His alarm woke him up before sunrise. There were clouds in the sky, a frown on his face, and misery in the air. He tried once again to place the strange smell in his room, maybe his son had been eating chips in there? No, that wasn’t it. It smelled like garlic and something stronger, but what?
He got out of his king-sized bed, washed his face, shaved, brushed his teeth, showered, slapped himself on the face, and smiled at his reflection in the mirror. Anything to stay awake, to function, to go on living. It was Sunday, his day off. Usually, on his days off, he took his son to the park. Not today, the weather was the worst it had been all week.
He went to his son’s room across the hall, dragging his feet on the carpeted floor they had upstairs. It was light brown, with dark stains in it, like shadows of an invisible monster.
He entered the room and saw his son cowering under the blanket. Outside of the window, he could see streaks of blue. Then booming noises, like a marching band playing in his ears. Oh no, he thought, trying not to swear in his head. It was hard, but swearing in his head could lead him to do it out loud, and his son was close.
He noticed the blanket shuffling; scared, hopeful, big emotions for a blanket. The boy knew how to act, probably because of all the movies he watched with his mother. They were huge movie buffs, both of them, and they would often recite their favorite lines together and recreate scenes for him. He loved watching them act, even though he was the furthest thing away from being a cinephile. There were better escapes in his opinion, more interesting things to explore. It was these more extreme escapes that he pursued in college, paired with a history of poor mental health, that had led to his first detachment from reality. He broke down, couldn’t tell what was real and what wasn’t. He couldn’t afford to do that again. He had to take care of his son.
“Mom?” The boy asked.
“No, it’s dad,” the man said.
“Come here, I want to see your face,” the man said.
The blanket shifted. Then, a clap of thunder and the blanket was still as a stone.
“I don’t want to come out, dad,” the boy said.
“Fine, I’ll join you.”
He walked across the room and sat on his son’s bed.
“I want to watch a movie with mom,” the boy said.
The man sighed, this was a long-time tradition his wife and son had. Any time there was lightning on a day-off, they snuggled up together downstairs on the brown couch in front of the TV. The man would make them popcorn, give them blankets, then go upstairs to work. He didn’t want to stick around to watch the movie, it was their tradition, not his.
“How about we watch a movie together? I’ll make popcorn with melted butter,” the man offered.
“No, I want to see mom, I miss her,” the boy said.
“I’m sorry, but you can’t see mom. Why don’t I read you a book, you can stay under the covers while I do it if you want.”
The boy considered the offer.
“No,” he said, “I want to watch a movie with mom.”
“We can visit her today," the man said.
“Good, where does she live?”
The man fought back tears. He couldn’t afford to start crying, that would make his son cry too. The man preferred to keep his emotions locked up.
“Far away, are you sure you want to go out in this storm?” The man asked.
“Um, can you give me a second to think?” The boy asked like he was in a negotiation. Under better circumstances, that would have been adorable.
The man shuffled back to his room. He could smell the garlic, and...misery? No, it wasn’t misery, it was booze. His room smelled like garlic and booze, even though he didn’t drink anymore and he didn’t eat garlic in there.
“Dad, come back,” the boy called out.
The man shuffled back to his son’s room.
“I want to see mom,” the boy said.
There was another streak of lightning, the boy started crying. Oh shit, the man thought. Hey, no swearing. But if one streak of lightning produced so many tears, what would happen when they stepped out in the storm. The man pretended that he hadn’t seen his son crying. He lifted the boy and carried him downstairs, helped him get his boots and coat on, then scooped him up again and placed him in the car seat. The boy loved being carried, but he was getting older and so was his dad, he’d have to walk on his own soon.
They drove for forty minutes, to the borders of the city, where the graveyard was located. On the way, the man was determined to make conversation with his son, to distract the boy from the harrowing storm outside. The man didn’t think it would rain this much, his windshield wipers worked overtime just so he could get a glimpse of the road. He was so focused that he couldn’t come up with anything normal to talk to his son about.
“Does your room ever smell like garlic?” He asked the boy.
The rain was hitting the car so hard he had to raise his voice. The boy looked scared.
Is he scared of the thunder...or me? The man wondered.
“No,” his son answered.
This worried the man, but he kept a neutral face. Smelling things that weren’t there, it was one of the first symptoms he noticed when he lost touch of reality last time. He panicked, turned the wheel a little, and lost control of the car. They skidded along the empty road, then came to a stop. He looked back at his son, made sure he was okay, then kept driving. If it was just him in his car, he would have slammed the gas and let fate take over. But his son was in the car, in his life, and when you care about anything as much as he cared about his son you start caring about your own life too.
“Do you miss her?” The boy asked.
“Yes,” the man said.
“How did the two of you meet?” The boy asked.
“You’re a mature young man, you know that?” The man asked.
“Yes, so how did you two meet?”
“Let’s see, it was a long time ago. We met at work, so at first, I didn’t want to date her, office relationships are never a good idea.”
His son nodded, even though he didn’t understand what that meant.
“I tried to avoid her, so she had to make the first move. Your mother asked me out to coffee and we hit it off. Do you remember what she looked like?”
“Yes, like a movie actress,” the boy answered.
“She was something,” the man agreed, “she was my rock, for a long time. Helped me find some stability through all my ups and downs.”
“Mom was a rock?”
The man laughed. Sometimes he forgot how young his son was.
“Would that make you half-rock?” The man asked.
“I don’t know,” the boy shrugged.
“Now you’re my rock, son.”
“Thanks, Dad, I guess.”
When the boy wasn’t sure how to react to things, he looked at his dad and copied him. Now, his dad was smiling, so he smiled.
