“Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow,” said Carrie. “But you’ll have to be up with the lark,” she added.
“‘Lark’”, Michael repeated.
“It’s no use explaining it to him,” Jon mumbled from across the table, shuffling his bacon back and forth on the plate without eating any of it. “He doesn’t understand anyway.”
“If I don’t talk with Michael,” Carrie said in a low voice, “when will he learn to talk?”
“Never?” Jon suggested and looked as if he was about to add something. But he quickly changed the subject.
“Actually,” he said, “I think the weather will be the best today. Lark or no lark …”
The morning light seemed far away outside the window of the small kitchen, where the smell of newly applied ajax, coffee, and bacon still mingled. The only sound they could hear was Michael driving his Hot Wheels toy car back and forth over the table, his blond brows knit tightly in concentration. “Lark-lark-lark-lark.”
Jon reached over the table as if to direct Michael’s hand with the toy car, but he didn’t touch him. “The car says ‘vrroom’, Michael.”
Carrie threw the towel in the sink. “Goddammit—is Emma still asleep?” She went out in the hallway and called. “Emma! Are you awake?!”
“No!” came a plaintive cry from upstairs.
“Get down here, now!” Carrie went back into the kitchen and pulled out cornflakes and a plate from the cupboards.
“So what’ll it be?” she said, without looking back at Jon or Michael over at the table.
“You mean …” Jon started, his coffee cup almost touching his lips.
“The holiday house.” Carrie turned, arms crossed. “Hammond said we could borrow it, didn’t he?”
“Well, can we?”
“Are we going then?”
Jon looked at his coffee then at Michael who was happily driving the toy car back and forth in the exact same invisible lane on the table as he had been a minute ago.
“We’re going,” Jon said. “I think we should drive late in the afternoon when there is less heat, though.”
“Michael will be tired,” Carrie said.
“I don’t think going before noon is a good idea,” Jon replied, “you know how stressed he can get if he is in the car for too long.”
“Where are we going?” Emma stood in the doorway, her long blonde hair looking like a ball of yarn.
“To Hammond’s holiday house,” Carrie said and went over to try to pet her hair into submission.
“The one in Kachina?” Emma asked, trying to get her mother’s hands out of her hair.
“The very one.” Carrie held up her hands in a gesture of surrender.
“Come get something to eat,” Jon said, bacon in his mouth again. “We’re going in the afternoon.”
“I thought you didn’t wanna go?” Emma plumped down on her chair at the table and began pouring generous amounts of milk on the cornflakes.
Carrie and Jon shared a brief look at each other. Then Carrie sat down beside Emma, leaning heavily over the table on her elbows. “It’s not that we didn’t want to go last time, sweetheart. We just had … to make sure it would be a good trip, for all of us.” She eyed Michael.
Emma nodded and took a mouthful of cornflakes. She stole a look at her brother who was still fully absorbed in driving the ‘lark’ toy car back and forth over the exact same area of his side of the table.
“We could go there for my birthday next weekend instead if you’d rather want that,” Emma said, balancing a spoonful of milky flakes over her plate. “We could stay home this weekend, too.”
Carrie stroked Emma’s hair, but this time without any secret tonsorial agenda. “I want you to celebrate your seventh birthday here, with your friends, just as we planned. It would be rather lonely in Kachina with only the four of us, wouldn’t it?”
Emma eyed her mother skeptically. “What about Michael’s birthday?”
“What about it?” Jon leaned back heavily on the kitchen chair, looking out the window.
“He is going to be five this year—and five is an important number for him,” Emma said. “So we should have the birthday here as well, right?”
“We are not celebrating anyone’s birthday in Kachina, darling,” Carrie said. “It’s just a kind of holiday. To get away.”
It was cloudy when they got on their way, but in the South-Western desert that only meant that it felt like you were in an oven that had been used some hours ago.
Carrie looked over her shoulder from the passenger seat. “Is it too hot? Should I turn up the air conditioner?”
Emma was helping Michael whenever his iPad lost the signal which was coming from Carrie’s phone, now that they were out of the house. But after a lot of tears and panicky breaths, it was decided that Michael should try playing a game instead of watching YouTube cartoons that might freeze at any moment. That proved to be a better way forward and soon the little boy was fully absorbed in playing with his LEGO game on the tablet, only a slight increase in his frown or a little more punch in his fingers against the screen, indicating how he was doing.
“Everything’s fine, mom,” Emma said.
“You fine, too, Michael?” Carrie asked.
Michael played on without answering.
“Michael?” Carrie said, in a slightly higher voice.
Still no response.
Carrie turned and looked out the front window instead. “Where are we?”
“Camp Verde in a few,” Jon said and tipped his dark sunglasses up with one hand. “Everything okay back there, kids?”
“We’re fine, Dad,” Emma said. “The internet is bad, though.”
