By Lew Gibb
Runner up Winter 2017 WOW! Women on Writing flash fiction contest contest.
I reach the crest of the Jones Pass ridge and stop. The mountain air immediately begins to cool the perspiration dampening my shirt and I shake out my soggy ponytail. Clouds hang over the world like a dingy grey afghan, letting in enough light to illuminate the world, but not enough to animate it. Fall arrives early at 12,000 feet. My half brother Rich catches up as I’m pulling a jacket from my pack. He’s dripping sweat, panting from our four mile hike up Herman’s Gulch. Rich groans and pushes both arms through his shoulder straps and his pack falls to the ground with a dead thud. He’s at least thirty pounds overweight and the most exercise he gets these days is wrestling the cap off another beer.
“Let’s get this over with,” I say, pulling on my jacket.
“Give me a minute will ya?” Rich says, between gasps.
I love painting here. The constantly changing of the light. The snow filling the valley until mid-summer. The red tailed hawks soaring overhead. This place is my church and my sanctuary. With its lack of obligations and demands, or questions about what I’ll be doing in ten years. It imparts a calmness so profound my brain can shut down and just be.
“Let’s get this done and get back home,” I finally say.
“This is serious, Michelle.” It takes him two breaths. “I don’t want to just rush through this.”
“No. Let’s prolong the moment.”
Rich laces his fingers together on top of his head. “Don’t you want to do this?”
“No, I don’t. Especially not here.”
“I don’t want him ruining it.”
“How will he ruin it?”
“Did you grow up in the same house I did?” My voice rises. “On my tenth birthday, he gave me twenty dollars and told me to get myself a present. Then he took off for Vegas with Uncle Joe.”
“I don’t remember that.” Rich sits on a large boulder. His forehead wrinkles.
“He was gone for two weeks.” I yell. “He never even called.”
“Who cooked then?” He looks at me with narrowed eyes.
“I did.” It wasn’t really cooking. Spaghetti O’s and PBJs. “I guess I shouldn’t expect you to remember. You were only eight. It was right after your mom bailed.”
Rich’s face closes down in an angry frown and I want to take the words back. His memory of his mother—largely constructed from fantasies, and lies I told him—is a fragile one. I’m not even sure why I’m pushing this so hard.
“I’m sorry, Rich.” I put a hand on his back. “I’m just pissed at him. You know?”
He bats my hand away. Starts digging in his pack. “Why are you so mad at him?” Rich says. “He wasn’t the best father, but he never did anything bad to us.”
“He didn’t do anything good either.” I never told Rich how I would bait Dad into hitting me. I took the hits so he could grow up innocent.
“He was still our father.”
“Father.” I shake my head. “Right.”
“Oh. Like you’re perfect.” His round face turns red and his eyes begin to tear up. “You drink too much, and you’ve been divorced twice.”
“That’s what I’m saying. I’m a mess. And it’s all because that son-of-a-bitch couldn’t care less for anyone except himself.”
He pulls the box out of his pack, breaks the seal, and starts spreading the ashes. “Maybe you need to take some responsibility, and stop using Dad as an excuse for your problems.”
A grey cloud swirls around him, then dissipates. Gone. Ever since I can remember, I’ve been angry and frustrated that he wasn’t a real dad. I realize that, besides being unwilling, he was probably incapable of it. And, now that he’s dead, worrying about him ruining my place is giving him too much power. Sure he screwed up my childhood, but I’ve had plenty to do with screwing up my adulthood. The clouds are breaking up a little and the sun illuminates the ridge with the ethereal brilliance of early fall that makes things seem both extremely sharp, and unreal. My dead father can’t affect the beauty of my place. Rich has finished with the ashes and stands staring at the ground.
I walk over and put my arm around his shoulder. “Actually,” I say. “It was a good idea to do this up here.”