The backseat of the Econovan was covered in toys; Michael and Gabriel had unpacked every action figure and coloring book and plastic truck they could find and had scattered them in a menagerie of childhood fantasy. Horses galloped down armrests, stuffed bears battled plastic scuba divers and were rescued by helicopters with spinning rotors and flashing lights.
Michael perked up, amused at his father’s outburst as well.
“Daddy said a swear!”
Gabriel apparently hadn’t noticed the language, but was upset that he couldn’t a particular plastic toy. “Mommy, he took my dinosaur!
“Did not!” said Michael, obviously offended. “I’m playing with it!”
John grabbed the rearview mirror and twisted it to see the boys grabbing and pulling at each other.
“Learn to play nice, boys!” he said.
Playing nice was a concept that seemed to come in waves; the two boys would get along like kittens for days and without warning the slightest thing would set them off.
Karen held her hands at ten and two on the wheel, her forehead scrunched in stress. She didn’t like that John had adjusted her mirror out of focus, but she said nothing about it. She pushed her bangs out of her eyes – an instinctive maneuver – and rolled down the window. The cool breeze helped a little, but she couldn’t shake the heavy, distracting feeling that weighed down in the pit of her stomach. She wished her children would stop their screaming, would stop their fighting until the reached San Francisco. They could fight all they wanted once they reached Auntie Pearl’s house, she thought, but please, please let us get out of these empty foothills, this desolate countryside.
Gabriel didn’t stop. His brother had brazenly stolen one of his action figures, and he wanted justice. “Did, too! He’s got my monstermax, too!”
John was getting frustrated. He snapped off the radio. “I’m going to take the toys away in a minute, and then there won’t be any dinosaurs!”
“Mommy, I’m playing nice, but Michael took my stegosaurus and my scuba diver!” Gabriel insisted.
“He’s not sharing!” Michael cried out.
John snapped off his seatbelt and turned to face the boys, angry now and tired of listening to them.
“That’s it. Now nobody gets to play with them.”
“John, put your seatbelt back on,” Karen said quietly, her eyes still glued to the road, her knuckles white from gripping the wheel.
“He has all the coloring books!” Michael protested.
John leaned over the backseat, pushing Karen uncomfortably out of the way. He gathered as many of the action figures as he could grab in his big hands and pulled them away from the two upset boys.
“See! No more dinosaurs! No more coloring books! You need to be quiet until we get there, or there won’t be any Ice Cream, either!”
Michael pouted, fighting back tears, but Gabriel had no such qualms about throwing a fit. Gabriel began to cry, his wail like a siren in the already stressful situation. “Waaahh! I want Ice Cream!”
“John, please put your seatbelt on,” Karen said, her voice rising in desperation. All the while something pounded in the back of Karen’s head, a tiny, frightened voice cried out in warning but she couldn’t listen, she couldn’t pull her attention from the road and from her husband and from her children.
* * * * *
Bill started to look a little green. The motion of the cab was upsetting his already unsettled stomach. “I think we should have stopped, boss.”
Charles was nearly screaming now; something was wrong with his vehicle, but he was so adamantly against pulling over he convinced himself he could just will everything to be all right.
“Shut the fuck up, Bill!”