Runner up to our 3rd annual Fiction Contest
A father clutched his young son’s hand. He nearly had to crouch in order to hold it, even though the boy’s hand was raised above his straight brown hair. The night was a bit chilly, but, it being the first week above freezing since fall, the air felt warm, even on their bare hands and cheeks. They stood beneath a perfectly black sky. Everything was dark, except for the moon and the sterile, fluorescent light emanating from beyond the glass doors of Franklin High School, just in front of them.
The boy began to walk steadily towards the door, as if pulled; in actuality, it was he who was pulling his father. The father heaved the door open, and they entered the school together, their grip on each other’s hands tighter still.
A security guard sat in a chair that leaned back against the wall. His legs were crossed, his feet rested on a small table, and his hat was pulled down over his eyes. He seemed to be sleeping. The father and his young son stopped and looked at the man. The security guard lifted his hat from his eyes, and, for a long second, looked back.
“You’re looking for the little room with all the lights,” he said, pointing down the left hallway. The father began to open his mouth when the security guard added, “You’ll know it when you see it.”
The boy and his father trudged down the hallway, slowly. The rubber soles on their shoes occasionally squeaked on the tile floor. The hallway became darker with every step they took away from the bright entrance. No lights were on in the hallway. They passed Room 108 and Room 115 and, further down the hallway, Room 126. None felt right.
Room 134. A soft, golden light seeped out of the crack beneath the door and onto the white tiles. Before the father could stop him, his son opened the door.
The soft, golden light poured from the room and warmed their skin, even beneath their light jackets and jeans. It was warm, but not hot. The sensation was the same as the one they had felt the week before, when the father had built a fire in their brick fireplace and the son watched. Only now, the fire came to them, but it was no hotter, only bigger.
They stepped inside the room, side by side, and closed the door behind them.
The boy shed his jacket and dropped it onto the carpeted floor before sitting cross-legged. His father sat beside him. They simply sat and enjoyed the warmth. Neither had the slightest desire to leave. For now, even the boy’s insatiable curiosity seemed appeased. The father didn’t think he could find the door even if he wanted to; all he could see was gold. The father lay down and rested his eyes; although he could still see the light as if his eyelids weren’t shut.
The father felt his son get up. He opened his eyes. The boy’s back disappeared into the light just after the father spotted him. The father rose and caught up with his son.
The glow rolled over their shoulders as they stepped forward into darkness. The father and his son froze. They weren’t sure where to go. The father began to wander, wildly waving his arms in front of him in case he might hit something. When he remembered his son, he walked back towards the glow until he found him.
“Just snap,” a voice in the dark told him.
The father snapped. Pillowy white light cascaded from above onto the father and the boy and the security guard, who, pleased with the father’s successful snap, leaned casually against a wall. Rows of shelves full of toys stretched endlessly to the left and to the right and into infinity.
The father put his hand on his son’s shoulder. The boy’s blue eyes widened, and he smiled. He couldn’t contain his excitement any longer and sprinted for the nearest shelf. The father looked at the security guard.
“It’s okay. Go on.”
The father strolled down the same aisle as his son, who was now far down the row. It seemed to be the aisle of toys from 1966. The father stopped to look at the Hot Wheels cars. They were made so much better back then. Today, colored plastic replaced old-fashioned metal and paint. The father glanced back at the wall where the security guard had been to make sure he wasn’t being caught taking one out of the box. The security guard was gone. The father ripped the tape that held the box together and carefully pulled the car from its packaging. He lifted the car to eye level to inspect it. The security guard stood behind the car. The father scrambled to repackage the car, as if he wouldn’t notice. The security guard smirked and extended his hand, palm facing the box.
“No need for that. Enjoy it. All of this,” he said, taking a step back and throwing his arms out to the sides, “is yours to enjoy.”
The father replaced the car anyway and walked towards his son. He glanced back at the security guard, who stood with his arms crossed, still watching, still smirking.
