Arbitratus Short Fiction

The Things We Can’t See

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Authors’ Note – Here’s a look into a family holiday in Mal Sinclair’s past. In a way, this was what led Mal to Burlington. You can read more about Mal in Always Darkest and in Fic-mas I and II.

The Things We Can’t See

Ari glanced down at the dashboard instruments. They were going to need gas. That wasn’t a bad thing, he thought. They could both stand to stretch their legs a little. The car felt cramped compared to their RV. Mal was going to have a terrible stiff neck if she stayed in the position she’d slouched into much longer.

He’d chosen this particular route for the abundance of easy stops. Before long, they came upon a gas station with an attached convenience store and he pulled into an open pump. He reached over to shake his daughter awake. When she was asleep like this she looked much more like the little girl he used to travel with than the young woman she was becoming. He jostled her arm again.

“Mal, honey.” She groaned sleepily and he smiled. “We’re stopping for a bit. You hungry? Looks like this place has good snacks.”

Her eyes opened at the mention of food. “Huh? I mean, okay.” She stretched and yawned. “Must’ve dozed off.”

He grinned. “Quite a while ago. Right in the middle of Silent Night.”

She smiled back. “If I didn’t know I was done growing, I’d think I was about to get taller,” she said. “Lately all I want to do is eat and sleep.”

“You sure you’re done?” he teased. 

She shook her head and rolled her eyes, but it was an entirely fond expression. “Girls usually stop at around fifteen. I think I reached maximum tallness a couple years ago.” 

“Good! I was afraid you were about to tell me we were going to have to trade in for a bigger camper.” 

She laughed. “I think we’re safe from that. I’m probably all sleepy because the weather has been so nasty up here.”

“It has been sort of grey and stormy. Hopefully the weather won’t interfere with our plans.” He unbuckled his seatbelt. “Hey, I’ll pump the gas if you want to make the supply run.”

“Sure.” She unbuckled, too, stretching again. “Special requests?”

“If they have any puzzle books, I could use a new one, please. Sudoku would be great, but I’ll take anything.”

“I’ll have a look around,” she replied as they climbed out of the car. “But first I seriously need to find a bathroom.”

Mal made her way across the parking lot, purposely skating on the icy patches and grinning as the cold air woke her up. Ari stood humming a Christmas carol while he worked the pump. He was in a good mood. It had been several years since they’d slowed down and taken a Christmas vacation instead of celebrating on the road in the RV. Last Christmas Mal had commented on it, and just hadn’t seemed to enjoy their little traveling traditions as much as usual. Not that she’d complained, but Ari had noticed. 

This year, he’d announced they were going to have an honest-to-goodness Christmas. He’d taken the RV in for a full servicing, rented them a nice SUV, and handed Mal their itinerary as she’d climbed into the passenger seat, saying, “So what’s this big surprise?”

She’d squealed like a much younger version of herself at the revelation of a trip to a cabin in the mountains, right next door to a highly regarded ski resort. Mal loved to ski. Even though she usually complained about cold and didn’t much like to go outside when they were in places prone to winter weather, she always completely changed her mind around Christmas. She loved the snow, icicles, hot cocoa, all the traditional trappings of a storybook winter holiday. Ari was really looking forward to this time. And so was Mal. 

She skidded up to the car over a delightfully smooth ice patch. She fished around in the bag she was carrying and waved two books at him. “Puzzles acquired. They didn’t have sudoku so I grabbed you a crossword, and something called hashiwokakero. It’s another Japanese number puzzle.”

He widened his eyes at her. “Numbers aren’t always…”

“Don’t worry,” she interrupted. “It says on the back you don’t have to be good at math. Besides, if that’s not true, I’ll help you!”

“Thanks, Mal. Maybe we can learn it together so you’ll be prepared when I inevitably get stuck.”

She grinned and opened her door, tossing the puzzle books into the back and their bag of snacks and drinks onto her seat. “So … How much farther?”

“Oh, about an hour or so.” Ari finished up collecting his receipt and climbed into the car after her. She had already opened them each a lemon iced tea and was making a picnic of the various snacks she’s acquired. As he pulled back onto the road he reached over for some beef jerky. “I was thinking it might be nice to make an early night of it tonight. That way we can hit the slopes early tomorrow.”

Around her mouthful of Hostess cupcake she agreed, beaming. “Sounds good to me!”

They chatted on about the details for a while. Mal liked being outdoors in general and the Christmas holidays were all about snow to her. So skiing was perfect. She searched around the area near the resort for a grocery store so they could maybe pop out and get the ingredients for the delicious hot chocolate Ari always made. Other chocolate would also be acceptable.

