In the shadow of an apocalyptic threat, a father takes his two young daughters on a road trip.
Length: 9,400 words
Bear tugged on the bottom edge of Jack’s wool hunting jacket. He patted her small hand and shaded his eyes. Warm sweat trickled down his back and into the waistband of his jeans. The snaking line of park visitors ended at the princess pavilion a short distance away. Only a few more steps and they’d be in the shade. Beneath the cruel California sun, every glance or movement of the mouth risked too much.
Don’t look down. She’ll see.
Hot, itchy paranoia climbed up his throat. Did the girls know? Or did they suspect? Kids were perceptive, but the enchanted kingdom was a massive candy-colored distraction. At least that was the hope. But it seemed that every adult face told the exact same story, the one they’d promised not to say out loud. One line over, across the divider, a woman with a messy topknot tapped her son on the shoulder and pointed. He watched as a trio of little black boys walked by in identical Batman costumes. Her kid grinned and pointed to the bat logo on his t-shirt. The woman nodded, her eyes shining.
Disneyland was a safe space, and taken together every safe space America formed a collective called the bubble. Diane had insisted they participate, because hadn’t parents been hiding things from their kids since the beginning of time? Santa Claus is real. Mommy and Daddy will always love one another. Jesus cries if you touch yourself beneath the covers at night. Was this lie any different from the others? Well, it was, and it wasn’t.
Jack unclenched his jaw. His sunglasses were tucked behind the visor in his pickup truck. Forgetting them was a mistake, no matter how preoccupied he’d been. Now he had to walk around unprotected, all day.
“Daddy?” Bear tugged again.
“Why is Elsa crying? Is she hurt?” Bear, whose given name was Rebecca, wore a worried expression. Her lower lip jutted forward like a fat little shelf, and her pale yellow curls were mussed from the bumper car ride earlier.
“I’m not sure. Let me see.” Jack stepped to the side, looking around the edge of the crowd. Up front, four princesses stood along a velvet backdrop, each one wearing a different color. And the woman in the blue dress had tilted her head back to keep the tears from falling. One hand gripped her wig, which threatened to slide backward. In front of her, a girl in dark pigtails stepped back, her trembling chin promising tears.
A dismayed murmur rose from the parents in the crowd. Pigtail girl’s mother rushed forward and dropped to one knee, whispering in the girl’s ear. Next to them, a big man in a Goofy sweatshirt looked like he might cry. But right as it seemed everyone might lose their shit, a footman in blue and silver livery stepped through the velvet curtain. He walked around the woman in blue, bowed deeply, linked arms with her, and led her through a gap in the curtain, removing her from sight.
Jack stepped back. “I’m sure she’s fine, honey. She’s probably just overwhelmed.”
Bear nodded but edged closer, wrapping her small arms around Jack’s thigh like it was a tree. He called her Bear because she’d been a strong and cuddly baby, always looking for someone to hug, or something tall to climb. Now that she was five, she liked to climb him, grabbing his hands and stepping up his body with her legs, placing her feet against his shins, his kneecaps, and the socket of his hips, ending with a flip back onto the ground. But now she only clung to him.
“What’s overwhelmed?” She spoke each syllable as a separate word, sounding it out like her teacher Mrs. Worth had taught her.
Eight-year-old Daisy came over from the railing she’d been leaning against. Daisy was too big for climbing, at least when other people might see. “It means you’re upset because there’s too much happening. Right Dad?”
Jack offered her a proud nod, and her eyes lit up like she’d won a prize. Daisy lived for school. She liked being the one who always knew the answers. She was smart, just like her mom.
Diane. I can’t do this alone.
A pang ripped through Jack’s body like a curved knife, and for a moment he thought he might vomit right there on the hot asphalt in front of his boots. He steadied himself, reached into his jacket pocket and found the letter inside. He crushed it as hard as he could, grinding the bones in his fist, as if the pressure might destroy not only the words on the page but their meaning.
Was this grief? Rage? It didn’t matter, because he needed to stow it down deep where the girls wouldn’t see. Later, after they’d found a safe place to sleep, and the girls conked out, he’d have time for a drink and a good cry. Especially the drink. He’d been rationing the last of his supply, intending to get merrily shit-faced after dropping the kids back off at Diane’s. One last celebration. But now? He had no idea. Maybe he’d drink just one bottle, after dinner. Or half? Christ. Where are we going after the park closes? You didn’t think about that, did you Diane? When it mattered most, you didn’t think about anyone but yourself.
The crowd stood listlessly in the heat. The footman returned and bowed deeply before the pigtail girl. “If you’ll excuse us, m’lady, Elsa needed a short rest. We’ll be back with you in just a moment.”
“Why was Elsa overwhelmed?” Bear asked.
A woman in a floral-print dress shot Jack a look of warning. He replied with a fierce glare of his own. Don’t push me, his eyes said. You won’t like the results. Her head jerked back as if he’d slapped her, and she turned away. A cool wind blew in, providing temporary relief from the heat, leeching some tension from the crowd. Jack looked down at Bear, smiling reflexively when he saw her eyes, round with worry. “I’m sure she’s okay. She has her friends with her.”
“Olaf?” Bear’s voice was full of hope.
“Sure.” Was Olaf the talking horse? He couldn’t remember, but it didn’t matter. The girls had been happy to get the tickets to Disneyland, but Diane had been even happier. God had answered her prayers, she’d said. Then she’d leaned forward, putting her hand on his shoulder like she used to do, back when she loved him. And she said, “If you ever cared about me, Jack, hear me. We’re going to the park as a family. You’ll be there, you’ll keep your mouth shut, and you’ll be sober.”
Jack shifted his weight from one foot to the other. He’d kept his word. Not a drop to drink in twenty-four hours, just in case she might smell it in his pores or something. And where was she? What were her promises worth?
