Sample chapter

CRUEL SUMMER

“Believe and tell me what you see.”

“I see the door. I feel the summer behind this closed door.”

“Summer?”

“Warm and lazy summer that never ends. I hear the wheels rolling and the boards exploding on tarmac! Everywhere is happiness. Can you believe that, Mikey? Can you believe that?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter

 

 

 

One: To ollie (this is the basic and, according to many, the simplest of tricks), plant your front foot across the middle of the board and the ball of your back foot in the center of the tail. The tail of the board stretches from the back truck bolts to its rear end, the nose of the board stretches from the . . .

 

 

 

       HE IS SEVENTEEN. A FREE ENTITY OF A SIX-AND-SOMETHING MILLION population of New Manhattan, panicky in an effort to keep pace with the time and catching a short night break before the challenges of a new day. The fact that it is summer means nothing to anyone. The pulse of New York City continues to beat wildly, madly, and exhausting.

       He is young, very young. Healthy, too, except for a swollen lip and a bruised eye. His face will soon become a specimen of various colors. That doesn’t concern him much because he has to think about other things. More important than just the one bruise.

       The afternoon in which he found himself is sunny but fresh – the story of this summer. This summer is cold, the coldest one in this century. New Yorkers have already spun a name for it.

       Cruel summer.

       Cruel summer, Michael thinks, shivering with cold. Wearing a washed out T-shirt, over which he pulled a hooded sweatshirt with a drawing of a grinning skeleton printed above the word Blind, are doing a poor job in keeping him warm. If someone asked him, he wouldn’t hesitate much before taking down the pathetic sun with one shot.

       Or rather those who made it so . . . uneconomical.

       This time again, the main alternative energy source perfidiously ran dry, opening the doors wide to the rebirth of another wave of pollution and new atmospheric changes.

       New climate disturbances.

       Michael makes a face. He pictures the reaction of the mayor of the biggest metropolis in the world with hundreds of thousands of households turning the heating on in August, thus causing an overload of the power grid and starting a new chain reaction of chaos.

       As if he cares about that! He is not one of the Greenpeace greens.

       But the grass he is standing on is green. Although slightly scorched by morning frost. The perfect setting for his gloomy feelings and depressing thoughts.

       The cemetery is quiet and empty, and it looks rather sad. Who would even think of wandering at such a lonely place during the biggest traffic jam in town? Who except its occupants, perhaps a homeless person, a thief, a human organs snatcher, or a necrophiliac . . .?

       Or, maybe, Michael.

       Michael lowers his gaze from the sky wrapped up in the haze of the various evaporation and particles of suspicious origin. Astonished and seemingly distracted, he begins to stare at a marble tombstone before him. Fancy, not too big, with just enough space on it for the names of the spouses and the years of their birth and death. And the names of their children, too – provided they want it and that rivers of life won’t take them to some distant places.

       Nothing more. Modest and simple. That was Michael’s mother’s wish. Michael’s father didn’t object. Michael knew his reasons: Hank doesn’t like to spend money on unimportant things. But, this is yet another story which never questioned the greatness of his love for his late wife. Michael is a living witness of that, isn’t he?

       Melanie Hope Daniels.

       Melanie Hope Daniels – golden letters in white marble.

       Her face surrounded by an aura of tenderness.

       Forgiveness.

       Compliance.

       Humility.

       Humility.

       That was his mother, with her modest gaze full of love.

       That is all Michael had from her now, with a promise he gave her before she passed away: he will take care of his sister and watch over her.

       Melanie Hope had high hopes in him, in reality, still a boy. She trusted the hidden strength behind his relaxed manner, seemingly indifferent and defiant rebellion. She believed the contempt in his eyes with which he regarded most of the world around him. She put her faith in a “rebel without a cause” in a world which offered thousands of reasons for rebelliousness, in an unhappy child to whom not even unconditional motherly love could blunt the edge of his doomed birth.

       (Wrong place? Wrong time? Who can say?)

       The vision of his mother is slowly disappearing, devoured by the cold marble.

