. He turned to meet the wrinkled, soft, sad eyes of his Grandma Jo. She gave him a sympathetic smile.

Johanna understood Carl. She knew her son now saw her as a burden. She knew her son and daughter-in-law often argued about what to do with her, a dilapidated woman becoming increasingly dependent on others. They did not know what a brave face she had put on, how frightening and frustrating it was to not only lose your husband but slowly lose herself. They did not know, but they did not want to learn.

Johanna gestured to her grandson to follow her, away from the bickering adults. She could see the unusually solemn countenance that no child should bear, so she held his hand tight without words. The poor child had been exposed to enough harsh words to last a lifetime. She carefully helped him into his jacket and boots. She bedecked herself in her own winter coat, then they walked out to the lightly descending snow.

Travis stared his wife down. Just a few years ago, they were swearing to give their lives to one another, then, slowly, the magic faded and real life had filled its place. ‘I love you’s had been replaced by ‘why do you?’s and ‘why don’t you?’s. Screaming brats intruded on the tender time they once shared. Every day, it became more difficult to complete that drive home from work.

The beers he had before helped ease the drive and the worst of the urging in his gut to just keep on driving past his house. But now, as he stared at his wife as she accused him of not caring, those urgings were growing, evolving into some deep, dark ugly beast. He hated his wife. He actually hated her. The way her voice sounded nasally when she was upset. The way she would only talk to him with her hip stuck way out to the side, a child optionally sitting on the protrusion. The way she applied her red lipstick in the morning, which made it smeared and unbecoming the time he came home.

He hated his wife. And now she was yelling at him, about something or another. He found it difficult to focus on her words. They never meant anything. She didn’t mean anything. He must have been much drunker than this when he decided he was going to marry the bitch. God, she was annoying.

He told her this in a slur, but she just accused him of being drunk. She was such prude. He had the sudden impulse to grab her, stop her from that high pitched screeching.

He couldn’t remember making the conscious decision, but suddenly, his hand was up, the kids were screaming, and his wife’s face was bowed. What had he done? He couldn’t think. He must have hit her. She was backing away from him now with fearful eyes.

She didn’t say anything now. At least the bitch had shut up. But, the kids, they were screaming bad things. Calling him bad names. His little daughter was the worst, with those hurt little eyes and telling him to go away, daddy, go away.

What had he done now? He would go away. He turned around swiftly, heading for the door, but the hallway was tilting. Maybe he shouldn’t have had the third beer. He grabbed at his keys, tumbling from the doorway. He went to put his keys in his car. He paused. If he got in the car now, he wouldn’t come back.

He sighed, stuffing his hands into his pockets. He needed to clear his head. He started walking toward the park, shuffling through the snow drifts.

Maria paused, coughing heavily as mist billowed around her face in the freezing air.  Her hands, face, and toes were numb, but her chest was exploding. She checked her watch. That lap had been slower. She was failing at everything. First, there was that paper that was covered in red marks and then that awful math exam. Then, her boyfriend dumped her. And, she gained two pounds. Now, she couldn’t even run.

She pulled herself off of her knees, pressing herself onward. If she ran fast enough, she would forget everything, she could outrun her worries. If only she could just run forever, and never face the bitter failure coating her life in this mucus.

She pumped her arms faster as she rounded a curve. Her feet kept slipping in the snowy path, but she could not stop. She could never stop, for it she did, she would realize she was nothing.

Johanna placed her arm around Carl as they walked on the park path. Night had settled deeply, leaving warm lampposts to light their path which the snow reflected in crystalline brilliance, like stars on Earth.

They paused by the frozen pond, sitting on a bench as Johanna caught her breath. Neither wished to break the silence. Silence was so golden when every moment at home was exploding with bitter language.

They watched as a downtrodden man with only a thin coat meander up the path towards them, his chin cemented to his collar, his brow furrowed.

Behind him, a thin young woman, was rushing with a gazelle-like stride to pass him. He stumbled to his left a little, clipping the young woman. Her eyes went wide, and she tumbled onto the snow-covered pavement as the man attempted to regain his balance.

Johanna and Carl found their feet, but the man was quicker to the young woman. He offered his arm, which she didn’t seem to notice. She rose to her feet, but quickly collapsed again, clutching her ankle. The man was spouting apologies with ferocity, his face grief-stricken as the woman tried to assure him it was nothing through a voice tight with pain.

Carl and Travis helped Maria to the bench where Johanna dabbed at the young woman’s tear streaked cheeks.

“Thank you. I’m sorry. It doesn’t hurt that bad,” she tried to assure them. “It just that, that,  I can’t do anything.” She broke down. The frigid air froze her tears as they reached the collar of her running jacket.

For a moment, no one did anything, so surprised at the outburst of emotion. Then, Carl walked up to the girl and wordless wrapped his arms around her shoulders. With childlike wisdom, he whispered, “Don’t listen to the bad voices that tell you you can’t. You’re more than them.”

She sniffled, but looked up with abnormally large brown eyes into Carl’s. She smiled slightly.

“Thank you,” she said.

“I’m very sorry. I’m so sorry,” the man gushed. “If there’s anything I can do-”

“It’s fine. I was running too quickly. It was my fault,” Maria returned.

“No, no. If I wasn’t there- I’m just so sorry. I mean-” Travis continued.

“Sometimes you hurt people you don’t mean to, but that’s just life. Accidents happen. It’s what you do afterwards that matters. Do you need someone to drive you home, dear?” Johanna said, turning to Maria.

“No. I have a car. It’s not far away,” Maria said, wiping her eyes. She stood up carefully, testing her ankle slowly and attempting to hide the pain it caused.

“I’ll help you,” Carl said, putting his shoulders beneath her arm. “Just tell me where to walk.”

“Oh, it’s not far. Just by those trees over there. You don’t really need to, though,” she said.

“But, I want to,” Carl said simply, beginning to help her inch along. “Here, Grandma, take my other hand.”

“You’ve got quite a grandson there, Ma’am. You’re lucky to have him. I have a son several years younger than him,” Travis said.

“Do you hug him and say you love him?” Carl asked seriously, turning to the older man. His steady eyes pierced through his heart.

“Not often enough. I just- Well,  I- I don’t know. Sometimes parents are too caught up in themselves to tell their kid how much they mean to them,” he said embarrassed.

Strangely enough, Travis turned to find a new light in Carl’s eyes. However, the boy just nodded, and the quartet continued slowly down the snowy walk.

“Well, this is my car. Thanks for helping me,” Maria said.

“Once again, I’m very sorry,” Travis said.

“It’s okay. I mean, I won’t be able to run with my team for cross-country, but sometimes, it’s not what you yourself can do, but how you can help and cheer on others. Thanks for all your help,” Maria said.

Johanna smiled and whispered, “Thank you” as the other two did the same.

Maria drove back to her dorm where she started with renewed determination on her math homework with a large mug of hot chocolate. Travis walked to a store where he bought his wife a dozen roses and signed up for an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Carl and Johanna went home where they found Carl’s parents arguing in the exact same place as when they left them. Johanna whispered to Carl to go hug his parents, and when he did, they stopped fighting and hugged him back.

A new day began to dawn.

This started on a cold Christmas Eve, but it stayed stalled for a long time. I got an idea for all the characters in this short immediately, but I wasn't sure what I wanted to do with them. I liked the idea of them being initially incomplete as individuals, but completing each other when they met. I wasn't sure how to get them to that point. I came up with several intricate paths (one of which included an explosion), but I finally decided on just keeping it simple as I think that best emphasizes the theme I was going for. Hopefully, it is effective.

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