This is the short story I wrote for our Honours retreat this summer. It was partially inspired by rereading one of my favorite books of all time, Peace Like a River by Leif Enger. I hope you all enjoy it.
It never snowed in Hartville.
At least, not that Phil had ever seen. And he’d been living there for at least eleven years now, ever since that day he’d stepped out onto the tarmac with his mom and seen the cactus. It looked like one of those cactuses you see in the cartoons, when Yosemite Sam is blasting off those crazy pistols and trips and lands in a ravine, where of course he sits on a cactus and jumps up and yowls and runs around with little cactus spikes sticking out of his butt. It’s a cartoon staple, that cactus, that almost looks human—except a really deformed human, all bent out of shape, with one arm a good foot below the other. Maybe that’s why cartoonists always include it—it adds a sense of deformed humanity to the dry desert.
Phil wasn’t really sure why he had noticed the cactus. It was just sitting there, near the little building that in places like this could be called an airport. It was really nothing more than a waiting room with walls, with one sleepy old lady sitting behind a desk filling out a crossword puzzle. But the cactus stuck with him. It seemed to stare defiantly at the blazing sun, shaking its little spiked paw at the planes flying overheard, as if to say, “How dare you come and put asphalt in the middle of my desert!” In the eleven years that Phil had lived in Hartville, he had always remembered that cactus.
Jaden threw the pen down. Why on earth am I going on about a cactus? he thought, exasperated with himself. I’ve never even seen a cactus before, or a desert, for crying out loud. Stupid writing assignment. What am I even doing here? Venting? It’s not working at all. And seriously, it was only a birthday. Not a big deal. Yet despite his inner protests, his disappointment still hung inside him, draping itself around his heart so that his chest felt heavy and sticky.
Jaden stood up and started to pace the room. It didn’t help to dwell on it. But it’s not like it’s the first time that Dad’s forgotten my birthday… Jaden shook his head, trying to clear his mind. He had to do something, something else, something to take his mind off his dad. He grabbed his cell phone from his desk and ran downstairs.
“I’m taking the Honda, Mom!” he yelled as he ran out the front door.
“Be back by 7,” she called back, “ I need to take Kelly to Dana’s house.”
Bolting down the front walk, he jumped into the front seat, winced from the hot leather, turned up the stereo, and peeled out of the driveway.
Phil loved snow. Back in Colorado, he used to spend hours building snowmen and having snowball fights with his dad. There was nothing quite like waking up in the morning and seeing a fresh layer of white all over the ground, or like walking through the pine trees listening to the steady crunch, crunch, crunch under your feet as the rest of the world was silent. Nature always seemed quietest in the early morning.
One of the best things about snow was Christmas morning. There was always snow on Christmas morning, and every year Phil would run outside after breakfast and make a snow angel. He figured that since the angels sang over Christ’s birth, it was fitting that there would be one in his front yard every year. In a way, it helped bring the season home to him.
Of course, making an angel in the sand is a lot less comfortable than making one in the snow, but that was all that Phil could make now that he lived in Hartville. A sand angel and a cactus, those were his memories of Hartville. He’d only made the sand angel once, and afterwards had given up. It wasn’t really important anyway.
There was a willow that sat next to Lake Hugo. Its long, droopy branches just brushed the surface of the water, and the gnarly roots made a comfortable seat for a boy whose mood matched the demeanor of the tree. Jaden liked to sit there and watch the Canadian geese swim back and forth on the water, honking like Mack trucks on the highway. Geese made him laugh, the way they took everything so seriously, even fighting over the stale breadcrumbs he sometimes brought from home. Occasionally he’d even see a turtle out on one of the semi-submerged logs, but they didn’t usually stick around too long—the geese probably drove them crazy.
Jaden used his time at the willow to think. Often he’d reminisce about his recent escapades with his best friend, Paul. Just a few weeks ago he and Paul had gone hiking and had gotten lost, ending up spending the night in a lean-to they constructed from scratch. It had been a marvelous amount of fun, except when they made their way back to civilization and found out how worried their moms had been. Of course, his dad hadn’t even been aware that he had been missing… in fact, Jaden wasn’t even sure if he knew now that his boy had once survived a night in the mountains with nothing more than a water bottle and a pocket knife.
Jaden shook his head. He had come out here to clear his mind, not to keep thinking about his dad. He watched a goose hiss at a rabbit that came a little too close to its nest in the bulrushes and smiled. How nice it must be to have a parent willing to stick up for you in a moment of danger. Take advantage of this, he thought, as if the eggs could hear him thinking, this phase doesn’t last for long. He sighed. This wasn’t helping him at all. Usually nature cleared his head, but today it was just distracting him. He eased himself from his seat and patted the willow as he walked back to his car.
