By Jim Bates
We waited off to the side for our order, all three of us quiet, unused to this. Sure, we’d eaten at McDonald’s before but not under circumstances like these – me taking Sammy and Elise out after school because I couldn’t take them back to what used to be our home. Lynn and I had been separated for six weeks and it was still weird, mostly with the kids. Well, especially with the kids. Lynn and I…Well, we’d grown apart and just weren’t good for each other anymore. The separation made sense for us, but this estrangement from my children was pretty bad. I only saw them a couple of times a week after school plus every other weekend. I guess I just hadn’t anticipated how emotionally traumatic it would really be; both for them and for me.
“So school’s going okay?” I asked Sammy.
“Yeah, it’s good, Dad.”
“How about with you sweetheart? Have you made any new friends this year?”
A heavy sigh from my precocious seven year old and then, “Yeah, Daddy. Remember? Brianna and Emma. I told you already.”
Oh. Sure. Right. She had.
Shoot, I hated this. We used to be comfortable with each other. Conversation? Never a problem. Ten year old Sammy would go on and on about his favorite class, science, and the experiments they were conducting and what he was learning. Elise would tell me about her friends and who liked who and who was being mean to who. It was our own unique kind of communication, and it had been nice. Comfortable. We’d been close to each other. Now this, this drifting apart. How could things change so dramatically in just six lousily weeks? The reality was right in front of me. What had I expected?
Our order came up, and Sammy helped me carry the trays back to the play area where we normally sat. While we ate the kids watched the other children playing and slowly the mood began to lighten, all of us being in a familiar setting. When they finished, Sammy said, “Dad, can we go play with the other kids?”
“Please, Daddy,” Elise chimed in. “Pretty please.”
Happy to see my children excited about something, I readily agreed. “Sure. You guys go for it.” I smiled and checked my watch, “Fifteen minutes, okay?”
“Okay,” They said in unison and off they went.
I watched them playing, first with each other and then with the other kids. It was gratifying to see them acting like they normally did and having a good time. Someone told me once that children had a built in capacity to be survivors and apparently the statement was true. I just needed to give my kids time to adjust, the credit to be able to do so, and to be there to help them along when necessary. I could do that. As hard as the estrangement was for me, I was committed to helping Sammy and Elise get through it with as little emotional damage as possible. My own personal survival? I guess I’d just have to wait and see.
Later on the way home we drove by a forested park. We were at a stoplight when I noticed both Sammy and Elise gazing out the window. It was late October and most of the leaves had fallen from the trees. The ground with thick with them.
Sammy turned to me, “Dad, remember when we used to help you rake the yard?”
“Yeah,” Elise said, “We’d make those big leaf piles and jump in them?”
“That was really fun,” Sammy said, wistfully. Then he went back to looking at the park.
“Yeah,” Elise added, gazing longingly out the window, uncharacteristically subdued.
I was drawn to looking out the window, too, traveling back nostalgically into the past, reliving those old memories. Playing in the leaves had been fun. A lot of fun.
What the hell. When the light changed I made a snap decision and turned left into the parking lot, squealing the tires a little.
Sammy looked quickly at me, “What are you doing, Dad?”
I was supposed to be taking them home but, instead, was suddenly motivated by seeing my kids reminiscing happily about a past memory. “I thought we could check out the leaves. You know, play in them.”
The energy level in the car soared through the roof. It took only a moment before both the kids yelled, “Yea!”
We played in the leaves for nearly an hour, until just before sundown. We made piles and jumped into them and had leaf fights and threw armful’s of them at each other and ran around like there was no tomorrow. The three of us hadn’t laughed so hard in weeks; since before I’d moved out.
At one point I called Lynn and told her I’d be a little late getting the kids back. She said that that was fine and asked what we were doing. I told her we were playing in a park.
“Well, that’s good, Philip. The kids always liked doing stuff like that with you.”
Later, I dropped Sammy and Elise off with a big hug for each of them and a promise to see them in two days. Then I drove to my apartment building and took my backpack to my single room efficiency. I took out my laptop, lifted the lid and went to boot it up. That’s when I saw it. Set on the keyboard was a single beautiful leaf – a burnish red and orange maple leaf – left by my kids. There was a note, too, written, I could tell, by Sammy, and signed by both he and Elise. It read, We love you Dad.
I have to say that I got a little teary eyed. I walked to the window and looked outside. In the fading twilight I could see clouds racing across the sky and leaves swirling along the ground. I’d be with Sammy and Elise in two days and I was already looking forward to it. Maybe we’d go back to that park and fool around in whatever leaves were left. My guess was that the kids would like that. I would, too. Yeah, that was a good idea.
I wiped my eyes and returned to my desk where I carefully laid out the leaf and the note. Their thoughtfulness was overwhelming. The future might be uncertain, but there was one thing I knew for sure – tomorrow, as soon as it opened, I’d go to the store and get a frame and put both the leaf and the note in it. Then I’d hang it on the wall just to remind myself that one way or the other the kids and I would get through this. It was written in the leaves. We belonged to each other.
Jim lives in a small town twenty miles west of Minneapolis, Minnesota. His stories have appeared online in CafeLit, The Writers’ Cafe Magazine, Cabinet of Heed, Paragraph Planet, Nailpolish Stories, Ariel Chart, Potato Soup Journal, Literary Yard, Spillwords (Dec, 2019, Author of the Month), The Drabble, The Academy of the Heart and Mind and World of Myth Magazine. In print publications: A Million Ways, Mused Literary Journal, Gleam Flash Fiction Anthology #2 and the Portal Anthology by Clarendon House Publishing, The Best of CafeLit 8 and the Nativity Anthology by Bridge House Publishing and Gold Dust Magazine. You can also check out his blog to see more: www.theviewfromlonglake.wordpress.com.