His mind snapped forward to the next problem. Taking the girls back home was impossible, but maybe they could camp? He had a case of Budweiser in the truck bed, next to the good stuff. He wondered if the stores still had ice. Ice and sleeping bags and a tent if they were lucky. Firewood. Food. They didn’t need much.
“Timothy is my friend,” Bear said with proprietary pride. “He used to be Daisy’s friend, but now he’s mine.”
Daisy came around Jack’s legs and kicked her little sister in the shin. Not hard, more of a statement than an attack.
“Girls,” Jack’s voice held a note of warning.
“We’ll be good,” Bear said, shooting her sister a superior smile that said, beyond all reason, that she’d won. Daisy rolled her eyes. Diane would have had something to say about that, but Jack let it go. Let the kids be kids.
But… He could hear his ex-wife’s plaintive voice rising in the back of his mind.
Shut up. You don’t get a vote anymore. Fresh pain ran through his body, double lighting on the center line.
It would be better if the girls went with someone else tonight. But Diane’s mother was too far away, and besides, she and Stan were church people. They were probably on their knees in some dusty box, perversely grateful for this nightmare. Leave it to the Catholics to sing joyously at the end of the world. As if the apocalypse were a part of God’s plan. Convenient, wasn’t it, how every terrible thing became part of God’s plan?
Jack took a raggedy breath. Hypocrites filled the churches. Liars lined the pews. After all the talk of commitment, of forever, the church had annulled his marriage for the low, low, price of a special tithe and some notarized documents. And he couldn’t forget the cherry on top of God’s shit sundae! Diane had denied them all the easy way out, insisting it would damn their immortal souls.
I hate you. Jack wiped his brow. And I can’t do this alone. I can’t.
Daisy tapped his arm.
“How much longer?”
“Not long. After you talk to Elsa, how about we get some ice cream?”
“I wanna talk to Belle!” Bear crossed her arms and pouted. Not a real pout, the kind that led to tears, but the performative kind. He ruffled her hair until she giggled.
As if summoned, a woman in a shimmering yellow dress came out from behind the velvet curtain, taking Elsa’s place. She had pale skin and ruddy cheeks, and when she smiled at the pigtail girl Jack felt every parent in the pavilion sigh with collective relief.
When it was her turn, Bear flew into the princess’s arms like a quarterback sprinting for the end zone. The woman in yellow picked her up and swung her around, singing a half-familiar song. Daisy held back, shy, until the woman beckoned her over for a hug and a chat.
They were such easy-going kids. He was lucky, really.
The next few hours would handle themselves. Bear and Daisy wanted to meet the princess and get their photos taken. Daisy wanted to go on the Haunted House ride, twice. And Bear would eat her weight in sugar if he let her. If Diane was here, she’d object to the ride. Too scary for little girls, she’d say, her forehead creasing in the middle.
Bear waved him over. “Daddy? Do you want to meet Belle?”
Jack tried to smile, but his heart pulled down at the corners of his mouth and eyes. His second attempt went better. “No thanks, sweetie. I’ve already got two princesses with me, all day long.”
Daisy giggled, her serious expression dropping away, revealing the little girl beneath. She was determined to grow up so fast? Was it normal, some alchemy of her personality? Or had they done it to her somehow?
A photographer with white mutton-chop sideburns snapped the girls’ picture and gave Jack a card he could use to pick up the prints. “Photos are complimentary today,” he said with a big smile.
Jack surprised himself by reaching out to shake the photographer’s hand. “Thanks, man. We really appreciate this.” They looked into one another’s eyes, and something passed between them. Not sympathy. Truth? Jack blushed and turned his head.
“God bless you and your little girls,” the photographer said, clapping him on the shoulder. He gripped Jack’s shoulder. Squeezed. Let go.
“And may he bless you and yours,” Jack replied. He looked away toward the mass of people in the distance. Heat rose in distorted waves off the pavement. Children laughed and screamed. He reached forward with his arms, waiting for the girls to take his hands and pull him along like a cart behind a horse. He let them guide him. It didn’t matter where.
Kindness was the thing that killed you.
If only he could go back to the woman in line, the one he’d been cruel to, and apologize for what he’d done. But Daisy was at his elbow now, regarding him with that too-serious expression of hers. He smiled at her, and she grabbed his left hand. Bear took his right. Together they dragged him toward an ice cream stand.
Daisy did her chicken dance while they waited, making Bear dissolve into peals of laughter. The park was out of napkins, and the soft serve dripped down their hands as they walked toward the Haunted Mansion. The girls wiped their hands on their pants. Jack used a corner of his t-shirt to wipe a smudge of chocolate from Bear’s cheek.
You should have been here, Jack thought at Diane’s ghost. Oh, how he hated her! More than God. More than the chunk of ice and rock hurtling toward Earth at twenty-six thousand miles per hour. More than he’d ever hated himself.
The Haunted Mansion was dark and cool, a welcome relief from the heat and light outside. Low-slung couches wept from right to left on a conveyor belt. After a brief delay, they climbed inside one. Jack sagged backward into the seat, welcoming the darkness as it snatched them forward.
The fireworks tired them out. He carried Bear toward the parking lot, her body heavy against his shoulder, a faint snore coming from her open mouth. Daisy kept pace with him, yawning in the cool night air. She had a new coloring book under one arm and a stuffed animal under the other. She didn’t ask where they were going, and he didn’t offer. Jack made up a bed in the truck’s backseat, tucked them both in, and headed toward I-5.
The redwood forest was thirteen hours north, near Crescent City. With stops for food, supplies, and gas the journey would take even longer. They’d take an old-fashioned road trip, the kind he’d promised to take them on when they got older. Roadside lights ticked past in a predictable rhythm, creating a visual metronome and forward momentum as they put mile after mile behind them.