The boy, pleased with his new domain, looked up when the father finally reached him. He stopped pulling the wooden toy dog by its leash for a moment.
“When is Mommy coming?”
The father spun around, half expecting the security guard to appear with more answers. He wasn’t there.
“Jill…” the father said under his breath to himself. Where was she, anyway? Where were they?
Now the security began to walk towards them, but it was a long walk; they waited in silence. The security guard had nothing to say. He simply bent down, put his right index finger in what the father and the boy had thought to be a solid floor, and scooped a bit of it away like shaving cream.
After a moment of disbelief, the father began to scoop handfuls of the floor away, too. Soon there was no floor, only air. The father could see his wife below. She was at home, sobbing, surrounded by countless relatives and plates of food. Her mother hugged her tightly. Everybody wore black.
The father wasn’t sure what he was looking at. And then it hit him.
A blue car coming fast. A crash. Glass shattered. Smoke. Metal. Dashboard. Darkness.
Mommy wasn’t coming.
The boy, apparently satisfied with seeing his mother’s face, continued to wander down the aisle, meddling with whichever toys caught his eye. The father sat cross-legged beside the hole he had created and watched. He watched Jill cry on her mother’s shoulder and then on her sister’s. He watched the visitors slowly file out of the house until only Jill’s mother remained. She was in the kitchen cooking Jill’s favorite dinner, lightly breaded halibut served with two slices of lemon and a side of asparagus. Jill’s mother had also made chicken soup. It always made Jill feel better when she was younger.
* * * * *
He watched her until she smiled for the first time. The father smiled, too. He blinked back a tear, as the security guard filled in the hole with the foam piled around it and packed it in until it was a floor again. The security guard nodded at the father as he stood up. His son was nowhere in sight, but the father wasn’t worried. Surely one would find the other. The father strolled away in search of his son; the security guard smoothed out the floor, leaving no trace that it was ever touched.
The boy had moved over a couple aisles and was now in 1971. The father didn’t bother to tell his son that the doll he thought was G.I. Joe was actually Ken. Instead, he absentmindedly fiddled with an identical Ken from the shelf.
Why couldn’t he tolerate that song, and why did he have to change the station? Why did he have to take his wife’s car, and why couldn’t he feel the buttons on the radio without looking? Why was his son in the front seat, and why couldn’t he ask him to change the station instead?
“Daddy! What is this?”
“It’s an Etch-A-Sketch. We never got you one?”
The son snatched the toy back from his father’s hands and twirled the knobs. He was particularly amused when he shook it.
What the hell was he thinking when he took his eyes off the road?
“Can I go back?” the father asked, knowing the security guard would answer him.
The father had thought not.
“Your wife may not be here, but your son is, and he is quite happy. Join him. You can relax here.”
The security guard was right. His son was enjoying himself more than ever before.
“There’s only one place I want to be, and that’s with my wife and my son.”
“I understand, but this is the one place your son wants to be: here with you. Your wife cannot come.”
The father thought a minute. He marched from 1971 back to 1966 and all the way down 1966 until he reached where the glow once was, but now wasn’t. He pounded his fist on the wall but felt no pain. Head down, he walked towards his son, removing a Hot Wheels car from the shelf as he passed through 1966. The security guard patted the father on the back he passed by, toy car in hand. The security guard shook his head.
His son had found a teddy bear. He lay down and held it tight to his chest and closed his eyes. The father sat next to him until the boy fell asleep. He took the car from the box, this time not so careful as to keep the packaging pristine. He held the car up and spun its wheels to make sure they worked well. He rolled the car on the floor, but it stopped a few feet away.
The father sat for a moment.
He tore at the floor. Bits of foam flew into the air. He dug until he could see his wife again. His breathing slowed. His son remained asleep beside him. His mourning wife looked up, and their eyes met.
Check out the other runner-up here.