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Summer had come early that year; it was the start of November and already in full force. We were in for a killer Christmas.

I was six at the time. It was just three weeks after my birthday, and my parents had taken me on a family picnic. You know the type; the sun burning the back of your neck, the breeze cooling your skin, and the birds singing joyfully as you munch on cold meats.

Our picnics were mostly pleasant. Spry grass moulded the tattered rug into uneven lumps and the wildflowers of the secluded field lent a fragrant atmosphere. Plastic cutlery and crockery covered the blanket as ants weaved their way towards the makings of a salad separated into aged and cracked Tupperware containers.

My parents would usually sit close and talk about all sorts of things. Half the time I didn't understand what it was about; I was usually off playing somewhere anyway.

That summer, however, they barely talked at all. They had had an argument again the night before, and that day they just looked at each other with tired eyes. I didn't even get my mother's ritual warning about watching out for snakes as I ventured away from the rug.

Long tentacles of grass seemed to grasp at my legs as I walked through the field and around a knot of trees where I searched the stems of flowers and trunks of saplings for grasshoppers. If I found one, I would put it into a large plastic tank to feed until I got bored and let it go.

I used to like caterpillars. Providing them with food, I would watch as they cut tiny circlets from the leaves. eventually, they would spin themselves into silken beds and wake up as butterflies - or occasionally, moths - which I would go out into the garden and set free, watching as the either went to the nearest flower or made their way above the stalks of sugar cane towad the nearby mountains.

Caterpillars held no interest for me anymore. There always seemed to be an abundance of grasshoppers, despite the cane toads and farmers that tried to wipe them out. That's probably what fascinated me with them in the first place - their hardy nature. The grasshoppers seemed to be keeping out of sight that day.

I was staring up at the richly-gilded clouds when my parents fought. The rainless cotten drifted lazily on the breeze. Enraptured by the megalithic shapes, I watched as one of the clouds changed from a racing car into a horse and carriage, bounding off into the distance.

The cloud was dissolving into an amorphous blobl when my father stormed around the knot of trees that hid the picnic rug. Silhouetted against the glow of the sun, he stopped a few meters from me. An itch tickled at my knee and I scratched it absently.

Standing there for a moment, he lowered his head to look at me and said something, but I only heard a murmur. I could hear the strain, the crack of emotion, and a stutter. Then he was gone, running recklessly though the trees, jumping ditches and kicking up leaves until I lost sight of him in the underbrush and shadows.

I yelled after him, but it was too late.

Stunned, I got to my feet, brushing off leaf fragments and grass, and stared at the spot where he had been - the grass had already sprung back into place. Eventually, when I began to wonder about my mother, I went to find her. The rug was still there, but she wasn't. There was no sign of her in the surrounding thicket either.

A glass lay on its side on the rug, a stain of red spread from the rim and over the foot of Joey, my stuffed kangaroo, resting against the wicker basket.

Picking up Joey, I surveyed the surrounding forest, looking for a sign from my parents, a way out - a way back to out home somewhere on the other side of the trees.

Darkness encrouched quickly. Shadows claimed the entire field and the purple sky turned blue-black. Clutchin Joey, I sat on the rug and held him tight. Even through my shirt I could feel his lumpy body and theprickle where the fur had all but worn away.

I wanted to go home. i wanted my dad. i wanted my parents make up like they always did, but they fought so often now that I knew probably wasn't going to happen like I wanted it to. Still, I prayed for it.

I remember when my parents first started to drift apart. Actually, it was more like being torn apart by an earthquake, a chasm suddenly appearing between them where none had been before.

I was younger then; only five years old. My father and I were playing Cowboys and Indians. Those were my earliest and fondest memories. I would sneak up behind him, a little plastic gun in my hand and his oversized Akubra on my head. He would wear a feather sticking out of a headband pilfered from my mother's wardrobe.

Leaping out at him from behind a tree or the corner of the house I would yell, "Bang! Bang! You're dead you nasty Injun!" He'd always jump like he hadn't known I was there, then fall down and play dead, spasming and jerking in ways that had me giggling until my stomach hurt and tears sprang up in the corners of my eyes.