Jack pulled into a rest stop after three in the morning. His eyelids were like stone doors threatening to roll shut forever. A half-dozen truck trailers sat abandoned on the far side of the lot. Non-essential goods with no place to go.
The government had kept supply chains active for things like food, water, and medicine. He wondered what was inside the trailers. As Seen on TV merchandise? Computers? Episodes of The Walking Dead on Blue-Ray?
As it turned out, the post-apocalyptic movies had gotten it wrong. Humanity’s reaction to its imminent destruction had been predictable. Even boring. Some remained in denial as long as they could, refusing to discuss the news. They drove to work every day and acted like it would all blow over. Others stayed home for weeks at a time, glued to their screens, transfixed at every detail, talking to anyone who would listen, holding forth about trajectories and the possibility of altering the object’s course. Optimists insisted that experts would find a solution in time. Pessimists felt vindicated. Hedonists, the most sensible of the lot, screwed and drank and smoked with renewed vigor. A Change.com petition to send Bruce Willis into space reached five million signatures in three days.
Certain conspiracy theorists insisted the meteor was a Russian disinformation campaign, or a hoax designed to reduce human populations to sustainable levels. And that last rumor gained strength when world governments rolled out a suicide pill that came to be known as The Easy Way Out.
At first, Jack had dismissed the rumors as more internet nonsense. But when the president deployed the National Guard without fanfare, and the big newspapers went oddly silent, he’d called up an old high school buddy who worked at Goldendale Observatory. Alan had confirmed it. Humanity had five months remaining, maybe less. An official announcement was days away.
That same night, Jack bought himself a gun, ammo, and enough alcohol to keep himself solvent for a full six months. Cases and cases, enough to make the clerk’s eyes go wide. Two of his credit cards, maxed on a single night. Later, over-the-counter access to The Easy Way Out made the gun less important, but the stash had been a wise investment. It wasn’t long before the stores ran dry.
Cold air seeped into the truck cabin. Jack flung his coat over his body and tipped his seat back further. His head ached, sending spidery tangents of nausea into his gut. There was a fifth of whiskey locked in the bin out back, and it would only take a few swallows to help him sleep. It was cold, and it would warm him up. Besides, he needed to rest, soon, or driving would be too dangerous. The shakes were coming too, it was more of a sensation than a movement, but he knew his body. When withdrawal happened, it would be ugly.
Okay. Just enough to help me sleep.
He unlocked the door, and the click made him jump. Daisy’s eyes fluttered open, and Jack held his breath and squeezed his eyes shut. Please, go back to sleep. After a minute, he opened one eye and saw her chest rising and falling in a steady rhythm. Bear was curled like a potato bug in front of her sister, the little spoon to the big spoon.
Without the din of traffic noise, the quiet pressed into Jack’s years like thick fingers. If he moved, they’d wake up. And if they woke up, they might ask questions that he couldn’t answer.
God, how he needed a drink! Just enough to keep his head from splitting wide open. Jack pressed his shaking hands between his thighs and closed his eyes.
His plan had been simple before Diane ruined it. Drop the kids back off at home after Disneyland, party a little, then turn the lights out real fast. But now the two pills he’d gotten for himself belonged to the girls. Maybe? He couldn’t think about that now. Jack kept his eyes closed and prayed for sleep.
Finally, he slept, subtracting three hours and twelve minutes from all that remained. After he woke, he started the car and pulled onto the freeway. The sun rose above the tree line, slow, filling the sky with red, gold, and blue. The roads were mostly empty. He kept the radio off.
South of Crescent City a white sandwich board with red and blue streamers pointed the way to a sporting goods store. Colored balloons dangled from the glass double doors. In the empty parking lot, crumbling white paint hinted at stripes atop the badly patched asphalt. They piled out of the truck.
“Let me go in first,” Jack warned. “Let’s make sure they’re open.”
Behind the counter, a woman in her late sixties beamed as they walked inside. She wore checked flannel and jeans, a long white braid hung over her shoulder and nearly down to her waist. Her name tag said Theresa.
“Come in! Welcome. What can we help you with?” Theresa said.
Jack explained his mission, and she pointed him to the correct aisles while waving the girls over to a small table and folding chairs near the fishing counter. She fed them cookies while Jack gathered up sleeping bags and a tent and a few other items. It didn’t take long.
“Where are you headed?” She slid Jack’s credit card through the reader, meeting his eyes briefly, then flicking her gaze toward the girls. The machine was off, and she didn’t hand him a slip to sign.
“To the redwoods.”
She smiled knowingly. “You’re in for a treat. My husband and I used to visit the redwoods every summer. It’s one of those places where no matter how many times I’ve been, it never fails to blow me away.” She looked at the table where the girls were playing with a battery-powered lantern. Daisy turned the switch on and off, watching the intensity of the light change as she cycled through the settings. “You’re going to have a wonderful time.”
“How big are the trees?” Bear asked. One of the sleeping bags was in her lap, and with her arms wrapped around it, her hands barely touched on the other side.
“They’re enormous! There’s even a redwood tree with a hole in it big enough to walk through!” Theresa’s hands shaped a door, and Bear’s eyes widened.
“Daddy. Can we go see? I bet it’s a magic door.”
Bear seemed so convinced that Jack laughed. It felt good to laugh! The movement broke up the stiffness in his chest and lightened some of the weight beneath his eyes. “We’ll look for it, hon.”
“Cool,” Daisy said, almost to herself. “Dad, do we have enough firewood? And matches?”
The shopkeeper nodded. “There are a few bundles left under the tarp up front, dearheart. Take as many as you need.”
“Don’t we need to pay for the wood?” Daisy asked.