“That’s why I love the LEGO app,” Carrie mumbled. “The one with the number blocks. You love those numbers, don’t you, pliskie? They are your friends—”
“Now I don’t have any connection at all, mom,” Emma said, “but I’ll be fine.”
“Yes.” Emma put down her own iPad and crossed her arms.
For a long time thereafter, she didn’t say anything and only stopped looking out the window when she needed to help her brother.
It was early in the evening when they finally arrived and the oven had definitively closed. A mild breeze rustled the pine trees that were more numerous than the inhabitants of the small village south of Flagstaff.
Carrie got out of the car to run over to the triangular garden stone where Hammond had left the key but she kept looking back into the car to see how Michael was doing.
Still, when she returned, somewhat out of breath, Carrie smiled for the first time since they had left Yuma. “Ah, now I can almost remember why we go all the way up here.”
Jon had already gone around to help the boy out of his seat. “Let me guess,” he said. “Because Hammond used his pension fund to buy that pool? Because you love Sedona?”
Carrie grinned now. “Right on all counts.” Her shoulders slumped. Maybe it would finally work this time.
Then Michael screamed.
“What?!” Carrie ran to the other side of the car.
“He just stepped on a pine cone,” Jon said, looking sheepish. He was standing beside the car, the door to Michael’s seat still open, and Michael was by his side. The boy was rigid and in full panic mode at the same time.
“I’ll help you, Michael!” Emma who until now had been fiddling with her iPad wiggled out of her seat and climbed over Michael’s to get out of the other door. She quickly picked up the cone. “Look!”
But Michael didn’t look. He kept on screaming and now he was crying, too.
“Didn’t you put his shoes on before you took him out of the seat?” Carrie looked around as if there was someone nearby whom she could hit.
“Ease down.” Jon bent down to try to calm Michael but he was looking at Carrie. “You heard him for the last half hour. He could not sit still in that chair for one moment longer.”
“But we put his shoes under the seat so we could get them quickly,” Carrie said, going almost as rigid as Michael.
“I know.” Jon kept one hand on Michael’s shoulder and the other on the car door, knuckles white. “But he was just about to explode. The ground here is mostly sand. I didn’t see the goddamn cone.”
Carrie opened and closed her fists but then went past Jon to the trunk.
Meanwhile, Emma was holding the pine cone up in front of Michael, who was still crying. “Look, it’s just a cone!”
“‘Cone’,” Michael finally repeated and gazed intently at the zigzagging patterns adorning it. Then he wiped his eyes.
“His feet are so damn sensitive,” Carrie mumbled. “He should have kept his shoes on.”
“Not just his feet,” Jon said. “Look, can we get on with it?”
Carrie said nothing. She opened the trunk hard enough for it to vibrate up and down.
“Want to touch?” Emma asked and gave the cone to Michael.
Michael held it briefly then threw it away, in a pushing motion, as if the cone was a person standing in his way. But he grinned at his sister.
“‘Cone’!” Michael repeated.
“That’s right,” Emma nodded vigorously. “It’s—”
But Michael, who Jon had now managed to get into his shoes, stepped past his sister and ran in the opposite direction. There was a big bright number ‘5’ on Hammond’s holiday cottage and he was heading directly towards it.
When he reached the big number five, the little boy stopped in his tracks and held up his arms as if he wanted to touch and caress the sign, which was made of wood and painted yellow.
Carrie looked at her husband, and Jon nodded and went over to Michael so he could lift him up to touch the number. Again and again.
“Yeah,” Jon said, “you remember this, don’t you? I agree, it’s probably the most beautiful number five in all of Arizona.”
And so on.
Soon Michael grinned and even chatted away in gibberish like he was telling the number that he had been scared before but now he felt better.
Emma looked at the cone for long moments. Then she carefully picked it up and put it in her own rucksack.
“I don’t think he is interested, honey,” Carrie said.
“He might be later,” Emma said.
Night had fallen and Jon and Carrie sat on the terrace of the cottage, too tired to really talk. So for a long time they didn’t really try. They just sat there and watched gray clouds flicker past a gibbous moon.
Eventually, Jon looked at his wife. “So what are you thinking about?”
The moonlight seemed to make Carrie’s face glow with a gossamer softness that partially hid the wrinkles of strain under her eyes. Jon only saw those wrinkles disappear when Carrie was asleep, sometimes not even then.
“Well, I’m thinking I’d like another beer,” she deadpanned. “Maybe I will soon have had enough, so I can’t taste it?”
“Are Arizona Lights really that bad?”
“As always,” Carrie said. “Will you be a darling and get me another one?”
“Of course.” Jon got up. “Time to celebrate.”
He went back into the cottage quietly so as to not wake the children and spoil the efforts of another long ‘combat evening’.
That was how Iraq vet, Jonathan Reese, had come to think about bedtime for his son.