Phil liked to sit out by the airport, under the shade of that lonely cactus, and watch the buzzards circle overhead. Planes only flew into the airport once every few days, and then usually only with the mail, since no sane postal worker wanted to drive all the way to Hartville to deliver congressional fundraising letters. Still, Phil enjoyed the thought that one day a plane was going to come that would take him out of this godforsaken town forever.
And that day wasn’t too far away. In a year and a half he would be shipping off for school, back to the University of Colorado. Of course, since he’d be coming home for winter break, he would still never get a white Christmas, but that couldn’t be helped. At least he’d be out of Hartville nine months of the year.
He glanced back at the cactus. It was still shaking its arms in the same defiant gesture as when he first arrived. “What good has it done you, little cactus,” he said aloud. “Why do you bother standing against the world?” He sighed, and went back to watching the buzzards.
It all happened so fast that Jaden afterward could never quite remember the series of events. One minute he was cresting the hill on his way back home, and the next second the biker seemed to materialize in front of his car. He swerved and crashed through the rail fence next to the road, and then his right front tire hit something and the car began to roll. The pasture was on the side of a mountain, and once the car started rolling it began to pick up speed. Jaden was wearing his seatbelt but it didn’t really matter as he felt himself battered around, and then his head flew forward against the steering wheel and everything went black.
He awoke with the strange feeling that he was hanging upside down and tried to shake his head to reorient himself. A rush of pain quickly awakened him to the fact that he was hanging upside down, and that he was still belted into his seat, and that he had a splitting headache. He gingerly unbuckled his seatbelt and crawled out of the hole where the driver window used to be. Standing up slowly, he turned and surveyed the damage to the car. To call it “totaled” would be an understatement. The vehicle was a smoking, twisted heap of metal, partially wrapped around the gigantic fir tree that had stopped its revolving rush down the mountain.
Jaden’s hand moved to brush away the sweat that was dripping into his eyes, but when he brought it back down it was covered with blood. That would explain the headache, he thought.
A voice behind him caused him to turn around. “Hey, kid! Are you all right?” The cyclist was running down the hill with a look of concern on his face. “Dude, I’m so sorry about that. I must have drifted out into the middle of the road—here, use this on your forehead.” He frantically dug through his backpack and handed Jaden a bandage. “I’ve never seen a car do that before! You must have rolled twenty times! How on earth are you even standing up?”
Jaden was still staring at him, only partially processing the stream of dialogue coming out of the biker’s mouth as he slowly raised the bandage to his forehead. The last question seemed to shake him out of his daze, and he slowly stammered, “I…I don’t really know.”
“Do you have any broken bones?” the cyclist continued, unstrapping his helmet. “You look just fine to me, except for that nasty gash on your forehead. Dude, you really should sit down.” He reached out his hand to grab Jaden’s elbow.
Suddenly Jaden’s knees suddenly began to feel wobbly, and collapsing next to the smoking Honda, his shoulders began heaving as he buried his face in his hands, tears streaming between his blood-stained fingers. As he sat there weeping, a lone goose slowly flew over the wreckage, emitting a single honk as it gazed in wonder on the scene below.
It was Christmas Day. Phil took the day to walk to his usual position under the cactus. The air was unusually crisp, and the sky was overcast as he settled himself down. Today he’d brought a book, a new Ken Follett his mom had given him this morning. After a few minutes, however, he set the book down. He really didn’t feel like reading.
He stared contemplatively at the solid gray sky. He hadn’t seen clouds like this for a long time, not since his days in Colorado. They filled him with a sense of chill foreboding, and his nostrils swelled with the memory of fresh pine. He stood up, slowly, still gazing intensely at the clouds. Maybe this is what they talked about in Genesis, where God split the waters between heaven and earth. It sure felt like he had a gigantic tarp stretched over his head, holding back a rush of something.
Phil shivered. It was remarkably cold today. He decided to head back home where it was warm, and turned and walked away from that deserted strip of asphalt. His mom was sure to be waiting there with some of her fresh-baked peanut blossoms and a cup of hot chocolate—the thought of it made Phil’s mouth water, and he smiled slightly. Merry Christmas, Mom.
And as he plodded slowly home, a solitary snowflake floated gently down and alighted on the outstretched arm of the angry cactus.