“Don’t worry about it. It’s my gift to you, because I love the redwoods so much.”
Jack thanked her, and for a moment the shopkeeper looked like she might come across the counter and hug him. But she stopped mid-motion and picked up the end of her braid with one hand instead.
“Girls, go load up the truck for me please,” Jack said. “Take the cart. And Daisy, keep an eye on your sister.”
A few moments later the bell on the door jingled as they passed through it.
Jack asked, “Are you okay?”
Theresa nodded and wiped her eyes. “I suppose you think I’m nuts, working today. It’s just that this has been our business for so many years…” She looked around the store and sighed. “Jim and I have been happy here. I guess I was hoping to remember what that felt like — what life felt like, you know, before.”
“And how is it?”
She wiped her eye, and laughed a little. “Right now? Really, really good! Sad, but happy too. Does that make any sense?”
“It does. Is Jim your husband?”
“Yeah. He’s delivering supplies to our elderly neighbor who lives down the road. He’s trying to convince her to come over tonight so we can wait it out together. No one should be alone, today of all days, but Beth’s a stubborn old goat. She won’t admit she needs people.”
Out front, Bear stood in the truck bed, taking items from Daisy, who handed them over one by one.
“I take it they don’t know?”
Jack shook his head. “My ex-wife forbade it. She pulled them out of school when the news broke, told them it was homeschooling, and she kept them pretty isolated these last few months. I thought it was wrong to keep it from them, but now…”
“It seems a kindness, doesn’t it?”
“And where is their mother now? Is she traveling with you?”
“She was supposed to be. But she took the easy way out right before I picked up the girls.”
The words came out faster now, a flood of syllables that threatened to choke him. “We had tickets to Disneyland. The girls came running out of the house, and Daisy handed me an envelope. Diane’s suicide note was folded up with the tickets. She’d told the kids she’d meet us later because she had to run an errand.” Jack’s leaned on the counter. “I was terrified. But, I mean, she wouldn’t really do that, right? Not Diane. So I got the girls in the truck and ran inside to look for her. Thought maybe it wasn’t too late. But I found her under Bear’s baby blanket, in her closet. Her body was cold.” He swallowed, but his throat was dry. “Ever since, I’ve been carrying on, you know? I can’t tell them. I won’t.” He shook his head. “I won’t do that to them. Not today. But it weighs on me.” A choked sob broke loose from somewhere. He heard it but didn’t recognize it as his own. “I’m carrying this truth around, and I can’t sit it down, even for a goddamn second.”
Theresa came around the counter to embrace him. Her arms were soft, but she held him securely, like a lighthouse in a storm. Her tears seeped through the front of his shirt.
He stepped back. “Thank you.” He said, wiping his face with his sleeve, and standing up straighter. “Say, Theresa, do you and your husband drink?” His voice was jovial now, easy. He had to get back to the place he’d been.
She seemed to understand, or at least she didn’t seem surprised. “Sure,” she said. “Not that we have any on hand. The stores have been dry for two, no, three months now.”
“Wait here.” Jack scrubbed his tears away, then went outside to the truck. Daisy and Bear hung off the rear bumper, slumping toward the ground as if gravity had doubled.
“Can we go?” Daisy asked.
“I’m hungry.” Bear said at the same time.
He smiled. “Absolutely. Get buckled in, and I’ll be right back so we can hit the road.”
“What are you gonna hit it with?” Daisy sassed back.
“Your face!” Bear screamed.
They both laughed, then ran for the truck door. Jack lifted his ratty brown tarp, unlocked his storage box, and admired his stash. Four beautiful amber bottles plus a case of Budweiser. Taken together, they looked like salvation. He could start in on the beers, switch over to the Johnny Walker Black, and before long he’d be feeling no pain at all. His hands reached out, then stopped. Was he really doing this?
Through the window in the back of the cab he saw Daisy fixing Bear’s slipped ponytail. Then she kissed her little sister on the temple.
Jack tore open the cardboard case and tucked a can of Bud into his jacket pocket. Then he gathered three bottles of the good stuff, cradling them in his arms as he locked the box and tied the tarp back down.
Theresa’s surprise turned into pleasure as he set the bottles down on the counter in the store.
“A little going away present, from one camper to another.”
“Oh my! I couldn’t take your—”
“Yes you can. Don’t worry. I’ve got a good one left for myself. And do me a favor, will you? Think of me and my girls tonight? You do that, and I’ll drink a toast to you and Jim, and your stubborn old goat of a neighbor.”
Theresa tossed her head back and released a peal of laughter. “This is great. If Jim tells Beth we’ve got booze, there’s nothing on earth that’s gonna keep her away! You’ve done us a big favor.”
“Good luck, Theresa.”
“Enjoy your evening.”
The doorbell jangled as the door swung shut behind him. Once he was inside the truck, he turned toward the back seat. “What do you say we find some lunch and then go find that big tree with the hole in it?”
He downed a warm beer when they made a stop for the girls to pee. His headache subsided a little, and his hands steadied. For the moment, it was enough.
They reached Redwoods National Park in the early afternoon. Jack’s head throbbed in the wake of his daughters’ nonstop chatter. They were cranky with being cooped up all day, and he wasn’t feeling so hot himself.
“Woah,” Bear said, gaping up at a tree thicker than her daddy’s truck. She pointed. “How old is that one?”
“If you cut it down, you can count the rings,” Daisy said. “Each ring is a year.”
“We can’t cut it down, obviously,” Bear said, rolling her eyes. “That would be rude!”
Jack pulled over to the side of the road and checked the map. Official campgrounds were out, of course. Scared people were unpredictable. Dangerous. But they would be safe in the forest if they were careful. And the denseness of the forest might hide whatever was happening above them, at least for a while. Sunlight dappled the road where it filtered through the canopy overhead. The trees felt eternal in a way that comforted him.
