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Be There MAG
“Pass the salt.”
Tad sighed and slid the shaker across the breakfast table to his father. He propped his chin in his hand and watched as Robert Farris salted his omelet.
“How do you like your new school?” Robert asked. His brown eyes darted up and then back to his plate. He lifted a strip of bacon and took a crunchy bite.
Tad watched his clean-shaven jaw work on the meat and mumbled, “It's whatever.”
“Aren't you going to eat?” He nodded at Tad's plate. “It's delicious.”
Tad stabbed his omelet with his fork and stared at the painting over Robert's shoulder – “The Persistence of Memory.” Every second he spent with his father, he could feel another one of those clocks melting. Time ticked away, leaving a bad taste in his mouth and a twitch in his left eyelid.
“School is whatever, huh?” he asked. “There isn't anything going on? You are learning, right?”
“It's a school, isn't it?” Tad rubbed his right forefinger on the fork tines. He sat up a little straighter, “Well … there's this thing. Me and a couple of friends set up this art gallery. It's not a big deal … but, uh, it's this Wednesday from five to eight.”
“I have a meeting.”
Shot down. Tad gritted his teeth. Why did he even try? He had a meeting. He had work. He had a conference. It was the same spiel every time.
“Right.” Tad nodded. “And I know you can't miss the opportunity to shove your authority down someone's throat. What's on the agenda? Wage cuts? Layoffs? Maybe a big fat promotion for the suits? God knows you're worth it, am I right?”
“Knock it off.” Robert slammed his fork down on the table. The salt shaker bounced. Milk ripples lapped at the side of a glass as if trying to escape. The tense silence grew and they sat still and resentful for long minutes.
“You should eat,” Robert finally said and scooped up some hash browns. “Lily got up at 5 a.m. to make this for you.”
“She gets paid whether I eat it or not,” Tad lashed back. “So what's the point?”
The vein in Robert's temple throbbed and he sighed. “The point is that you need energy for the day so ….”
Tad rolled his eyes. “Don't pretend like you care.”
“I do c–”
“Why don't you just give me a fifty and I can buy energy for the day? Huh? Isn't that what you usually do?” He pinched a tomato between his fingers and the pink juices dripped down into his palm. He tossed the flattened vegetable to the floor. It landed with a plip that made Robert's lips twitch.
Robert looked away from his son toward the window. The yellow maple leaves were scratching at the glass, begging to come in before winter swooped in and stole them. Tad bit his lip and dragged his eyes over Robert's crisp suit. It was the same one he wore every Monday. Navy blue. Tad's mom told him several years ago why his dad loved the color.
“He wore blue at our wedding.” She had winked at him and gently stroked the jacket shoulder. “I told him to wear black because it was richer, more formal, but he always did like to ignore my advice.” A sigh escaped her lips as she carefully hung up the suit. “It doesn't matter. It worked just as well as black.”
Tad wondered if Robert had worn black whether his mom would still have left. He let out an exasperated sigh. What a stupid thought. Robert would have chased her away no matter what color he wore to the wedding. Tad couldn't even imagine how difficult it must have been for his mom to live with this man.
His dad didn't care about anything except himself and his money. Tad's mom was a trophy wife to accompany the eight-figure paycheck. He didn't have it in him to love her. No conscience. His mom deserved better. Tad didn't blame her for leaving. His only regret was she didn't take him with her.
“If …” Robert cleared his throat. “If you don't want to eat, you don't have to. But I'd prefer if you didn't throw food on the floor.”
There he went again, sounding reasonable. Tad looked back at his plate, a little abashed at his immature behavior. He picked up the tomato and crossed his arms over his chest.
“You are fourteen years old, Tad. It's time to stop acting like a child. Grow up.” He plunged his fork into a blood red strawberry.
Tad clenched his fists so tight his knuckles turned white. His heart lunged against his ribs like a caged tiger and he inhaled deeply.
“Very well, Robert. How about you grow up too and tell me the real reason we're eating breakfast together? And don't feed me that ‘I just wanted to spend quality time with you' crap.”
Robert sat back in his chair and stared at his son with dark eyes. Tad saw his Adam's apple bob in his throat and his gaze flitted away to the window again. The yellow leaves were still now, as if also waiting to hear his explanation.
“I, uh …” He cleared his throat and sighed. “I received a letter last week,” he reached into his pocket and pulled out a worn blue envelope. “It's from your mom.”
Tad had the envelope in his hand in half a second. He ripped the letter from its cage. His heart fluttered and his head was full of questions.
Mom? Why didn't she call? What does it say? Is she coming back for me?
He instantly recognized the curled slant of her script. Heat blazed across his neck as he read the short note.
