“We have plenty of time,” Mum said. The whole world was practically on fire, but she made it seem like everything was cool beans.
Ever the optimist, Dad thought, only half-cynically. Usually her idealism annoyed him – he called her a dreamer with her head in the clouds, which usually came out “Where’s your head at, woman?”
But right now, he couldn’t have been more grateful to her.
For daring to hope.
“It’s fine, darlings, don’t worry” she said, “go and pack your favorite things. You can’t take everything remember, only as much as you can fit inside those backpacks.”
George had a generic dinosaur one, though he’d outgrown the cartoonish designs; Ella had a bright red one, with fire trucks on it.
She wanted to be a Fire Fighter.
Dad joked she would make squillions of money; Mum would roll her eyes then raise Ella up into the air and exclaim “My hero!”
Ella scurried excitedly away to pack for their “big adventure”, but George, a little older, hung back.
It was clear to him that Dad was not being his usual manic, anal-retentive self, where he would harass everyone into a panic.
Passports! Who has the bloody passports?
You don’t need that, put it back, Christ!
What’s going on, why are you eating now?
You have to use the bathroom? Forget it, we only have three hours until we’ve got to be at the airport.
Ah, I have the passports. At least someone’s got things under control here.
George would have been grateful for the now more relaxed version of his father, if it wasn’t for the timing.
A global exodus was underway, and Dad was acting like they weren’t going anywhere at all.
Something seemed… off, and George didn’t like it.
“What have you done with Dad?”
Dad looked up from packing his navy suit and a selection of ties – which didn’t make sense to George. Do people really need a suit and tie at this point?
A space suit, maybe.
Overalls, for sure. That was more practical, especially when rebuilding.
“What do you mean, kiddo?”
George shrugged. “You’re just acting… different.”
“You mean,” he went over to George and put a hand on his shoulder, “I’m not being an asshole?”
But George wanted to cry.
“Come on guys,” Mum interrupted, “don’t dawdle. I know I said we have plenty time, but we don’t want to waste it now.”
Her chirpiness gave George some reassurance, but only a tiny, little bit. Dad continued through the motions, like a robot. He didn’t raise his voice once or chastise George for packing something stupid, like that time he wanted to bring his hiking boots.
We’re going to Lanzarote, you numbskull!
Even when they were all packed and on the road, having joined the throng of slow-moving traffic headed to the evacuation points, George still felt a weirdness in his gut.
Hours into the journey, and about a thousand are-we-there-yet’s from Ella, Mum pointed to an exit.
“Take that one,” she said to Dad.
Dad looked at her, then nodded.
Mum turned to the back seat.
“I know a short-cut.” She winked and squeezed George’s knee.
The car sped along a road that eventually wound up higher and higher, into the mountains.
That feeling in George’s gut got weirder, especially as he glimpsed the slugs of traffic below, all going in the other direction, becoming almost microscopic.
As they climbed higher, the sun was setting. It was like they were chasing it down, for every, last drop.
Eventually they came to a plateau, a lookout point. There was a wooden sign inscribed with:
George spotted his Mum and Dad as they squeezed hands. They looked at each other as if they’d spend a lifetime together.
“We’re going to camp out tonight,” Mum said, excitement in her voice.
“But I thought we were going up there?” Ella pointed to the sky.
“We are honey,” she replied.
“Don’t we need to get in the queue, I mean, we don’t want to be late?” George found himself feeling the same urgency and frenetic energy that Dad must feel before every trip.
“No need to worry, kiddo, I have our tickets right here.” He patted his back pocket. “There’s no need to rush on board like those schmucks in First Class. It’s like I say, they might get on first, but they’ll be waiting just the same.”
George wasn’t convinced. Dad bent over and looked him in the eyes.
“Shuttle won’t leave without us, kiddo,” he said. “In the meantime, we get to enjoy a campout, just us, while all those suckers’ squabble and push each other to get ahead.”
George supposed that was true.
Mum and Dad set up the tent – it was small but just enough for them all to huddle in together. They even started a fire, and Ella zoomed her plastic fire truck around it, pretending to douse the flames.
It was probably the most time they had spent together as a family, for a long time.
George momentarily forgot his worries when Mum brought out a bag of marshmallows.
What had been a pink and orange sky, mellowed to a cool purple. Stars shone, though not as brightly. There was a haze over the world.
George helped Ella into her pajamas while Mum and Dad watched the final sliver of sun disappear behind the horizon. Suddenly they could see their breath.
Ella amused herself with a mini flashlight that George had had on his keyring. George crawled out, where he saw the silhouette of his parents as they kissed.
Normally he would have been grossed out, but this time, George understood.
Mum got up and squeezed George on the shoulder as she passed him. A hand covered her mouth. He couldn’t make out her face, but he could tell she was holding back tears.
George joined Dad.
“Do me a favor, kiddo.”
Normally George would have let out a big huff, but things were different now.
“Your Mum wants to snuggle with you two tonight. Don’t push her away or play your video games. Plenty of time for that later. Can you do that for me, kiddo?”
What happened next was something Dad had never dreamed he would ever get to witness –
and that was something.
“You’re a good Dad,” George put his hand on Dads’ and squeezed. “Don’t worry about me, or Ella, or Mum. I’ll take care of them tonight. And I won’t ever let Mum know that I know.”
Dad looked to George, who looked back. George was calm, but serious; even taller it seemed.
Then he saw it:
George had grown up, right there in front of his eyes.
The tears swelled when he realized that his baby boy no longer needed him. George had become the man Dad only dared to imagine – just as his son spoke the simple truth that he could hide no more:
“That we were never going to make it.”