They parked outside the graveyard. It was a nice place, not creepy at all, the man had made sure of that. It was secluded from the rest of the city because the man didn’t want his wife to be bothered. The gravestones were large, made of white marble. They had roses and tulips and rocks and pictures and toys on them. The grass around each gravestone was trimmed and watered once a week.
The man took his son by the hand, making sure that the intense wind and rain wouldn’t knock him down.
“Can you carry me, dad?” The boy shouted over the storm.
“No, the wind’s too strong and I might slip on the wet ground.”
His son was an easy child, he was grateful for that. The boy inherited his mother’s kind, calm demeanor. They arrived at her grave. It was surrounded by flowers and toys and a big plastic baggie filled with papers.
“What’s in the bag?” The boy asked.
“Pictures you drew for mom,” the man answered.
“Why didn’t you give them to her?” The boy asked.
“I did my best,” the man answered.
The boy waited patiently to meet his mother. This is a strange place to meet, he thought. His father told him they needed to go find a pretty rock to put on the grave, that it was a tradition to leave one every time they visited.
“Tradition? Like when mom and I watch movies” the boy asked.
“Exactly,” the man said.
They walked out of the graveyard, back across the parking lot, and near the empty road. They searched for rocks on a gravel path to the side of the road, the man squeezing his son’s hand like a little child holding onto a balloon. They found two good rocks and went to put them on the grave.
The boy noticed a gray plaque on the white marble, it had his mother’s name, the numbers 1982-2018, and a little blurb he struggled to read. It talked about how she was a great mother and a great woman who would be missed, and how she left behind her husband and son. The boy doesn’t understand, his mother would never leave him behind, she always took care of him.
The boy then noticed that the plaque on the grave next to hers’ was empty. The man had bought that grave for himself, without telling his son, of course. The man noticed his son reading the plaque, he had to fight off tears. The lightning didn’t care about any of this, it was relentless as ever.
“Dad, is mom gone, forever?”
The boy wasn’t sure how he figured it out on his own. Something deep-rooted and primal had told him that she was gone and that one day he would be gone too, forever and ever and ever, and the world would keep going. The boy fainted.
The man picked up his son and ran to the car, doing his best not to slip in the rain. He strapped the boy into his car seat, buckled up his seatbelt, and pulled up directions to the nearest hospital on his phone.
He explained what happened to the nurse, who called the doctors to examine the boy. The man was told to take a seat in the waiting. He made the doctor promise that he would alert him as soon as his son regained consciousness. The boy was placed on a cart and rolled away.
The man sat down in a beige chair. There was a coffee-table full covered in magazines in front of him, and a vending machine in the corner. The man sat near a couple about his age. The woman had pretty features, black hair, hazel eyes, she was wearing a blue shirt, and a white cardigan over it. The man was fast asleep, his head rested on her shoulder.
“I hope I’m not being rude, I overheard what you said to the nurse, where’s your wife? The mother should be here in times like these,” the woman said.
The man was surprised. You are being rude, he thought. He tried not to show his anger, it would lead to other emotions.
“I’m a single father,” he answered.
“Oh, that’s amazing, it’s so nice to see good men like you take responsibility.”
The man was happy with this response. He usually got one of three reactions when he told people he was a single parent; concern about his ability to raise a child, pity, or praise. Praise was his favorite, happiness was an easy emotion for him to manage, there was so much sadness in his life it could balance out any amount of happiness he ever felt.
“I’m a single parent too, my husband left me with our daughter,” the woman went on.
Huh? The man thought. Then who’s that guy sleeping next to her?
“Are you here alone?” The man asked. It was a rude question, but he didn’t care at the moment.
“Yes, I’m waiting for my parents to arrive, they help me a lot with my daughter.”
“Can you come with me to the vending machine? I need help picking out a snack,” the man said.
The woman furrowed her brow. A grown man had just asked her to help him pick out a candy. She obliged anyway, getting off her seat. The guy that was sleeping on her shoulder remained in the same position, not affected by her movements at all. Then, the guy disappeared. Oh no, it’s happening again, the man thought. He was feeling too many emotions, he had to calm himself down. Then, the smell hit him.
“Do you smell garlic and booze?” The man asked the woman.
“No, I think the pretzels look good,” she said.
“You asked me to help you pick out a snack, the pretzels look good,” she said.
The man bought the pretzels, opened them, laid them down on the coffee table, and told the woman to help herself. Then, he excused himself to go to the bathroom.
The man closed the door behind him and spread his hands on the sink. He slapped himself, then smiled at his reflection in the mirror, anything to stay awake, to function, to stay alive. It’s Sunday, he reminded himself, anything to cling onto reality. He could still smell garlic and booze.
He remembered something his wife told him, “Sometimes the best thing you can do is just cry.” The man cried for a long time until there was a knock on the door.
“Sir, the doctors are looking for you, are you okay?” asked the woman from the waiting room.
“I’m fine, please tell them I’ll be out in a moment.”
He couldn’t let his son see him like this. The boy would mimic his dad and start crying too.
His son was returned to him in the waiting room. The doctor smiled and said that everything was fine and that he would like to see the boy again to do a blood test, just a precaution.
The man kneeled on the floor and hugged his son.
“That was scary,” the boy said.
The man tried to say something back, but his voice failed. He tried but he couldn’t summon any words. He cried on his son’s shoulder. His son smiled.
“Don’t cry dad, I’m okay, and so are you,” the boy said.
The man was shocked. He tried to stop his crying but found that he couldn’t.
“Can we visit mom again?” The boy asked.
“Yes, we’ll go again next Sunday,” the man said through tears.
Since then the man and his son visit her every Sunday. It’s their tradition.