       The world is standing at its end. Or is it the beginning of something new?

       The Hope is dead. What will bring the dawning of a new day? At the end of the millennium.

       “Mother,” Michael dreamily says.

       One word. One sigh.

       A warm wisp of air swallowed by haze. And grayness. In the city of light, money, success, and synthetic kitsch. This is at least what Michael thinks of it – a crossroad of contradictions and unimaginable extremes.

       Nevertheless . . .

       . . . nevertheless he still loved it in some bizarre way and he still didn’t leave its harbor in quest for a better life in the Old World. He had three good reasons for that. Three good reasons that still hold him here. For now.

      The first lies at his feet; the second is relishing the blessings of school holidays in the wilds of Colorado; while the last but not the least important one is patiently waiting for Michael to turn his attention to it. That is exactly what he does.

       Leaving a fresh footprint in the wet ground, Michael picks up his skateboard, shoves a Creature flex-fit hat low on his forehead and sets forth.

       Toward the streets which he will plunge down. Toward the asphalt that will roar under his wheels.

       Thuuunderooously!

 

 

***

 

 

       Silence greets him when he enters the apartment. Deserted and cold. Fashionable, too big and too comfortable, equipped with state of the art domestic appliances – a poor substitute for what his father wasn’t giving him.

       But he leaves him a full fridge with a message attached to its sparkly polished ice-blue door instead: I’m afraid I won’t be home until late. Dine without me. Don’t wait for me. I’ll eat something at work. SURPRISE me and come home before small hours. I need to talk to you. I really need to talk to you about something. Dad.

       Instinctively, Michael touches his chapped lip with his fingers as if trying to protect himself from a new pain. But the pain again surges, accompanied by a flood of curse words from the boy. You can bet that we will have something to talk about!

       He washes his hands and face, but he doesn’t change his clothes. He isn’t planning on staying long. Longer than it is necessary.

       He digs a handful of ice cubes from the freezer and presses a cold compress on the face. Guys will tease the hell out of him when they see the ugly swelling. But Michael isn’t in the mood for teasing today. He feels lonely, with his ships sunken and vulnerable. His sister Rebecca’s departure affected him more than he is willing to admit.

       The richness of colors, scents and flavors splashes onto his face when he opens the refrigerator. The starving vagrants would kill for this moment, illuminated by an electric light bulb. Suddenly, he is disgusted with the sight of so much food and Michael gives up the sandwich for which his stomach cried. With deep regret he says no to the ham from one of the genetic engineering farms.

       (What would his father think when he learned that his own children were boycotting what he did for a living?)

       Taking a deep breath, he grabs the carton of milk and slams the fridge door with his foot.

       (That is what Michael thinks of his father’s important work.)

       He pours cold milk in a plastic bowl, mixes it with corn flakes with strawberry flavor and coats the whole mixture with an excessively thick layer of brown sugar. Positioning himself in front of a large screen plasma TV, he begins to eat dinner.

       Nervously changing programs to the rhythm of a mouthful of cereal, he begins to surf for something worth fifty dollars a month cable bill. Nothing interesting. A pile of junk. Pure propaganda. Obvious and transparent lies. Old and already repeatedly watched movies.

       Via satellite he stumbles upon MC Solaar. Delighted by unexpected good fortune he activates his hologram, but his mood quickly deflates with the first beats of the old Backstreet Boys’ hit. Quit playing games with my heart! Michael yells back and turns off the screen. There is no way he can understand how his sister can listen to that kind of music.

       For a moment he stops eating, his mouth still stuffed with personally prepared mash and saliva. He could feel the flakes dissolving in his mouth, the sugar melting. The sweet taste of strawberries fills every cell in his body, irresistibly dragging him to his grandparents’ ranch.

       The presence and proximity of his sister are more real than the illusion. As if he got into one of the games of virtual reality. Everything else disappears except this experience.