Mum was happy then too. She'd sit at her Potters' wheel on the weathered porch, kneading and sculpting clay into a bowl or cup, or something you'd be hard-pressed to recognise. As we rolled around in the dirt she would laugh with us, half of the time destroying her masterpiece. Of course, she would also admonish him for being so rough with me, but I could see genuine affection in her eyes.

"You boys play nice," she would say. "If I find a scraped knee or blood nose, there';; be hell to pay."

"Aw, come on mum. We're just playing."

"Yeah mum," dad would taint.

"I know what th epair of you're like. Now go inside and wash up for dinner."

It was good then, but things changed. We were playing inside the house one day while my mother was shopping for groceries. She wasn't there to tell us to go outside.

I had just killed dad with much shouting and yehawing when somebody knocked at the front door.

"Yay! Grampa!" I said, jumping up.

Dad rose to his knees and ooked at the door. "Go outside and play," he siad.

"But dad..."

Just go."

Sulking, I slammed the door as I left. I didn't get a good look at the stranger, but it wasn't grandpa who had shown up for his weekly visit. The stranger and dad seemed to be talking intensly, softly at first, but before long their voices filtered through the kitchen windows.

For some reason, dad kept looking out the window. His arm would fly up and point outside. Whenever I caught a glimpse of his face, it seemed distorted and crimson with rage. I'd never seen him so angry, and I was afraid for the stranger, but after a few minutes and with a final burst of shouting from dad, the stranger stormed out, slamming the front door as he went. Dad brought his head up to look directly at me through the window. For a fleeting moment I saw hate in his eyes, pure and intense.

Wiping the back of a hand across his face, he broke eye contact and sighed. Turning away, he shook his head and melted into the shadows of the house.

When my mother came home, they had the first argument I can remember them ever having. dad was sitting at the kitchen table, staring at his hands, when she shuffled through the back door.

"I had a visitor today," he said.

"Oh, whe was it?" she asked as she heaved the grocery bags onto the table.

"His father." He spat the words out as if they were spoiled milk. Startled, mum dropped the apple she had taken from a bag. It hit the floor with a solid thud and rolled up against my foot.

"Go to bed," she said coldly, without shifting her eyes from my father.

When I hesitated she snapped her head around, "Now!"

Upset, I walked to my room, avoiding the floorboards that creaked, so I could listen to their voices as they spoke.

"Who is he?" my father said.

"Nobody."

"You're lying," he shouted.

"You already know who he is," she said so quietly that I almost couldn't hear her. Something smashed in the kitchen. There was more shouting and the bass oice of my father filtered down to me, but the words were unintelligible through the closed door of my bedroom.

On the verge of tears, I shut myself in my wardrobe, snuggled in with the shoes that smelled like raw dirt, dust mites, and Joey.

Joey was my best friend. Whenever I needed it, I found comfort with him, petting his smooth fur like a cat and clasping his soft body against my chest. He calmed me, made me feel like everything would be okay so long as I was with him, even though he wasn't real.

After that night, their first argument, things changed. neither of them spent much time with me anymore. Dad would only glance at me from the corner of his eyes, and she would look at me only out of obligation.

When my sixth birthday came around everything appeared like it would be okey. That day, at least, they seemed to have put aside their animosity to celebrate my birth, rather than regret my existance.

"Here's your present," they said in unison as my dad pulled a brightly-wrapped parcel from behind his back with an extravagant flourish.

"What is it?" I said, jumping up and down, already hyped up on chocolate cake and red cordial.

"It's a surprise," mum said.

Tearing at the wrapping paper, I found the one thing I had been looking forward to. Nothing dramatic, just a fifty-set of matchbox cars, but it was a big deal at the time.

Hugging my parents, I pulled them closer together. They didn't resist and looked happy. Thrilled, even. They looked at each other in a way they hadn't done since the stranger came to our house. For the first time in months I thought everything was going to be just fine, and that we would be a happy family again.

Then we had that picnic.

"Wake up," mum said, shaking me.

"Huh?"

"Time to go home."

"What time is it?" I asked, stifling a yawn.

"Near midnight," she siad.

"I should be in bed."

"Yes, you should be."

"You left me here," I said.

She was silent, just looking at me.

"Mum? Where's dad?"

She just kept staring, her eyes hidden in the shadows cast by the torchlight.

"Mum?"

"Let's go home."



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The following comments are for "Last Summer"
by xayaxos





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