I'm coming to town to visit for a week or two. My flight will be landing Tuesday at 4:45. Gate 14. Please bring Tad. I look forward to seeing you again.
P.S. I've missed you.
Tad leapt to his feet. He pumped his fists in the air and hollered like a wild animal, “YES!” Clenching the letter, he jabbed a finger at his dad. “Ha HA!”
Robert shoved his chair back roughly and pried the letter from Tad's hands, smoothing the crinkled paper.
“Suck it, Robert,” Tad laughed. “She's coming and she's going to take me with her this time! I just know it!” He ran across the dining room. “I'm so getting out of this hell hole!” He pushed through the doors and slipped into the kitchen.
He padded past the island and cabinets to other arched entrance to the dining room. He leaned against the wall and discreetly peeked around the corner back into the dining room.
Robert Farris stood there. Tad could see him still smoothing the letter under quivering fingers. He could see the way his lips rubbed together and his eyebrows twitched. Tad frowned.
That wasn't the reaction he was hoping for. He wanted plates thrown. He wanted screamed expletives and chairs kicked over. That's how his father should react, right? His ex-wife was coming to town to take his only son, his namesake, and he didn't care? Tad rolled his eyes. His mom was coming for him after eight years.
“You wore that suit yesterday.”
Robert tugged on his jacket and cleared his throat. “So?”
Tad stared at him in shock. “You never wear the same suit two days in a row. Why are you wearing it again?”
“It's not dirty.” He checked his watch. Cheeks pink, he cleared his throat. “We're early.”
Tad glanced around the airport. He sniffed. The sweet smell of cinnamon frosting collided with the salty grease of French fries from the McDonald's and Cinnabun. His mouth watered as he looked at the golden arches. “Why don't you go buy me a cinnamon roll and a Big Mac? Make yourself useful?”
“How can you eat?” Robert placed a hand on his stomach uneasily. There was a layer of moisture on his forehead. He sat in one of the blue seats and rubbed his hands together. His eyes darted from face to face as people milled about. Tad sat two seats down. He sighed. “When is she getting here?”
Robert checked his watch again. “Her flight should be landing any minute.” He stared at the double doors. A woman stood behind a podium, her navy blazer blending perfectly with her straight black-blue hair. Above the doors, big block letters spelled “GATE 14.”
Tad leaned back in his seat and stretched his legs out. “What time is it? She said 4:45, right?”
“It's 4:30,” Robert replied.
“Ugh.” Tad twisted his mouth. “Another fifteen minutes alone with you.”
“Relax. You can spend fifteen minutes with your dad without losing a leg.”
“Oh, really?” He glared over the empty seat between them. “You think so? No one is going to run up and chop my leg off because I'm with you? Really? Thanks. I feel much better.”
“Do you have to do this right now?” Robert wiped his sweaty palms on his knees and returned his son's glare. “Why can't we be together for fifteen minutes without arguing?”
“We're not together,” Tad informed him. “I'm here. You're here. But we're not together. Got it?”
Robert pushed a disgusted breath through his lips. “I buy all your clothes, your toys, your video games, everything. I got you into a nice private school. I hired Lily to cook you dinner and clean up your messes. I drive you where you need to be ….”
“Woo hoo!” Tad threw his hands up. “Can anyone say ‘World's Greatest Dad'?” He cupped his mouth and shouted, “Somebody give this guy a medal!”
“Knock it off!” Robert reached across the seat and yanked Tad's arm down. “Stop making a scene!”
“You think these people care?” Tad ripped his arm from Robert's grip. “You think anyone here cares about you or me? Newsflash, Rob, they don't. No one cares about you. No one. I can't wait until Mom gets here and takes me out of this cesspool.”
Robert's jaw clenched and that telltale vein in his temple lurched. “Newsflash, Tad. If your mom wanted you, she would have taken you with her when she left eight years ago.”
Tad's pupils dilated. His stomach felt hollow. He was suddenly breathless and electrified. He bounded from his seat and towered over his dad. “What did you say?”
“You know it and I know it.” Robert's face was red.
“Mom had nothing when she left,” Tad hissed. “No money, no home, no family to turn to. All she had was a suitcase and a car. She left me because she thought it'd be easier for me to live in a home than on the street!”
Robert scoffed. “She left with a suitcase full of jewelry and a Porsche, Tad. Not that it matters. She found money once; she was bound to again.”
“Shut up!” Tad screamed. Other conversations stopped as his voice echoed through the airport. Eyes turned from phones, laptops, and e-readers to stare. “Don't you dare try to make it seem like Mom was some gold digging–”
“Don't make her seem like what she was?” Robert stood and forced his son back a step. “The woman married me for my money and left when she found someone with more!”