Government scientists had been vague about the precise time of the meteor’s arrival, claiming that the swift rotation of the planet made such predictions difficult. But they had until midnight local time. Afterward, human survival shattered into unknowable probabilities. Everyone dead, but no one knew how quickly. Isolated areas might survive for days, or even months.
But I won’t put the girls through that living nightmare. Or myself, for that matter.
According to the map on his phone, there was a small stream and a clearing a half-mile east. Jack pulled the truck as far forward into the trees as it would go, then shifted it into park, feeling the chassis rock gently beneath him. He wondered if the wheels were stuck, before it occurred to him that it didn’t matter.
“I wanna call Mommy,” Bear said, reaching for the phone.
“We’ll try her after we set up camp,” Jack said, hurriedly putting the phone away. “I want everything set up before dark, so let’s find ourselves a good place for the tent. Then I’ll build us a fire and we can toast some marshmallows.”
“Where is everyone?” Daisy asked. “Why isn’t it more crowded?”
Jack thought for a moment. “I guess they stayed home? That’s good! More trees for us.”
Outside the truck, they looked up in unison. Enormous red-brown trunks disappeared into a thick green canopy of leaves that blocked most of the sunlight. Cool air made goose pimples rise on Jack’s arms. The scent of rich loamy earth, pine needles, and decomposing wood filled his nostrils. “Isn’t it pretty?”
“Woah,” Bear said. “Woah.”
Daisy squinted up at the trees and took a deep breath. “I wish we had trees like this at home!”
Using bungee cords as straps, he attached the girls’ sleeping bags to their backs and told them to carry anything else they wanted. Daisy carried her school backpack and her new coloring book. Bear wanted her stuffed alligator, a half-eaten strawberry Pop Tart, and the photos from Disneyland. Jack carried everything else, tossing most of it into a large duffle bag he’d gotten from Theresa’s store. He tucked his remaining bottle of whiskey in a paper grocery bag along with a half dozen cans of beer. The case had lost structural integrity when he opened it earlier, and he’d need to hike back if he wanted more.
I’ll be okay.
He tucked his Glock into his waistband and checked to make sure the safety was on. Just in case. In the weeks after the announcement, there’d been an uptick in violence, but it had subsided. Either that, or no one was bothering to report on it any longer.
“We should make noise, so the bears don’t eat us,” Daisy said. “Because I read that if bears get surprised, they might eat you by accident.”
“By accident?” Bear scoffed. But she looked worried, and she began clapping her hands in a familiar rhythm.
“What’s that song?” Jack asked.
“Let it go,” Bear said. She shot Daisy an encouraging look. “Sing it, please. I don’t know all the words.”
Daisy sang in her high pitched voice, out of tune, and Bear joined in. Jack followed close behind, watching their steps to ensure they didn’t fall. At the girls’ urging, he joined in for the chorus, singing “Let it go! Let it go!” and letting them fill in the rest of the words. The sweet ridiculousness of his little band made him want to laugh and weep and scream. Instead, he sang.
Scant light came through the trees. There was little noise aside from their racket. No birds or chattering squirrels. No human voices, or car engines, or familiar sounds. “That’s enough singing for now,” he cautioned.
Jack felt tiny as he stepped between the massive trunks. Insignificant. As their feet sank into the dirt and decomposing bits of tree, his nostrils opened wide to take in the scents of bark and earth, moss and rain. The air grew cooler as the light through the trees was reduced further and further. The path disappeared, and their pace slowed. He helped the girls climb over a fallen log.
Bear’s voice trembled. “I don’t like these woods. There could be an evil witch living out here.”
“It shouldn’t be far. I see the clearing up ahead. Perhaps we could even get you two a bath.”
“They have baths out here?” The idea shocked Bear even more than the size of the trees had.
Daisy snorted. “He means you can wash up in the stream.” Then her tone lightened. “It’ll be fun! You’ll be like a fairy!”
Why was she helping him? Daisy didn’t like bugs, or dirt, or the outdoors. But here she was, making this into an adventure. Perhaps she didn’t want to listen to Bear wailing. Or she was more mature than he’d given her credit for. Either way, he appreciated it.
They found the clearing. A shallow stream cut through the field in a jagged line. Jack set up the tent, not bothering to hammer the corner pegs into the ground, and he rolled out their sleeping bags inside while the girls changed into their swimsuits in the tent’s second room. He reached into his pocket and made sure both doses of The Easy Way Out were still in there.
The stream was only a few inches deep. “Wash up, but be careful. I’ll be right over there getting our fire going.” He pointed to the bundle of wood sitting a short distance from their tent.
Thankfully, kindling was plentiful and dry. Jack was assembling broken twigs into a log-cabin formation when Bear screamed loud enough to wake the dead.
Jack made it most of the way to her before his consciousness caught up with his body. One hand rested on the butt of the gun, and the other reached forward. Daisy and Bear stood stock-still at the edge of the water, apparently unharmed. “What happened? Are you okay?” He took Bear’s shoulders in his hands, dropped into a squat, and checked her for injuries.
“There’s a monster in the trees!” Bear pointed at a clump of bushes on the other side of the stream, some fifty feet away. Her cheeks were bright red, and she looked somewhere between frightened and embarrassed.
“Did you see a bear? Or a mountain lion?”
“No.” She stomped one foot in the water, splashing Jack with the spray. “I saw a monster and I want to leave. I want to go home now! Where’s Mommy? I want to call Mommy! Now!”
He picked her up, and she struggled, beating her small fists against his chest, fluttering her legs, not hard enough to hurt, just to make her point made. Jack looked down at Daisy who hadn’t moved.