When they tired of making plans, Mal turned up the radio and the rest of the trip was mostly one long Christmas sing along, interspersed with talk of everything they had planned and how they could fit it into two short weeks, before they went back to pick up their RV and head to a jewelry show outside of Vegas in advance of Valentine’s Day. Mal pretended enthusiasm for one of their biggest retail opportunities of the year, but Ari could see, once again, the flicker of discontent life on the road was beginning to cause. 

***

Mal woke to the smell of coffee and bacon, two of her favorite things. She looked out her window to discover Christmas morning had dawned bright and clear, with a faint dusting of fresh snow that caused everything to sparkle in the dazzling sunlight. She smiled widely at the postcard-perfect view. The day couldn’t be Christmasy-er if it tried.

She pulled on her warm fleece robe and padded down the hall in her heavy socks to find her father making breakfast. “Morning, Dad! Merry Christmas!”

He stopped what he was doing and turned to give her a hug. She giggled at how he was still wearing two oven mitts, making the hug amusingly awkward. “Merry Christmas, Mal!” 

Out here, in addition to the other wonderful aromas, she caught the sharp, fresh scent of the real tree they’d gone out and cut together when they’d arrived a few days ago. She’d been around a real tree plenty of times but this year was her first time going out and choosing it. She’d gotten impatient with the handsaw, but insisted on seeing it through herself. Ari’s face had hurt from smiling at how much she’d clearly enjoyed the experience, right down to sitting on the couch picking pitch off her hands all evening mostly so she could keep sniffing at the wonderful smell.

She poured herself a maple syrup sweetened coffee and puttered around the cabin while Ari finished cooking breakfast. She plugged in the lights on the tree, breathing deeply of the scent again and deciding that she needed a balsam candle or something for when the RV got stuffy. The cabin was already delightfully warm from the forced hot air heat it came with, but Mal got a fire going in the fireplace anyway. That seemed like the Christmasy thing to do.

Once the festive parts of the picture were complete, she hurried to set the table and help her dad bring everything over so they could eat. He’d prepared such a delicious array of choices, they ate mostly sharing a comfortable silence, punctuated only by requests to pass the butter or syrup. Once Mal declared she couldn’t eat another bite, well past when Ari had thrown in the towel on more cinnamon rolls or french toast, they cleared the table and shared the clean up duties. 

As they worked, they talked about their plans for the day, which mostly involved a little cross country skiing, watching a host of holiday movies, and a quiet dinner. When they’d dried and put away the last dish, Ari asked, “Are you ready to open presents or do you want to get dressed for going outside first?”

“Let’s open them now. I want you to have yours. It’s honestly been killing me not to just give it to you.”

She was excited to see his reaction. Presents were never a central part of their holiday. Living in an RV precluded much materialism. Their gifts were almost always small and thoughtful, or something not material at all. She’d thought long and hard over this gift, pleased to finally have some of her own money from working as his bookkeeper, instead of just hoarding her allowance. Mal grabbed the small oblong box she’d placed under the tree after church last night and passed it to her father. “You go first.”

Ari settled onto the couch next to her and accepted the brightly wrapped package. 

“Thank you, Mal! This is perfect,” he said, smiling and taking the sleek e-reader out of the package and hoping desperately the instructions were easy to follow. “I’ve been meaning to get one for ages.”

“I’m so glad you like it! I’ll set it up for you. I charged it before I wrapped it, so it’s good to go. It’ll hold literally thousands of books. And this kind has apps you can download, too. So you’ll be able to just do puzzles on it and stuff, too!”

Ari was an avid reader and often put himself to sleep doing either that or puzzle games. He could never carry too many with them since the camper didn’t offer a ton of storage space. “I don’t think I’ve ever received such a thoughtful gift. I’ll have to spend the day building my library.”

Ari rose and retrieved the small square box he’d wrapped for Mal. “Okay, your turn.” 

He handed it to her with the sudden feeling he knew exactly how a first time skydiver felt as they stepped up to the doors for their first jump. He sat back down, turning so he could see her face. 

She smiled as she tore open the paper. Her dad was a master of cool little gifts. When she saw what was inside the box, her smile faltered and her face creased into an expression of supreme bewilderment, something she was not used to feeling. Especially not as it related to her dad. She didn’t remove the gift from its package, rather poked it tentatively with one finger. 

“Um…” she started, but stopped just as quickly, this time turning the single key out into her palm.  

“You look a little confused,” Ari observed gently.

She bit her lip. There was something in his voice that told her it was a big deal, that he’d struggled with it, maybe. Her voice was quiet, almost tentative, “A little, I guess.” She held up the gift. “What’s the key to?”