       Rebecca is in the greenhouse, a big dome in the backyard of the farm. The air is thick with sweet odors and Michael spontaneously wrinkles his nose. The sight of Rebecca picking flowers catches his attention. No doubt, yellow roses will adorn the table tonight, too. Roses yellow like the sun. Roses yellow like ripe corn. Roses yellow like the summer.

       The cruel summer.

       That brings him back to reality. To the chilly Greenwich Village, into the world of bohemians, artists and streets swarming with all kinds of couples. Still preoccupied with his thoughts, he finishes up his simple dinner.

       For years already Michael kept asking his mom why they hadn’t moved from that neighborhood, but he never got a proper answer that would satisfy his boyish curiosity. Melanie Hope couldn’t give him the required reason why they weren’t moving and that started to confuse him.

       (Maybe she liked it here? Maybe she didn’t mind the male and female couples holding hands? Maybe she was more liberal than he was? Not really, actually. Not his mother.)

       He didn’t ask his father about that. He never asked Hank about such things. Actually, Hank and Michael never seriously talked. Intimacy was something strange, alien to them, at least when they had something to tell to each other.

       Michael didn’t like his father. Nor did he respect him. Michael wasn’t sure if his mother was aware of the cold that reigned between them. But, in reality, he didn’t hate Hank, except in the moments when the two of them got into a fight which usually led to physical conflict. Michael could not stand it. He couldn’t stand his father to touch him. That is why he stayed away from him whenever it was possible. That is how the streets of New York became his second, adopted home.

       Michael thought of Hank as of a sick and disturbed person. A very sick person. From this reason he didn’t hate him. Each time Hank became unpleasant, Michael suppressed his true feeling and let compassion to overwhelm him. That wasn't easy, but in a way Michael really felt sorry for him. But nothing more than that. This is as far as he could, and was ready to go.

       Had Melanie Hope been aware of her husband’s dark side, Michael couldn’t tell for certain. But she was his wife, therefore she should at least suspect how unpleasant Hank could be.

       And Hank could be unpleasant.

       Very unpleasant.

       Was that why she asked her son for a favor before she finally succumbed to pneumonia? Was that why she asked him to take care of their precious one: a little girl they both unconditionally and equally sincerely loved? Maybe Melanie Hope knew after all that Hank was not capable of such love?

       Stricken by a sudden rush of feelings, Michael loses his appetite. The pain returns, both the mental and physical one.

       He carries the unfinished dinner to the kitchen and then, like a sleepwalker, goes to the bathroom and finds a bottle of painkillers in his father’s cabinet. He shakes out two pills of Darvocet and washes them down with water directly from the tap; then he repeats the whole procedure. He regains his self-confidence, though not completely.

       Urged with irresistible desire to call Denver, he drags himself to his father’s working room and hellos the electronic pet on his father’s desk.

       “Sergio Unit, connect me with Denver, Colorado, Creeks’ Ranch, please.”

       Drumming his fingers over the surface of the desk, he waits for Sergio Unit to digest the information.

       “I am sorry, Michael. The number you requested is currently unavailable. Shall I redial later?” the electronic voice responds.

       (They are not at home. Plausibly they’re in the garden, or maybe in the barn. Or they went to get some supplies.)

       “Thank you, Sergio Unit. That won’t be necessary. Over and out.”

       The screen darkens and Michael goes to his room to take his backpack. He checks its contents: Rimbaud’s Collected Poems, a French-English-French Pocket Dictionary and a bottle of Light-Cola with fresh water were already in it.

       He then slips into an Alphanumeric jacket. Swinging his backpack on his back, he grabs his skateboard.

       Once again he checks his appearance in the mirror before he leaves the apartment. He wasn’t too crazy about the reflection staring back at him, but he couldn’t do anything about it. Besides, accidents on skateboards happen all the time, and who gives a crap?

       Pulling the door behind him, he locks it good on his way out.