“She left because you didn't love her! She left because you are a selfish prick who only cares about your stupid job! She hated you for never making time for her!”
Robert grabbed Tad's wrists. “Don't confuse her feelings with yours!”
“I'M NOT!” Tears filled Tad's eyes and he tried to shake off his father's strong hold. “I know my mom! I know her better than you! You were never around! Birthdays, baseball games, parent-teacher conferences ….”
Robert released Tad. “You know how busy I am!”
“Busy? Busy?” Tad buried his fingers in his hair and pulled to stop from punching his dad. “You weren't busy. You never cared about me or what was important to me! You aren't around enough to even know what those things are!”
“I may not have been around much, but at least I never LEFT!” Robert roared. His voice rattled the windows. A baby started to cry.
Robert avoided the shocked, prying eyes watching them. He swallowed and said in a gruff voice, “I'm sorry I was never around, Tad. Truly, I am.”
Tad shot back, “Whatever. You're a liar. You always have been and you always will be. Mom was there for me. Mom would never disappoint me. Mom will take me with her. Then I won't have to see your face again.”
“Except when you look in the mirror,” Robert whispered.
Tad ignored that truth and turned his black gaze at him. Tiny pinpricks pinched his nose and eyes, but he suppressed his tears and spat, “I hate you.”
Robert's lips tightened. His voice was no more than a breath. “I know.”
Clack clack thump.
The woman in the blazer opened the metal doors of Gate 14. Tad gulped. This was it. This was the beginning of his new life. Any second now, his mom would walk through those doors. She would scan the faces with excitement and see Tad standing there and her dark blue eyes would fill with love.
Because, finally, she'd be home.
The first passengers began filing out of the doors. A man in a Hawaiian shirt threw his arms out wide and let out a great sigh. A woman tugged on a sleepy toddler's hand as he dragged his feet.
Tad eagerly looked from face to face. She had to be next. She must be having trouble with her carry-on. Maybe it was stuck in the overhead compartment. Tad squeezed his fingers into a ball and stood on his toes to look.
Passenger after passenger entered the airport until finally two flight attendants came through and began chatting with the woman in the blazer. One laughed and closed Gate 14.
Tad stared at the closed doors in disbelief. A cold feeling filled his chest. “She didn't come,” he whispered. He turned to Robert. “Why ….”
The words stuck in his throat.
Robert's eyes were glazed over. His eyebrows were pulled together. Deep lines creased his forehead. His shoulders, usually straight, were slumped.
In his whole life, Tad had never seen his father look so old and frail. He had always imagined him as an indomitable fortress that had seen countless battles but always stood impenetrable and proud. Now this fortress, the one thing that had stood constant in his life, was in ruins, and Tad was surprised to realize that he couldn't handle it. He couldn't bear to see that fortress crumble.
His eyes stung and he bit his tongue. “Can we go home now?”
Robert's eyes focused on his son before he gave a tiny nod. “Yeah.” His voice cracked. “Let's go.”
They walked in silence to the parking lot. Neither said a word until they were in the Mercedes Benz on the road home.
Tad tugged at a loose string of his T-shirt. “H-hey, Dad? Can I tell you something?”
Robert stared at him in awe. “Anything. Always.”
“Well …” Heat flared across Tad's cheeks. “So there's this girl at school. She's got this great, long red hair and that Southern drawl, ya know?”
The corners of Robert's lips turned up. “Yeah?”
“Yeah, well I think I kinda like her.”
Robert blinked back tears. “Tell me about her.”
Tad relaxed. “Her name is Rodney. She's awesome. She's really into crocodiles, which I think is awesome. She plays the cello, which is also awesome, and she has an identical twin named Jesse. But they're complete opposites. It's so ….”
Tad laughed. “Yeah. It is.”
Robert smiled at his son. “She sounds great. And she'd be a lucky girl to have you. You know that, right?”
Tad gave him a crooked smile. “Thanks.” He said almost shyly, “She was one of the friends that helped me set up that art gallery tomorrow. I painted her picture and included it in the show.”
“I can't wait to see it.”
Tad jerked his head up. “See it?”
“Yeah. That meeting tomorrow isn't really that important.”
“Yes. I'll be there.”
A tear slipped down his cheek. “Promise?”
“I promise. I'll be everywhere from now on.”
Tad pressed the backs of his hands against his eyes and sniffed. Robert pulled the car onto the shoulder. He pulled his son close and held him as the sobs wracked his body. Tad buried his face in his dad's shoulder.
“I'm sorry,” Robert whispered. “I'm sorry.”
Tad opened his eyes and stared at the blue fabric of his dad's suit.
“I'm sorry too.”