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Steven  Amsterdam
Steven Amsterdam

Steven Amsterdam, a native New Yorker, works as a psychiatric nurse in Melbourne, Australia. Things We Didn't See Coming is his first novel.

Things We Didn't See Coming
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From 'Things We Didn't See Coming'

Steven Amsterdam

What We Know Now

 

For the first time, Dad is letting me help pack the car, but only because it’s getting to be kind of an emergency. He says we’ve each got to pull more than our own weight. Even though we’re only going to Grandma and Grandpa’s farm, he’s packing up the kitchen with pasta, cans of soup, and peanut butter—plus the toolbox and first-aid kit. Carrying a carton past the living room, I see Cate there, trying not to pay attention. “Almost done, Cate,” I tell her.

             “I’m your mother. Call me by that name,” she says.

            I say, “Mother.”

            My job is to bring everything out to the car. We’ll load it all up when I’m done. He parked in front of our building and put orange cones down on the road on either side of the car two days ago. None of the neighbors said a word and he asked me not to make a big deal. The closeness makes it easy to keep a lookout on our stuff while I’m running up and down the two flights of steps. No one’s on the street when I step outside so I go up for another load.

            The Benders on the third floor went away the day before Christmas, but Dad said he wanted to wait until the day of New Year’s Eve to maximize preparation. He says this is a special new year and we’re taking special measures. He says this year I have to stay up until after midnight.

            Because he’s still inside organizing boxes and Cate is just turning pages and not looking up on purpose when he drags them past her, I decide to stay out of their way. To help out, though, I packed up all the batteries from all my games and my portable radio because Dad says they would be useful.

            While it’s OK for me to hold the key, I’m not allowed to start the car. I think about turning it in the ignition and then saying that I was just checking the fuel gauge, which is all right. But I might get in trouble because I already know he’s been to the gas station to fill up, not to mention we’ve got two big red jugs of gas in the back of our station wagon. Cate knows I know about it because I asked her. She said to just be patient.

            I’m sitting on the car, guarding our stuff and scratching at a chip in the maroon paint between my legs, when Milo from downstairs comes out. He acts like he’s running out to get to the store before it closes. Then he sees me and slows down and starts asking questions. This is what he always does and it makes my back go up like a cat. Where are we going? How come we’re leaving? What am I going to be doing with my lame grandmother at midnight? (He’s twelve and is going to a party with friends.) I answer as quickly as possible, keeping an eye on our stuff, not because I think Milo’s going to take it, but because I’m trying to figure out why Dad packed all the kitchen knives. Cate sure doesn’t know about that or she wouldn’t be keeping so quiet right now.

            Milo finally says what he’s wanted to say since he saw me in the window and came downstairs and it’s this: His father, who works in computers, is going to make 125 grand tonight, because he’s going to stop blackouts and everything from happening. Once he tells me this, he hangs around a minute, looking at our suitcases and our car. It makes the stuff look bad somehow. He raises his eyebrows at me and goes back inside. He wasn’t going to the store.

            I know what a grand is because Milo’s always telling me how much his father makes (a lot). My grandmother said not to use the word, because it makes me sound like a little gangster.

            Finally, Dad comes out dragging the last thing, the cooler, and he’s got a bag of vegetables balanced on top of it.

             “We’re bringing vegetables to a farm?” I ask.

             “Just give me a hand.”

            He doesn’t say much about my arrangement of our stuff on the street, but begins right away loading it. He’s got that look that means I shouldn’t bother him, but I tell him what Milo told me about the 125 grand. He doesn’t look at me but he laughs and asks me where Milo’s father is going to be working tonight. I say that I think it’s the same place he usually does, in an office downtown. Dad shakes his head and says, “He’s a dead man.”