“Did you see?”
Her freckles stood out like tiny brown moons against her pale face. “It was a man. He ran away when Bear screamed.” Daisy’s eyes swam with tears. “He was scary. He had a dirty face, and he looked mean.”
Jack reached down and cupped her shoulder with one hand, ushering her back toward the tent. “Come on. I want you both inside. You can dry off and change into some warm clothes.”
Bear was limp against his shoulder now, shivering. “Come on, sweetie. Time to get warmed up.” He rubbed her back as she carried her inside the tent. Once he made sure they had towels and dry clothes, he zipped the door shut. “Daisy, stay inside until I come get you,” he murmured. Then he jogged back to the stream and looked in the direction Daisy had pointed. He squinted, but saw nothing. The Glock came up in his hand and he pulled back the slider with his other hand, making an audible click that echoed sharply through the air. He spoke in a clear, cold voice designed to carry. “If you’re out there, I don’t want any trouble. Stay away from us, and you’ll be safe.”
Back at camp, he finished prepping the fire then struck a match. The flame, tiny at first, expanded to light the kindling, and then caught the underside of the dry wood Theresa had given them. He gathered more branches to burn. He’d keep the fire going as long as he could.
Jack didn’t see them at first. He’d only closed his eyes for a minute. Kicked back in his folding chair, he was listening to the quiet chatter of his daughters as they colored on a large flat rock they’d decided was a craft table. They were alone, and then they weren’t. Three sets of eyes stared at him across the campfire. Two boys of about eighteen, flanking a redheaded girl a few years younger.
Jack shot up. His flimsy chair toppled back and almost tripped him. One hand flung back toward the girls, warning them to stay put. “Sorry, I didn’t see you guys there.”
The trio wore shorts and hiking boots. The girl had knobby knees and an eager expression that gave Jack an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. The guy on the left was tall. His long dirty-blonde hair was pulled up in a man bun. The kid the right was heavyset, with dark hair and eyes. He smirked at Jack like he’d caught him doing something filthy.
“Hey,” Man bun said.
“Hi!” Bear’s voice was bright and high pitched. “Are you camping too?”
Jack shot Man bun what he hoped was a meaningful look. “We’re camping for the night. Tomorrow we’re headed back home. What are you guys up to? Beautiful place, isn’t it?”
A slow grin broke over Man bun’s face. “Sure is. We’re just out for a day hike. Me and my little sister, and Joe.”
Joe nodded but didn’t smile. His sullen gaze landed on the bag of marshmallows near the fire.
The girl’s eyes swept the campsite as if she were looking for something. She was the tall kid’s sister? There was no family resemblance. Jack searched her expression for signs of distress. Were those boys holding her captive? Was she in trouble?
He almost offered them something to eat, but something held him back. Perhaps it was the way they stood in a line, waiting. Jack glanced to his right. The girls were back at their task. Daisy’s back was to the fire; she pointed at something in her coloring book. Bear leaned forward to see.
“Say, I’m wondering if you’d be willing to share your supplies with us,” the girl said, her eyes sliding toward the boy on the left. Her words sounded rehearsed.
“Well, we don’t have much,” Jack began. Something was about to happen. He could feel it! His right hand crept back toward the handle of his weapon. “But we could…”
Man-bun cleared his throat and shook his head in a negating motion, his brown eyes hard. He jerked his head toward the other kid. Jack looked, and saw the barrel of a gun poking out from beneath his crossed arms. He shifted his stance to point the gun vaguely towards the little girls. Then he smirked.
Jack’s body coiled tight and hot. His mind became a single metallic point. He would kill them. All three of them. Right now. And if he couldn’t get to his gun in time, it wouldn’t matter. He’d rip them apart with his bare hands.
“Hey, man. Don’t worry. It’s all good.” The redheaded spoke soothingly. “We appreciate you helping us out. So why don’t you hand over those two bags.”
Jack’s hand stopped moving. “If you think—”
“Dad?” Daisy must have heard his tone, because fear was plain her voice.
Jack held his breath. He froze every cell in his body until he became a statue. Think. Don’t provoke them. He dropped his hands to his sides and showed them his palms.
“Stay put, Daze. I’m going to help these folks with something and I’ll be right over.” His heart hung in his throat for a moment, but when she turned back around, it dropped closer to its natural position.
“No worries, sis,” Man-bun said to the redhead. “I’ll take care of it.”
The kid with the gun kept his gaze locked on Jack, while the other two rummaged through the grocery bags. Plastic crinkled. Glass clinked against metal. “Score,” the girl said, half-under her breath. She pushed items into their backpacks. When they were done looting, they retreated to the other side of the fire.
“Well, enjoy the rest of your trip, sir.” Man-bun looked over at the girls and waved cheerily. “Have fun!”
“Thanks!” Daisy replied without looking. She’d put her body between Bear and the teens, blocking her sister’s view.
The redhead stepped forward and offered her hand. Jack shook it, resisting the urge to crush her bones into a red slurry. He couldn’t afford to. Not until that kid with the gun was out of sight. And by then it would be too late to do anything.
“You let us walk, and we won’t come back tonight,” she said quietly. Her eyes were green. Mossy and deep. Beautiful even.
“Is this who you want to be?” Jack’s voice was soft.
The look she gave him in return was pitying. “Nothing matters anymore. Don’t you get that?”
Jack stood still until they were completely out of sight. His legs felt like rubber. In the paper bags, only a wax paper packet of graham crackers and a single bar of chocolate remained. They hadn’t touched the marshmallows by the fire.
When Daisy came up behind him and touched his back, he nearly jumped out of his skin. She shrank back. He dropped down into a crouch and reached for her. “Sorry, Daze. I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
“Were those bad people?” She looked over his shoulder in the direction they’d gone.