 

 

 

***

 

 

       With a sudden pull of the reins, Rebecca bridles the horse. The ranch is in front of her, down the slope slightly to her left. A lovely place from a fairy-tale basking in a cold sun. If she gallops to the ranch like that, Grandma will be terrified and she will keep pressuring Grandpa to ground her before she breaks her neck. But Rebecca knows, it won’t come to that. She knows her grandpa all too well and his secret smile that flashes with pride each time he sees her riding.

        He’ll forgive her instantly, she is sure of that.

       That was her grandpa. The aging image of her mother, who did not live long enough to enjoy her own grandchildren.

       Rebecca’s sight blurs. She blinks away the tears. Here, in the wilderness, nobody would see her if she would cry. But then again, if she allows emotions to take control over her, if she allows herself cry . . . No, that wouldn’t be good. Even though, Michael and Hank would be relieved to see her cry, she knew that; she hasn’t shed a tear since her mother’s death. At least not in front of them. With great relief they would greet her tears because it would mean that everything is alright with her. But that’s not the way Rebecca expressed her feelings. She is a Daniels, after all.

       The smell of summer was in the air blended with a fresh breath of winter. Extremely strange combination.

       Rebecca’s riding hat was peacefully lying on her back, her thick blond hair glowed with an illusion of a fragile aura, while her blood boiled under the warm pleather jacket, drenching her checkered shirt with sweat. The temperature was still dropping and closing to thirty degrees.

      Today, Rebecca and her mare covered the good distance. Vanity was in an excellent mood and in even better shape than Rebecca. She responded to each Rebecca’s command, for which she will be abundantly rewarded.

       Rebecca gratefully pats her her neck, and Vanity replies to her with cheerful whinny. Two clicks of Rebecca’s tongue and she is allowed to pick her prize.

 

 

***

 

 

       House. Home. Hearth.

       Divided sense of belonging which created confusion in Rebecca’s head since Mother died.

       New York – Denver. House – home. Hearth?

       (Or the other way around?)

       She lived in New York; she liked to be in Denver. More precisely, a short distance from Ken Caryl Ranch situated fifteen miles southwest from Denver. Rebecca adored her grandparents, but ever since she left New York not for a moment did she stop thinking about her father and brother who stayed there. Especially about her brother. She also knew that, when she will be back in New York (too soon, much too soon, too much too soon), her heart will turn into an ocean of sorrow for leaving her grandparents. That happened last year, that happened the year before. This year it will be even harder.

       Because her mother won’t be here to ease her the pain of parting.

       (What comfort is left for her? What cure to heal the pain?)

       “Time heals everything,” said her grandmother as she cried, her beautiful head resting in her grandmother’s lap. “And the rare moments of joy that eventually make us winners, become our signposts on the road of life.”

       But how many signposts will there be? How many of those easy-to-understand ones? And how often will we go astray . . . lost in the jungle of life?

       With the strength of her willpower Rebecca shakes off these dark thoughts. The car is parked in front of the house and it is just leaving. The black Lincoln Navigator, Rebecca recognizes it under a thick layer of dried earth and mud. She nods in greeting to the two men behind the dirty windshield, and they nod to her in return.

       Reaching the barn, she slides from the saddle and takes Vanity in a pen. A familiar neighing welcomes her. They were Grandpa’s black Darkfall and Vanity’s mother Josephine.

       Once she took care of her four-legged friend, Rebecca trots over the yard to the house. She didn’t forget about Vanity’s prize – a fist full of sugar.

       “Who was that?” she asks her grandfather from the door, interrupting him in preparing an early dinner.

       “Rebecca! Hello! I didn’t hear you come in.”

       “Sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you. Are you all right?”

       “By all means, my child! How was your riding? You were long gone. Don’t get me wrong, but is it smart since the two of you didn’t see each other for a long time?”

       “I know, Grandpa. Thanks for worrying, but it was great! Vanity was really happy to see me again. You are not angry with me, are you?”

       “Do I look angry?”

       With a pile of chopped potato lying in front of him on the table and holding a sharp knife upright like a flag, he looked anything but angry.

       Rebecca smiles in return to his smile and funny looks.

       “You had a visit?” she repeats her question.

       He doesn’t lift his eyes.