            Cate steps out into the cool air with her bright blue wheelie bag, which looks funny and small considering what Dad is busy cramming into the trunk. She looks up and down the block to see who’s watching. The rest of the street looks normal. I hold up my saggy backpack to show her how little I’m bringing, and then she tells me to get my jacket on. She wheels her bag over to Dad, who’s sticking cans of tuna fish around all of our stuff. Cate stares at him like she’s watching a dog digging a hole that’s way too deep.

            She gets really close to him and asks, “You sure you don’t want to just stick around and knock over a bank when things get crazy?”

            He laughs like he doesn’t think it’s funny.

             “How can you knock over a bank?” I ask.

            She smiles and tells me she’s counting on me to be the only sane person tonight and possibly into the next century. I ask her again how you can knock over a bank, but she starts helping Dad. I stretch out on the backseat so I can listen to them.

            Cate says, “There’s no reason to be stressed right now. We’re all together. We’re doing everything to protect ourselves. We’re taking all the precautions you wanted.”

            He keeps packing.

            (“That food is not for tonight, it’s for the long haul”), we get on the road just as the sun is starting to go down.

            Dad dodges cars quicker than usual as we make our way through streets of dressed-up people, some already drunk. In a few minutes, we swing up onto the expressway. Cate says, “Not much traffic for doomsday.”

             “Can you please let up on the sarcasm?”

            Cate shuts down and nobody says anything for a while.

            When we’re out of the city, she puts on the radio. Pretty soon, we’re on country roads, more than halfway there. On the radio, people in London are getting ready for a wild party. I say that it’s great that one night can make people have fun all over the world. She agrees and says to Dad, “London Bridge still seems to be standing. That’s a good sign, isn’t it?”

            This makes Dad quiet and angry. She looks at his face for half a minute, then looks out the window. We zip past farms that are dark and farms with lights on and cars parked all over their driveways.

            Dad, talking like she’s not there, tells me that the world is large and complicated, with too many parts relying on other parts and they all octopus out. Then he starts talking like he’s writing one of his letters to the editor, going into stuff I don’t understand but have heard a lot of times before. “Our interdependence is unprecedented in history. It’s foolish.”

            I wish I was on a plane over everything. We’d be flying west, going through all the New Year’s Eves, looking down just as they happen. I’d have to stay awake for twenty-four hours of nighttime, but I’d be looking out the little window and watching ripples of fireworks below, each wave going off under us as we fly over it. I start to talk about this, but then decide to save it for Grandma. Dad doesn’t think planes are safe tonight either.

            Cate puts her hand behind Dad’s head to squeeze his neck, which means she wants to help him. “What else can we do for you, babe? We’re set if anything goes wrong. If it doesn’t, we’ll have a quiet night of it with my parents. It’s all right now. All right?” She looks at me so I can also tell him that we’ll be safe. I nod to mean yes, but don’t say anything out loud because I’m not sure if it’s what he wants me to say or if it’s even true.

             “What do you think?” He looks at me through the rearview mirror. We both have green eyes. Sometimes, he says, it’s like looking in a mirror.

            Just then, we bump into the car ahead of us. Not a big bump, a touch, enough to scare everybody. I‘m not wearing a seat belt so I get knocked into the back of Dad’s seat and a can of tuna fish shoots over onto my seat. It’s nothing serious. Cate reaches her hand back to me and grabs my knee to make sure I’m all right. Once it happens I realize that while I was looking at Dad I also saw the car slowing down in front of us, but it all happened so fast I couldn’t even call out for us to stop.

            The car we hit pulls onto the gravel and we follow close behind like a kid trailing a teacher to the principal’s office. Dad says, “Shit!” and punches the button to turn off the radio.

            Cate suddenly lets him have it. “Don’t blame the radio. It’s because you’ve been so paranoid and scattered that this happened.” Here she’s talking about something else. “We’ll get through the other side and promise me that you’ll be better? Promise me.” He doesn’t say anything. She sinks back and says to herself, “It would just be so nice if things would work again.”

            I ask, “What doesn’t work, Cate?”

            Even madder now, she asks Dad why I’m not calling him by his first name.