“Yes. Thank you for not coming over, and for keeping Bear safe. They’re gone now.”
She hugged him back, and they clung together for a moment.
“Well, it looks like we’re having s’mores for dinner,” he said, smiling. “So that’s something to be happy about.”
The girls colored for a while longer. Jack fed the fire, and when his headache returned, he thought about hiking back to the truck. But it would be dark soon, and he didn’t know who else was out there. As twilight deepened into dusk, they toasted marshmallows. Bear tried calling her mother on Jack’s cell phone and left her a long rambling message about the trees.
A twig snapped at the edge of the clearing, and a dark figure stepped forward. This time, Jack was ready, gun in hand, his feet planted firmly on the earth, a finger resting lightly on the trigger.
“Don’t shoot! I come in peace.” The voice that came out of the darkness was half-amused, half-serious, and that alone made Jack hesitate. Whoever this was, the voice was unfamiliar. He sounded older.
“Come forward slowly with your hands where I can see them.” As soon as Jack said the words, he felt foolish. He barely knew how to use the weapon he held and parroting lines from cop shows wouldn’t fool anyone. Had he even taken the safety off?
A man stepped forward, his hands up. He was around seventy years of age with a bushy gray beard and tangled hair. Tall and broad in the chest, he walked with a slight limp. In his left hand, held up high, was a red JanSport backpack. It looked familiar.
“State your business.” Jack said. He felt Daisy standing behind him, and Bear standing behind her. The fire crackled, and the ring of light spread outward from it.
“Sorry if I frightened you. I’m Kevin, and I live near here. I was hiking earlier and ran into a rather unpleasant group of tourists. In the course of our… interaction, I discovered some property that may belong to you. I’m here to return it.”
Jack lowered the weapon but didn’t stow it. “I may be familiar with that group. They made off with a fifth of whiskey and most of our dinner. A most unpleasant bunch.”
Firelight lit up the visitor’s face. He sported a swollen eye that would turn black if given enough time, but his expression was merry. He lowered his arms slowly and set the backpack down on the ground, then took three steps back from it. The old man’s knuckles were smeared with something. Blood?
“It looks like they gave you some trouble.” Jack smiled grimly and stowed the gun back in his waistband. He looked inside the backpack. Most of the food was there, as was half the whiskey. The beers were long gone.
“Some. But I don’t think they’ll be giving anyone else any problems tonight.” The old man’s voice was full of finality.
Jack understood. “Thank you. Would you like to meet my daughters? Please, sit with us. It’s getting cold out there.”
Daisy came around from behind Jack and shot the stranger a worried look. Bear peeked around Daisy’s shoulder then retreated. She whispered something in Daisy’s ear, then tugged on Jack’s shirt. He leaned down. “He’s the monster,” she whispered, loud enough to carry.
Kevin chuckled. “I’m afraid I might have scared these two young ladies earlier. I was coming over to say hello when your little one screamed like a ten-alarm fire. That’s smart, really. You can’t be too careful around strangers these days. I figured I’d better leave before I caused a misunderstanding.
“He’s not a monster, Bear.” Daisy said. “He’s just got a scary beard.” She blushed. “Sorry. That was probably rude.”
“Nah, darlin’ I’m overdue for a trim. Living out here in the woods you forget what you look like. Spend too much time around the wild animals and you start to look like one.” He chuckled, and Bear poked her head out again, looking at him. She waved at him with her fingers then ducked back behind Jack’s leg.
Kevin took a camp stool out of his own pack and sat upon it. Jack ushered the girls back to their seats. “We’ve been in our own little bubble all day, it would be nice to have some company for dinner,” he said.
Kevin nodded, picking up on the code. “I’d love to stay for a bit. Thanks for the invitation.”
They cooked hot dogs on sharpened sticks and drank warm cocoa by the fire. Jack poured a dollop of the remaining whiskey in his cocoa and offered the bottle to Kevin, who wiped the neck of the bottle before taking a swig directly out of it. “Just in case their stupidity is catching,” he said.
The sky deepened from dark blue to black, and stars came out by the millions. Kevin told them he’d served in the Marines before becoming a part-time park ranger. He dazzled the girls with facts about local flora and fauna for a while. But before long, Daisy and Bear’s eyes grew heavy. Their marshmallow sticks were coated with dirt on the ground. Jack guided them into the tent and their sleeping bags, but kept the front flap open so he could see their heads resting on their pillows. “I don’t want to go to bed,” Daisy said, yawning.
“You don’t have to. Just rest. I’m right here where you can see me.” Jack said. Before long they closed their eyes. Jack saw their hair splayed out across the white pillow cases, their bodies were enveloped in the oversized sleeping bags, half-hidden inside the tent.
“Camping, eh?” Kevin said, when the silence had gone on for a while. “Not a bad way to spend the evening, all things considered.”
“It wasn’t the plan, but I’m glad it turned out this way.” Jack described their trip from to Anaheim, sketching past some details in case the girls were listening.
After a while, the small talk petered out, and Jack glanced at the tent.
“I think they’re tuckered out,” Kevin said.
“Have you figured out how you’re going to…? I mean… Will you wait and see, or…”
Jack shrugged. “I’ve been trying not to think about it.” He plucked the blister packs of The Easy Way Out from his pocket and held them up. He turned them over in his fingers, watching the firelight reflect off the foil. “When I first heard about the meteor, I—”
A small gasp game from the tent, and Jack’s heart dropped. He froze, helpless as Daisy struggled to her feet. She came over and looked into his eyes, searching for something, and when she found it, whatever it was, her face crumpled and she flung herself into his arms. Her small body shook with quiet sobs.
“Daze? What is it?”
“You know,” she said, an accusation.
“I know what?”