Ari took a breath and then the leap he’d been so sure of before he’d actually handed her the box. “It’s to our new home … If you want it to be.”

She cleared her throat. “New home?”

He nodded slowly. “I … um … I spoke to your grandfather … There’s an empty house on the Sinclair compound.”

Her confused expression morphed into a thoughtful frown. “So? People come and go from there all the time.”

“That’s true,” he agreed. “But when he mentioned it this time…”

Ari was usually a pretty straightforward guy. It was one of Mal’s favorite things about her dad. If he thought it, he said it. It was just his way. Why was he dancing around whatever this was? She didn’t want to sound demanding, but this weird tension was winding her up a little. “Dad, just … What’s this about?”  

Ari could see his hesitance was ruining what was meant to be a wonderful gift, one from her whole family, really. “You never say it, you never complain, but I can tell life on the road is wearing on you. I can tell you’d like to put down some roots.”

“I…Okay. Wow.” What he was offering with this little key finally sunk in. She put the key back in the box and leaned forward to set it on the coffee table in front of them. “This is a lot.”

Ari took her hand so she’d look at him. “You don’t like it?” he asked, voice full of concern.

“No! It’s not that,” she hurried to reassure him. “I mean, I’ve thought about it … I’d love a home. Well, I mean, a home other than the camper. That’s home for sure,” she added, wanting him to know that she appreciated the home he’d created for them, and her desire for something else wasn’t a judgment on the one they had. “I’d love a place to … you know … do normal stuff in. Like go to school and make some real friends, and not have to check the oil all the time.” He chuckled and she relaxed a little, thinking if he could laugh she hadn’t hurt his feelings too much. “It’s just when I picture it … well, I don’t usually include the whole Sinclair clan being there, you know?”

“I thought you loved our visits there, loved the family?” 

“Well, yeah, of course I do. Especially Papa and Gran. And it’s always fun when we go visit. But … I’ve never thought of that as, like, home. You know? Like when I picture home, it’s you and me. Like home always has been. Just maybe in one spot.”

“So you …” He wasn’t sure exactly what he wanted to say, so he stopped.

She nibbled her thumbnail, trying to order her thoughts. “I’m just thinking after all this time on the road … I’m not sure I can do the whole extended family thing. It’s … lovely. But it’s … not really ‘me’. Does that make any sense?” She noticed the slightly somber expression on his face. “Oh my God, I’m being terrible right now. I’m so sorry.”

He smiled and it lit his eyes in a familiar way that told her it was genuine, not just one managed to keep her from feeling bad for opening her mouth and being a total teenager. She really tried not to do the thoughtless impulsive things that came into her head sometimes and which she sometimes saw from other people her age. The smile said he didn’t think she had. “You’re not being terrible at all. You’re being honest.”

“It’s really a sweet idea, Dad, and a wonderful gift. I just don’t think I want to accept it, if that’s okay.”

“It’s not the first time I’ve offered you a life with the Sinclairs.” He wrapped her into a hug until he felt her relax. He released her and showed a sideways grin he knew would help her feel let off the hook. “I’m honestly a little relieved you feel that way.”

“Really?”

“Well, they are a boisterous lot. And I am a bit solitary myself.”

“I hadn’t noticed,” she grinned.

Ari grew thoughtful. “I wasn’t wrong thinking that you might like a home of the non-mobile variety though.”

She shrugged, not wanting him to feel obligated. “No…”

“You can be honest about how you feel about this, Mal. I’m not going to take it personally.”

“Well … It would be kind of nice. I mean, next year will be my senior year. I know academically I’m pretty far ahead anyway, but it might be nice to actually go to school, get a real high school experience before I go to college.”

He nodded. “I can see why that might appeal to you.”

“Honestly though, wherever we are, so long as we’re together, I’m home.”

“Are you sure? This isn’t just about to become the Christmas there were no presents in your memory?”

“Dad, don’t be silly. I’ve wanted to talk to you about this for a while. I just kind of felt bad. Giving me a chance to is a pretty big present. It doesn’t have to be a gift you can wrap for me. You know that, right?”

“I suppose I do.” He seemed to think about that for a long moment. “Your grandfather is going to be crushed.”

“Well, Papa will just have to get over it,” Mal said with a grin. “I’m not moving to Canada to be hip deep in cousins and snow. In fact, I’m kind of looking forward to Vegas. It’s so cold here, I’m not so sure I want to go out on the trail this morning,” she added just to make her point.

“In that case, what do you want to watch first? Polar Express?”

“Nah, White Christmas.”

Ari smiled. “Perfect. You get the movie started. I’ll go make us some popcorn.”

*****

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