            So I say his name, “Otis,” and that makes him laugh.

            Dad says to her, “Can’t you just be on my side tonight?”

            We wouldn’t have hit that car if he hadn’t been looking at me, but I keep my mouth shut.

            Dad turns off the engine. Finally, a woman gets out of the other car. She’s not small, and she’s bundled up in a lot of clothes. Our car doesn’t look any better than hers, but at least we’ve got heat.

            Cate says, again, to herself, “A woman driving alone on New Year’s Eve.”

            I say, “Maybe she’s going to a party.”

             “No, look at her. She’s not going to a party.”

            The woman rubs her hands along the dent on her bumper, then she looks right at Dad. He looks down at his lap and catches his breath. “I can’t believe I did this.”

             “Don’t make it a bigger deal. Just talk to the woman,” Cate says. Then she reaches her hand back to hold mine and tells me, “Once we’re at Grandma and Grandpa’s, it’ll be quiet. We can see stars and just watch the fireplace till we fall asleep.”

             “Till midnight,” I correct her. I don’t think I mind missing New Year’s Eve in the city. We’ll get up early because Grandma will wake everyone up by clattering in the kitchen, till we all show up to keep her company. Then she’ll whip up pancakes and let me stick the blueberries into the batter once she’s poured it onto the pan. Dad will be friendly but kind of quiet until it’s time to leave because they’re not his parents. Unless, of course, the world does end tonight, in which case he’ll be in charge of all of us.

            Dad hasn’t made a move yet. The woman starts rubbing her head with her hands even though it’s not itching, the way Dad does when he’s keeping something in or about to explode. She’s not going to be patient with him, whatever his excuse. I see him in the front seat, seeing what I see as he watches her. It’s like we’re looking at the same person with the same eyes. He turns his head right and left, checking out the empty road around us.

             “Let’s go.”Dad starts the car.

             “What are you doing?”Cate is yelling.

             “There isn’t time.”

            As he pulls off past her, the woman watches us, stunned. She slaps her sides and just stares at the back of our car as we bump up back onto the road.

             “Dad, I think she’s memorizing our plate.”

             “I can’t believe that you would be such a”—Cate wants to say something worse, but I’m in the car—“jerk to a total stranger. You’ve done a hit and run.”

             “What? We did stop. She’s OK. She can walk.”

            Cate is rocking in her seat she’s so angry. “I can’t believe this. And now you’ve made us your accomplices.”

            Cate is done, she’s facing forward. “I can’t defend this at all.”

            “Have I asked you to?”Dad just drives on into the dark— still fast, with this weird I’m-not-even-sorry look.

            Cate turns her head and says to me, “I don’t want you to learn one thing from tonight. Not about how to conduct yourself during times of stress, not about how to respect other people, not about how to manage your own insane worries. I want you to look out the window and watch the trees go by, because that’s what I intend to do.”

            Dad taps the wheel a few times with his fingertips to keep from saying anything.

 

Grandma is waiting on the patch of grass in front of their house, brushing her hair, which always looks so long when she’s holding it straight out. On top of her green dress, which she says has been her favorite for sixty years, she’s wearing her gray wool coat. When she sees it’s us coming around the curve, she puts the brush in her coat pocket and walks out to the road, waving us in as if Dad wouldn’t know how to find the driveway without her.

            As the car stops, Grandma rubs her hands together for warmth and because she’s getting ready for a hug. Cate busts out of the car like she’s running out of oxygen.

            Grandma throws her arms around her, squeezes tight and gives me a wink.

            I climb out and Grandma grabs me by my ears for a kiss on the forehead and both cheeks. “My bean. It’s after eight o’clock. You’re lucky it’s New Year’s or I’d already be snoring. Do you know how long I’ve been waiting here, brushing and brushing? Since lunchtime, maybe breakfast. It’s a wonder I’ve still got hair on my head, much less feeling in my fingers.” She holds me tight. Then she sees the back of our car. “What in the world did you pack? Did you think I wouldn’t have put in food?”