       “Black Lincoln? Navigator?” Rebecca continues, not giving up.

       Jeremy Creek puts the potatoes in the oven and takes a long look at his granddaughter.

       “The old model, but still in pretty good shape? I met it on the way about twenty minutes ago.”

       “Yes? What about it?”

       “Who was it?”

       “The Atkins’.”       

       “The Atkins’ and? Surely, you must know something about them?”

       A smile skims across Jeremy Creek’s face and then vanishes. He tries to be serious.

       “They’re our new neighbors,” he replies leisurely.

       “Your new neighbors? You didn’t say anything to me about having new neighbors.”

       “There was nothing to tell. Besides, they moved only two months ago.”

       “Where did they come from?” She grabs a raw carrot from the huge table that stood in the middle of the kitchen and bites into it. The taste of food, even raw, reminds her how hungry she is.

       “From Texas. At least that is what they told us.”

        “Don’t you know?”

       “My child, it is not polite to put your nose where it does not belong. Besides, I don’t really care where they’re from as long as they’re okay and mind their own business.”

       Rebecca swallows the rest of the carrot and gives him her best, disarming smile.

       “Is it also rude to ask what they wanted?”

       “That is not rude,” he fought to remain serious. “They came to ask if we can sell them a few vegetables to renew their vegetable garden. The frost, namely, destroyed them and everything.”

       “I see. And you sold them, of course.”

       “I did, but I also gave them some. Otherwise they wouldn’t take anything.”

       “Where’s Grandma?” Rebecca suddenly changes the subject.

       “I think she’s in the greenhouse . . .”

       “Fine. That’s where I’m going anyway. Need to pick some flowers for dinner.”

       “Uh-huh, yes. That’d be nice.”

       “Grandpa, why didn’t you invite them to stay for dinner?” Rebecca asks him from the door. “You know, to get to know each others better?”

       Then she disappears, without waiting for his answer.

 

 

***

 

 

       Warmth. Dampness. Fragrances. Colors. Attacking Rebecca’s sensations with full force when she enters the greenhouse. A transparent half-moon, as she liked to call it.

       She left her jacket in the house and that, of course, wasn’t unnoticed by her grandmother. She reproaches her for being so careless and softens only when Rebecca hugs her and places a wet I-love-you-Granny kiss on her mildly wrinkled cheek. Try as she might, not even Elisabeth Creek was immune to her granddaughter’s charm.

       Strolling between flowerbeds, Rebecca tries to reach a logical explanation of what she had just forced out of her grandma before she disappeared from the greenhouse. What should be logical was increasingly sagging under the weight of illogical and it finally mixed up in one loud bang of colors, voices, smells and beliefs.

       Rebecca closes her eyes before a sudden rush of dizziness. When she opens them again, in front of her she sees a bush of yellow roses.

       (Once again she succumbed. Once again she gave in. Once again she couldn’t resist them – her beautiful yellow roses.)

       Yellow like the summer. Yellow like the sun.

       Picking flowers and putting them in a basket, she feels anger building in her. Rage starts to bubble up in her like a tide of cold ocean that she did not know how to stop.

       That comes as a surprise to her. She had not even the slightest reason to be angry because she didn’t know the Atkins’. Still, she couldn’t accept it. (This is not science fiction like The Star Wars Trilogy, which is, in anticipation of the pretpremiere showing of the new, first episode The Phantom Menace, overfilling theaters in New York again.) She had to learn the truth. And there is only one way for that.

       The roses are picked and their intoxicating smell fills Rebecca’s lungs. It was the smell of love and it makes Rebecca feel like crying.

       Inside her, the emptiness opens and it continues to grow. Crying over the lost words and absorbed civilizations, people she misses so much.

       Those who are gone forever. (Mother!)

       Those who threaten to disappear. (Michael! Father!)

       She hurries out of the transparent half-moon toward the house, toward the computer that was supervising Creek’s estate, her only connection to New York.

      © 2015-2019 By Bernard Jan   |   Author, novelist and poet