For it was mostly about Michael. Emma had been difficult when she was little and it was just her, but with Michael, it was a nightmare. Everything had to be in the proper order, when to eat, when to brush teeth, how the toothpaste was administered, and so on.
If you missed a beat he might get very upset unless you started over. That ritual and then what obviously was some kind of period when the kid was beginning to assert himself, like any normal kid, and say no just because he could.
Oh, and everything got 10 times more difficult in a strange place, although he had been to the cottage before. Well, last summer, but still …
But now Michael had finally fallen asleep, and Emma had to be sleeping, too.
Jon took out the beer from the fridge. Its coolness felt good. Somehow better than drinking the damn stuff. Then he stopped and listened.
There were two bedrooms in the cottage, and the one with Emma and Michael was quiet now. Velvety darkness had descended on the single hallway that led from the kitchen and down to the bathroom and bedrooms. Jon strained to hear … something.
But there was nothing. The only thing he could hear was his own breathing.
It was not the first time Emma could not sleep but she did not say anything.
She lay very still in the bed, aware of every one of her brother’s movements in sleep, while at the same time trying to concentrate on the pale moon outside the window.
The moon had fascinated her ever since she was very small. And since she was almost seven years old now, it felt like it was very long ago she had first thought about how the moon looked.
Its surface is like crumpled, dry paper, Emma had thought many times.
She turned carefully to look at her little brother.
Michael was lying on his side, breathing heavily. His unruly mop of dark blonde hair was visible outside of the comforter, and at the other end of his right foot. It was covered by a green and red sock.
Michael never went barefoot. He always wanted to have socks on. That had given him some problems with athlete’s foot and all sorts of other things, Emma had not understood, but which mom had talked about in an exasperated tone ever so often.
Mom talked a lot about something that was even more difficult to understand which was called problems with sen-so-ry-in-te-gra-tion. Emma was proud she could remember the word. But more importantly, she could remember what it meant.
Her brother felt things differently.
For Michael even the smallest exposure of skin made him stressed like he was too cold or too hot.
Michael whimpered in his sleep and moved his foot back and forth outside of the comforter. Emma could see a small sliver of skin where the top of Michael’s socks didn’t go all the way around his night pants.
She slowly rolled over toward him and put the sock back over the night pants and then pulled the comforter all the way down over Michael’s foot. Michael mumbled something in his sleep then lay still again.
Emma lay very still and watched Michael sleep.
Mom had said she would come in right away if Michael woke up and had a fit and that Emma should just sleep and worry about nothing at all.
Nothing at all.
The next morning Hammond came by unexpectedly with his new wife in tow.
His guests were all in the pool, and Jon got up to give his old partner a strong handshake, dripping with chlorine water.
The burly bearded Hammond smiled his usual sly smile. “Everything satisfactory? Madee and I were heading to Sedona anyway and I thought I’d drop by.”
The young Thai woman waved down to Carrie who was still in the pool with both kids. Michael loved the water. It was about the only sensation against his skin that he cherished without hesitation.
Carrie wiped a wet lock of her own short hair away from her eyes and squinted in the morning sun. “Hello Madee. Emma, say hello.”
“Hello Madee,” Emma said politely while hugging a beach ball in the water. “Hello, Mr. Barkley.”
“Hiya, kiddo.” Hammond waved. Madee smiled.
“Aaand I don’t think I have met you before.” Madee bent down, hands on her knees, and smiled brightly at Michael, who was sitting on the staircase that went into the water at the far end of the basin. “You are Michael, aren’t you?”
“Madee, he—uh—” Carrie started, but Jon interrupted her.
“It’s fine. Madee knows.” He turned to Hammond. “You told her, right?”
“Told me what?” Madee looked over at her husband, who frowned.
“Uh, that,” he began and looked at Jon. “I—”
Then a bird chirped far up in the pine trees that stood all around the garden like tall green sentinels.
“Lark!” Michael exclaimed, and looked up.
“It’s just some bird,” Jon said. “I don’t think there are any larks out here.”
“As a matter of fact,” Madee corrected him, while also looking at the bird which had perched itself neatly on a branch almost directly above Michael’s head, “—that is a Horned Lark. Eremophila alpestris.”
Jon’s eyes widened at Madee. “Hammond never told me you were, uhm, knowledgable about larks.”
Madee’s smile became more restrained. “I’m sure you must have mentioned to Jon I majored in biology at NAU?”
Hammond looked helplessly at Madee, but Carrie saved the situation. “You told us, but Jon is very bad at remembering those things.”
“Probably just a coincidence, anyway,” Jon added. “It’s the only other word for a bird he knows.”
“No talking yet?” Hammond looked at Jon.
Jon shook his head. “Not really.”
Michael looked up at the black, brown, and white bird, in mute fascination. Emma came over and sat beside him on the stairs.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it, Michael?”
“Lark,” Michael said.