            Cate bounces the question to Dad with a wave of her hand and walks toward the front steps, where Grandpa’s just come out of the house.

            Dad’s standing by the side of the car, quiet and not looking for a hug. “It’s more than food. Papers and things. Just in case.”

             “Just in case?” she asks.

             “We’re prepared,” I tell her, proudly.

             “For what, exactly?”

             “For everything to fall apart from interdependence,” I tell her.

             “Ooh, that sounds unpleasant. Is that what’s in store?”

            I think something will happen, but I tell her, “Maybe.”

            She stretches her arms out to a sky full of stars and breathes deeply, until her breath turns into a loud, unladylike yawn. “There. I guess that’s what I think about maybe. Are you hungry?”

            I nod.

             “Good,” she says and shoves me in Grandpa’s direction, but I stay to watch.

            She looks at Dad, who’s still standing on the other side of the car. “Are you well?”

            “I’m well.”

             “Will we all be eating dinner together tonight?”

             “It’s been a bit of a day for us. I’m afraid I’m not on board. But thanks.”

            This stinks. Dad’s not going to apologize. He’ll hide out in their room all night and the three of us won’t be all together at midnight.

            Grandma puts her hands on my shoulders and tells Dad, “Unpack whatever’s necessary and come inside before the new year starts and everything breaks into tiny pieces.”

 

 

Grandpa’s telling Grandma, Cate and me how one New Year’s Eve they invited people to a party and the night was so cold that not one person showed up. Grandma called all their friends the next day and forced them to come by for lunch to eat the enormous ham she’d made. Grandma was so persuasive and so many people came that they ran out of food before two in the afternoon. We’ve all heard this before—and Grandma lived it—but sitting with them in the living room tonight, eating popcorn and watching the fire, hearing the story again feels good.

            The clock on the low bookshelf next to the kitchen doorway is humming loudly and saying there’s more than two hours until midnight. It’s the same faded blue plastic clock that Grandpa carries with him everywhere. When he takes a nap, he puts it down next to him. When he’s working outside, he props it up on the porch. It runs on batteries and he brings it to our house when he comes to visit as if it’s the only clock he can trust.

            Grandma finishes by saying, “That story, by the way, is a lesson for us all that shows you never know what way New Year’s Eve is going to turn out. Come midnight, all we might have is the light from this fire. Then how will we look?”

            Grandpa says, “We’ll be one hundred percent fine. I bought a box of candles the other day. And heaven knows you won’t let us go hungry. Nothing’s going to be different in the morning.”

             “But you don’t know everything about computers,” I say to him.

            This gets a look from everyone. I talked back because I had to, because it’s true.

            Grandpa sits back in his chair, sticks his thumbs under his arms and smiles. “In fact, I do. More to the point, it doesn’t matter.”

            Serious now, Grandma puts her hands in front of her lips like she’s going to pray and says to me, “Why don’t you get your father? There’s no reason for him not to be with us.”

            Cate throws her hands up, which means I can do what I want.

            I go to their room and it’s dark. “Dad?” No. I go down the hall, looking in all the rooms, but he isn’t anywhere. Then, in just my socks, I head out the back door into the yard and along the front of the house. Through the window, I see Cate, Grandma and Grandpa inside, all sitting still, nobody saying anything. It’s hard to tell if they’re bored or if they’re what Grandma calls “quietly content.” Dad’s not in front of the porch either, which I can’t get close to or else the light will go on.

            I walk out to the car. The grass has gotten damp and chilled and almost icy from the night air, so it crunches under my feet. The car’s half unpacked. I go a little way onto the road in front of the house and look for anything moving in the dark. “Dad?” It’s quiet and the cold is starting to reach my toes.

            When I come back inside alone, I stand in the hall for a minute to warm up. I look in my parents’ room again and turn on the light. It’s just their overnight bags on the bed that Grandma’s made up perfectly, with a little bouquet of holly on the pillow, as if this is some fancy hotel.

