Julie pulled into the paved driveway and parked in front of the single car garage just as the school bus stopped down the street and let off a rag-tag bunch of laughing, talking kids. All except her boys, last to step down from the vehicle. They barely glanced up from their inspection of the sidewalk when the doors slid closed and the bus signaled away from the curb.
She sighed and waited while they trudged the half block to their front gate. There were no waves or yelled plans to join the other kids in a game of street hockey after their dinner. No suggestions of an impromptu basketball match using the hoop above the garage door, or a bike ride to the nearby park. Nothing at all. In fact, Dustin looked like he had another of his perpetual mad-ons happening, with hunched shoulders and downcast expression. Meanwhile, Freddie tagged along behind, casting envious glances at the neighbor boy running down the street toward the others setting up for the hockey game.
“Why can’t we, Dusty?” Freddie tugged on his older brother’s jacket, barely slowing him down. “I want to play.”
Dustin stopped short, glaring at the laughing kids down the block. “They’re a big bunch of dummies.” He kicked at a stray pebble, sending it skittering down the walk.
Julie hiked her satchel higher on her shoulder and closed the car door. Dustin glanced her way, then trudged into the house without a word.
Julie’s welcoming smile flat-lined, her son’s continuing anger creating a hard ball of tension in her gut. She’d taken him to counselling after his father’s death, but it hadn’t done much to alleviate the guilt he carried. He felt the accident was his fault and nothing Julie could say would change his mind.
“Mom, can I go play?” Freddie giggled as the neighbor’s dog dropped a beat up ball glove at his feet.
She forced a cheerful expression and held out her arms. “Do I get a cuddle first?”
Young enough not to care who might be watching, he ran into her embrace, his chubby arms wrapping her waist in a bear hug. She held on a moment too long, reluctant to give up the scent of bubblegum and sun that clung to his soft skin.
“Mom, you’re squeezing me to death,” he laughed into her chest.
She gave one last clench, half teasing, half desperation, and let him go. “Be back in an hour, and watch out for traffic.”
“Okay, love you, Mom,” he said, grabbing the glove and heading for the street, his attention already half a block away.
“Love you, son,” she answered, and he was gone. Leaving her alone. Deflated.
She turned for the house, coming to a halt when she noticed Dustin standing on the other side of the screen. There was that knot again. Much as she loved her eldest son, Julie hated the undercurrents that ran between them like a tide of noxious gas. He’d been daddy’s boy, had followed Mike wherever he went, questions flying a-mile-a-minute. They’d often joked that the only time Dusty was quiet was when he was asleep.
She missed her husband every day.
Joan Reeves aka SlingWords: The Word Slinging Adventures of Joan Reeves