She pulled back, looking at him, furious. “You know what’s going to happen. You knew this whole time!”
Jack tried to process this, but his brain froze and none of it made any sense. Why on Earth was she angry at him? But all that came out of his mouth was, “What do you mean, what’s coming?”
Kevin cleared his throat and looked over toward the tent where Bear was still sleeping. “I think you gotta come clean, friend.”
“Wait,” Jack said, frowning. “You’re telling me you know about it? About,” he lowered his voice, “the meteor?”
Daisy nodded and hugged him. Her voice, when it came, was muffled against his shirt. “When I found out from Emma, Momma was so mad. She made me swear on Jesus that I wouldn’t tell anyone. And I promised! I promised I wouldn’t.”
A flash of anger ripped through Jack’s body, but it didn’t stay. He had no place to keep it. “Honey. That wasn’t fair. I’m so sorry. And I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I promised your Mom I wouldn’t. She didn’t want you to be afraid.”
Daisy wiped her eyes and turned around, sitting on Jack’s knees, leaning against his chest. He wrapped his arms around her. “Are you afraid?” she asked.
Kevin chuckled. “Well, it seems to me you were looking out for each other. And isn’t that exactly what we were put here on Earth to do?”
Daisy looked up at Jack. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.”
Jack breathed out, hugged his daughter, and looked into her eyes. “Don’t be. Daze, I’m not very good at this being a dad thing. I haven’t been around enough, since your Mom and I got divorced. And I’m so sorry that—”
She covered his mouth with her hand. “I forgive you. And that’s that.”
Jack looked up through the jagged gap in the trees. “Your mother used to say that to me, a long time ago.”
“She was scared,” Daisy said. “I could tell.”
“Yeah, I know. And I wish she’d talked to us about it. Can I ask you a grown-up question?”
“Should we wake Bear up? We’ve got another hour or two, and—” Jack’s gut twisted. It wasn’t fair to lay this on a kid!
But Daisy only looked thoughtful. “Will it be scary? I mean… at the end? And will it hurt?” Her voice only trembled a little, and he was proud of her.
“Maybe. I don’t know. But I have a…” he chose his words carefully “a sleeping pill we can take that will make it less scary. If that’s what we decide to do.”
Daisy’s shoulders relaxed. She leaned against him. “That will be better. But you’ll stay with us, right? Even when we’re asleep?”
Jack looked over at Kevin, wondering what he was making of this conversation.
Kevin smiled, and the firelight reflected in his dark eyes. “Say, Jack. Why don’t you bed down with your girls? I’m not in any hurry to go to sleep, and I can stand sentry until morning.”
“Are you sure? We wouldn’t want to put you out.”
“Not at all. I’m looking forward to the show, to be honest. And I’ve appreciated the company. But it seems you’ve got somewhere to be.”
Jack nodded, his head heavy. “Daze, go crawl into your sleeping bag. I’ll be there in a minute.”
“Goodnight Kevin.” She ran over to kiss him on the cheek.
“Goodnight, smart girl.”
Jack pulled the Glock out of the waistband of his jeans and handed it over, butt first. Kevin took it and reached down into a pocket. He pulled out a foil pack and handed it to Jack. “For you, if you want it.”
“Thanks,” Jack said softly.
Inside the tent, he zipped the door shut and got into his sleeping bag. Daisy was on his left and Bear was on his right. The thin blue fabric of the tent looked black in the dark, but he could still see the stars and the trees in his mind’s eye. So many stars! He was glad he’d seen them one last time.
Jack jostled his youngest gently until she half-woke and snuggled closer to him, the photo from Disneyland still clutched in her hand. Closing his eyes, he remembered how Diane looked the last time he’d seen her alive, her expression full of love as their daughters hopped out of his truck to return home.
His heart ached for her then. Not for the loss of their marriage, or for even for her presence, but for her. For all those nights she stayed up late in bed reading, waiting for him to come home, knowing that he probably wouldn’t. He remembered the soft yellow light above the bar at the Lazy J in the quiet hour before closing. Those men, whose names he’d forgotten, tossing back a few and complaining about the things they loved to hate: their jobs, their bosses, the world, their exes, their cable companies. Early in the mornings, Diane made breakfast for the kids while he slept it off. And later, he’d climb bleary-eyed out of bed in time for work, feeling the accusation in her eyes, choosing to reject it. This is who I am, he’d thought. If you can’t love me like this, you don’t love me at all.
He’d been a fool, too selfish to understand what she needed, too lost in his own complaints to even see her pain. Diane had never abandoned them. She’d been there every morning, every night, at every parent-teacher conference. She was there for every skinned knee, every fight, and every tender embrace. She just couldn’t bear to see it all end.
Please forgive me, her note had said.
I do, he thought. And that’s that.
They dozed for a while. Bear smiled in her sleep as if ensnared by a pleasant dream. Daisy yawned and rested against his shoulder. He wondered if Theresa, Jim, and Beth were camped out in their parking lot beneath the stars, waiting. He hoped they’d enjoyed the gift. Jack remembered the photographer at the park, and the princess who cried, and the little boys dressed like Batman. And he smiled at the thought of his Daisy—just a kid!—trying to protect him from the worst news in human history.
He loved them all. Everyone he’d ever known and all those he’d never met. Tears streamed down his cheeks, running down the sides of his face onto his camp pillow. Not grief, but joy.
It was time to go.
He knew, because he could feel them now. Millions of his brothers and sisters. Fathers and daughters, strangers and friends, mothers and sons, all around the world, their faces turning upward toward the sky, united in awe.
Three doses of mercy. Three sips of water. Jack laid back on the sleeping bags and hugged his family close. The Earth bucked beneath them, and he felt himself slipping away. Don’t be afraid, he thought. Because I’m right here with you, always.