            I grab my sweatshirt and put it on, even pull the hood up. I head back to the living room and tell everyone, “He wants to be by himself tonight.”

             “Fine,” Cate says.“He’ll be better off. He’d worry us for the rest of the evening. Let him rest.”

            Grandma doesn’t approve. “Nobody’s better off by themselves when they’re like he is.”

            Grandpa ends it, with “What is he so worried about? It’s always been the end of the world. What did we have this century? World War I, the influenza, the Depression, World War II, concentration camps, the atomic bomb. Now he’s scared about a computer glitch? A blackout? Let’s go about our business. We’ll enjoy our hot chocolate with Baileys. He knows what he’s missing and can come in here whenever he likes.”

            I want the hot chocolate with Baileys. Last year I missed it because I fell asleep on the couch too early. The problem now is I promised Dad I would be with him when it turns twelve o’clock.

            We play Scrabble; Grandma wins. Cate doesn’t seem to be thinking about Dad. There’s a little fight about whether the TV should be turned on and everyone decides it’s better not to. They say that we should enjoy where we are and not wish we’re in the city. Or maybe they’re scared of what they might see happening if all the lights go out (and then the TV would go out too).

            We look out at the moon instead. We can see the tops of some fireworks miles away when they pop up in a few places above the forest. I leave the others at the window and head into the kitchen for a glass of milk. When no one’s looking, I take the flashlight out from under the sink. The hoodie’s big enough so that with one hand in my pocket I can hold the flashlight steady underneath and they won’t know.

            I come back out to them, yawning a lot and saying I’m sleepy. Grandpa tells me not to chicken out. He asks me if I want to help make the hot chocolate and I tell him I’m just too tired. He shakes his head, but Grandma gives me a hug and tells me, “It’s good that you know yourself so well. Go to bed. We’ll fix up some more in the morning, angel, after we’ve had breakfast.”

             “Thanks.”

            Cate offers to wake me at midnight. “You’ve been looking forward to this.”

             “It’s OK.”

            “You need a tuck in?”

            I yawn more and say, “It won’t be worth it,” which makes everybody laugh.

            I pad off to my room, making sure the door to my parents’ empty room is closed.

            I stash the flashlight in the pocket of my pants, put on my heaviest socks, climb into bed and wait. As expected, Cate comes in. I pretend to be falling asleep while she talks to me.

             “Are you not staying up because Dad’s full of worries?”

             “No.”

             “Are you worried about anything? About tonight?”

             “No.”

             “Would you tell me if you were?” She smiles before I do.

             “Never.”

            She throws up her hands, “I’ve lost him already. The boy won’t talk to his mother.” She kisses my nose and turns out the light as she leaves. “Happy New Year.”

             “See you next year,” I tell her.

             “See you next year,” she says and steps out into the hallway. She doesn’t even slow down when she passes their room. She thinks she’s still leaving him alone for driving off after we hit that car. Good.

            Cate goes back to the living room to have hot chocolate with her parents. I wonder if sometimes she prefers just being with them and not having Dad and me around. Maybe it’s simpler and reminds her of being little again.

            I put on flannel pants, boots and the shaggy blue sweater Grandma made me for Christmas. Gloves on, I turn the doorknob without making a click and tiptoe into the hallway, walking away from the light of the living room, toward the back door.

            The flashlight makes only an orange glow on the ground, which doesn’t help as much as the warmth of keeping my hand in my pocket, so I leave it on the hood of the car.

            My eyes adjust to the moonlight as I climb up the rocky path that leads into the forest. Looking back, before the trees swallow up everything, I can see more fireworks now, but they’re still scattered and far away, only making little puff sounds. I head along the trail that Grandpa has been walking for years, the one he uses for collecting wood for fire.

