Keep The Car Running

I have baking and wrapping to do. But instead I decided to try another flash fiction challenge this morning from Chuck Wendig. The task was to get a random song title and work from there. I clicked on my local alt rock radio station half-way through Arcade Fire’s “Keep The Car Running. ” What came out has a seasonal flare, but it’s certainly not festive. Hope it’s readable anyway!

Keep The Car Running

“I told you Jax, just one quick stop and then we’ll get a tree. And can you keep your voice down so your sister doesn’t wake up?”

Jax turned to look in the backseat and saw Lily’s head slumped against the side of her high-backed booster seat. Her pink fleece hat was pushed back, and a dark lock of hair pressed against her forehead in a upside-down question mark. The age difference between them made it easier for Jax to realize how cute she was.

Dad was driving fast — faster than he usually did. The snow on the streets had turned to a brown mush, on this unusually warm day. Jax liked that he didn’t have to bundle up in snow pants and all the gear to play outside, but he wished things were a bit whiter and brighter this close to Christmas.

Dad pulled off onto a side street and parked in front of a narrow, yellow two-story house. Someone had erected a snowman next to a tall pine, but the thaw turned it into a snow skeleton, barely standing. A string of blue Christmas lights outlined a picture window, and with dusk settling in, Jax had a clear view into the house’s lit living room. They had a big tree — one of the fake kinds though, painted white at the edges to look like snow. Still, Jax thought a fake tree was better than nothing.

He was pretty sure he and Lily wouldn’t be getting any presents this year. Maybe that lady who came by to check on them once a month might bring something. She brought Jax a baseball cap on his birthday, and even though he already liked her, it made him like her a little bit more. But Dad still didn’t have a job, and like he told Jax every week when he asked for Oreo’s at the grocery store, “The little money we have can only stretch so far.”

He didn’t care much about presents anyway, or at least he told himself he didn’t. But he did want a tree. When Mom was alive she always made a big deal about the tree, and they still had all her homemade ornaments, packed in a ripped brown suitcase they kept under the basement stairs. Jax’s favourite was the blue crocheted ball, starchy and stiff, with a thick white ribbon. On it Mom had written, in neat black letters, Jax’s First Christmas 2005. Lily didn’t have a matching one, probably because Mom was already getting sick then, so Jax tried not to make a big deal about his special ornament when Lily was around.

Jax asked Dad for a tree last night at supper. He said no, they couldn’t afford it. And even though Jax knew that’s what his Dad would say, he couldn’t stop himself from shouting,”We can never afford anything. If Mom was here she’d get us a tree!” He ran to his room where he could cry without Dad seeing.

Later, when Jax was sleeping, he woke to the weight of Dad sitting on the edge of the bed. His eyes looked damp and droopy, He squeezed Jax’s shoulder as he said “You know what, we’ll get you a tree. Tomorrow, OK?”

Gazing now at the stiff, white-tipped pine in the stranger’s window, Jax wondered if Dad was here to collect an old tree this family had tossed. Maybe this was some friend Dad knew from his old job.

“OK Jax, I have to run an errand for a sec, but it’s very important that you and Lily stay in the car and just wait until I come back. And keep the car running, but don’t let anyone but me in. OK?”

“Yeah, where are you going?”

“I need to get something. I won’t take long. You can turn the radio on if you want but keep it quiet.”

Dad unbuckled his seat belt and opened his door. Before he closed it, he leaned back in and said “Love ya Jax. Be right back.” He pulled his hat lower on his forehead. Then he walked quickly down the block, away from the yellow house. Jax watched in the rear view mirror as he disappeared around the corner.

He wanted to hop out and follow him, but he knew he had to listen and he couldn’t leave Lily alone. He thought about what they’d passed on the street, and he remembered a few fast food places, a chiropractor’s office, and a gas station. Maybe Dad was going to surprise them with burgers or pizza for supper. They ate pizza lots at home, but it was always the frozen kind with hardly any cheese and sawdust crust. Jax remembered biting into cheesy, warm take-out pizza and his mouth began to water.

Lilly stirred in the backseat, and woke up with a combination whine and sigh. She scratched her head under the edge of her hat, looked at Jax with sleepy eyes and asked “Where’s Daddy?”

“He had to run an errand. Can I turn up the radio?”

“OK.”

Jax cranked the dial further than his dad would ever allow, and a twangy , country version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” belted out the speakers.

“Not that! Too loud!” Lilly shouted as she threw her hands up to her ears.

Jax hit a button, and an upbeat pop song with a girl singing about “love on the weekend” filled the car.

“That one!” Lily cheered. Jax turned it down just a bit, and smiled as his little sister began wriggling in time to the music.

He glanced up at the rear view to see if Dad was on his way back yet. He watched the cars whir by, shooting brown slush from their tires as they whisked off to wherever they had to be.

Jax started to plan out how he would decorate the tree. If it was a big one, then the small string of white lights they had wouldn’t go all the way around, but he could place it in a big zig-zag across the front. Then he’d do all the felt gingerbread men his Mom had sewn, each with tiny black button eyes and red and green ribbon edges that looked like icing. He liked to do the paper snowflakes next, and finally all the odd ones, like the reindeer made from an old light bulb, and the cross-stitched angel. He’d leave his blue crocheted ball until the end, just before topping the tree with the gold star. This year he might hold Lily up and let her put the star on the tree. She would probably like that.

“I’m hungry!” Lily said. “I want fruit chews!”

“I don’t have any snacks Lily. Dad will be back soon.”

“Do you got any juice?”

“No, nothing.”

Lily stuck out her lip, but didn’t ask for anything else.

Jax looked up at the mirror again and saw Dad half-jogging around the corner, with a plastic shopping bag gripped in his left hand.

He yanked open the driver’s door and quickly shoved the bag on the floor of the back seat. Jax didn’t see what was inside, but it didn’t smell like burgers and it wasn’t shaped like pizza.

His Dad pulled away from the curb in a hurry, without even doing up his seatbelt. He seemed angry, but after they’d gone a few blocks, and turned off the side streets onto the freeway, he finally looked over at Jax and gave him a half-smile.

“There’s a good tree lot your Mom and I used to go to just a few miles out of town. Let’s try there.”

“What did you buy? Is it a present for us?” Jax asked.

“Don’t worry about it, JJ-boy. Just think about how tall you want that tree to be.” Jax liked it when Dad called him “JJ-boy”. He hadn’t done that in a long time.

“Money!” Lily happily screamed from the backseat. “Look! Money!”

Jax turned and saw the edge of the bag on the floor by her seat. Several twenty-dollar bills spilled out.

“Whoa! What is that? Dad, where’d you get that money?”

Dad glanced over at Jax, and barely met his eyes, then looked back at the road and said “It was a gift. But let’s not tell anyone about it, OK?”

He stared at his Dad’s profile for a moment. He knew it wasn’t a gift. Dad didn’t lie to them much, but Jax could tell when he did. And no one would just give some guy a bunch of money for no reason.

Jax felt a weight in his belly like he’d eaten stones. He looked down at his hands and realized he didn’t want a tree anymore. He didn’t want anything.

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