            I know exactly where Dad is and I know he’s waiting for me. When we were hiking last summer we found a place not far from the main trail where three trees had come down. They had stood next to each other, but had each fallen in a different direction, so they made a not-so-big triangle on the ground. Dad wondered if someone had knocked them down like this to make a hiding place, but they all looked like they fell naturally and the triangle was made by chance. We sat inside this natural fort, leaning back against two corners, with our backpacks set in the third, swatting fat August flies with our hands while trying to eat our sandwiches.

            I remember saying, “This is probably the safest place in the world.”

            Dad smiled and agreed. “If anything ever goes wrong, let’s say that we’ll meet here. Even if we’re far away, we’ll make our way to this exact spot to find each other.”

            “Deal.”

            Walking on the trail tonight, I’m thinking my own thoughts. The first is I have to get to Dad by midnight, which, judging by the number of fireworks going off now, must be getting close. I’ve been here in the dark before, but never by myself. This makes me move faster too.

            The second is about how Dad drove off from that woman. Cate was so mad she didn’t even tell Grandma and Grandpa about it. Aside from parking tickets, he’s never broken the law. He did it because he was in a hurry to get us out here and he saw that that woman was in as big a rush as us. So now Cate is safe in the house, he’s safe in the fort and I’m safe here walking through the woods.

            I do feel safe; I’m not scared. It’s just blackness from the trees, which somehow all looks purple with the light from the moon. It’s like nothing’s here besides me—no spiders, no deer. Everything is asleep or hidden or someplace else, not thinking about New Year’s Eve at all.

            The turnoff is somewhere close. Here.

            As I make my way in, the branches seem to snap back easily, or maybe I’m pushing harder because I’m a little bit scared.

            If it “all comes down” like Dad says, the spiders and deer will feel this New Year’s Eve, that’s for sure. Depending on how long it takes to get things fixed, everyone will come out here looking for fresh water, for real food that doesn’t come from a truck. People will finally realize that they’ve been expecting too much from a fragile system. Cate says, “If he wants us to move away to the country he should just say so, not put us through this drama.” He says he doesn’t want to move, he’s just thinking defensively. Which must be what he was doing when he left that woman standing by her car. But I bet she drove away mad. Maybe she’s somewhere safe now too, watching fireworks or a fireplace or just still on the side of the road there, watching the same moon as the rest of us.

            A light ahead, up the hill.

            I can see the biggest of the three trees now, this big black log lying there. The light is coming from inside the triangle, a small gold glow in this big forest full of night, making it look warm like a campsite. I say “Dad” to myself. Then I call it out, but he doesn’t hear. I run the last little bit over rocks, calling louder now. When I get to the triangle, I see that there’s no answer because he’s not there. Our flashlight, the one from the bottom drawer in the kitchen, is sticking up out of the ground and that’s all. The batteries are low and the light is flickering.

            Now I’m cold. Cate was right, I should have my jacket on. Where would he go? I stand on the biggest log and call, “Dad.”A big gust of wind makes me have to shout louder just to hear myself, but I balance myself there and keep yelling. Maybe he’s back at the house but left this here in case we need to find it later. I’ll try twenty more times, each five seconds apart. Giving myself that counting to do keeps me from being scared that he isn’t answering, until the twentieth try.

            I have to be brave now. When you’re meeting someone at a place like this, you don’t always get there at the same time and someone has to wait for someone else. I crouch down, which keeps me warmer. Maybe he got bored of waiting for me. I’ve got to think defensively too. I don’t want to end up frozen. I call “Dad” twenty more times, with the wind swallowing my voice as soon as it comes out of my mouth.

             “Hey! I’m coming!”

            It’s him, running through the forest toward me. His shirt is unbuttoned and he’s sweating. He’s out of breath, but smiling. “Oh my boy, it’s good to see my boy.” He gives a big grin and rests his hands on my shoulders. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

             “I promised I would come so I did.”

            He thanks me some more. “I’ve been running to try and get happy out here on my own, to try and stay warm. All I did was get myself wet. And now you’re here with me. Good man. Do they know where you are?”

             “Nope.”

            Normally, he would be sending me back right away so that no one (Cate) would get mad, but now he looks out into the woods. Is he thinking defensively? He stands up on one of the logs and pulls me up with him. He puts his hands right under my arms and lifts me up in front of him like he used to, so my head is as high as his and we can look through the trees and see fireworks. They’re all over the place now.

             “See that?” he says. “It’s just turned midnight.”

            He puts me down next to him and keeps watching. He’s intense about it, like an old-style Indian waiting for a smoke signal.

             “Do you see anything weird out there?”

             “Nothing unusual. It’ll be a few hours before we know what’s what. You bet I’d rather be here than anywhere else.”

             “I have a question. Couldn’t we have taken her too? The woman in the car. Grandma and Grandpa like visitors, even on special days. Then you and Cate wouldn’t have fought and we’d all be safe and together and we could be warm right now.”

            Dad smiles at me like I’m too young to understand. He gives me a hug and keeps his arms around me. “Let’s get out of the wind.” We jump down into the triangle and he pulls out a plastic bag for us to sit on next to each other.

             “No, we couldn’t have taken her. Trust me. It was better to fight with your mother than do that. We’re not fighting anyway. And more than that, the rest of them might be sitting in the dark now. Wouldn’t that be funny?”

             “No.”

             “Well, I think it would be.”

             “The lights will come back on sooner or later, won’t they?”

             “Eventually. I’m not just concerned about tonight as one event. Do you understand that?”

             “Yes.”

             “This whole thing is symbolic, symbolic of a system that’s hopelessly shortsighted, a system that twenty, thirty years ago couldn’t imagine a time when we might be starting a new century. That’s how limited an animal we are. Do you get it? A whole species that didn’t think to set its clocks the right way. We are arrogant, stupid, we lack humility in the face of centuries and centuries of time before us. What we call knowledge, what you learn in school about fossils and dinosaurs, it’s all hunches. What we know now is that we didn’t think enough. We know we aren’t careful enough and that’s about all we know. That’s what I’m trying to protect us from.”

            I say, “OK,” because he’s getting more upset as he talks.

             “What else haven’t we been paying attention to? I worry about your life, what’s going to happen to you. We can’t think our way out of every problem. We’re not smart enough.”

             “Don’t worry so much.”

            This only makes him mad. “What’s the right amount of worry? In our time, in your time, there’ll be breakdowns that can’t be fixed. There will be more diseases that can’t be fixed. Water will be as valuable as oil. And you’ll be stuck taking care of a fat generation of useless parents.”

             “I’ll take care of you when you get old.”

            He closes his shirt around his chest, but doesn’t button it. He’s still talking quickly, like he’s trying to get all the words out in one breath.

             “You can promise to be as sweet as you want, but picture this: The future is a hospital, packed with sick people, packed with hurt people, people on stretchers in the halls, and suddenly the lights go out, the water shuts off, and you know in your heart that they’re never coming back on. That’s the future, my friend.”

            It’s just us in the forest, but he’s talking louder than he needs to, about things being worse than he’s ever said they would be. I want to be tough for him, so I ask, “How do I get ready for that?”

            This stops him and makes him really look at me for the first time in five minutes.

             “I’m sorry,” he says. He changes. He wraps his arms around me and I can feel the sweat on his body as he pulls me close.

            He lowers his voice. “Listen, I’m sorry for everything. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” He doubles over, giving me a bear hug, breathing fast, like he’s still running.

            The flashlight sticking out of the ground is flickering more now. I wonder if that’s the only light that’s going to go out tonight. I want to convince him to come back to the house so we don’t end up out here in the dark in the cold.

            I say what Grandpa likes to say: “Everything will be fine until it’s not. Then we can worry.”He doesn’t seem to hear it. He just keeps rocking, telling me he’s sorry and hugging me as tight as he can to hold the world still.

 

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