The old road curved a winding trail through the hills just outside of Santa Barbara. Never a decent road in all the years since he’d first came here when still dating Madeline. Still, Henry supposed, it could be worse.
“Are you trying to get us killed?”
He pinched the bridge of his nose, questioning his sanity not for the third time since leaving the house this morning. The truck took another hard hit as the front driver’s side tire dipped deep into the pothole, followed in seconds by the rear. Knowing that it was going to happen allowed himself to brace and roll with the impact. His passenger’s, however, had no such luxury. His hand left the bridge of his nose to cover the slight smug grin he couldn’t quite bring himself to lose. He felt a good deal of satisfaction at the resulting protests after having given them a demonstration at just what not trying to avoid the bad spots felt like in comparison.
“So, dad, why are we doing this again?”
Henry said nothing in response, save for glancing up into the rear view mirror to confirm that his son wasn’t really expecting an answer. Shawn’s attention had already been diverted to something outside the window as he leaned over Gus’ lap to get a better look, earning a slap for his efforts. Henry merely rolled his eyes and refocused his attention on navigating a path through the minefield of the pitted, unkempt, road. The going was slow and he was already mentally making reminders to take the truck to the garage for an alignment.
“So, Henry, why are we doing this again?” His own father chirped. Figured he’d join forces with the kid. It seemed like such a good idea. Male bonding. Fishing. Outdoors. Dad only comes back to Santa Barbara every blue moon and it timed out perfectly with this particular ritual.
Once the truck chassis was straightened out, he would get his head examined.
“This was your idea, dad. You wanted to go fishing while you were in town.”
“No, I just said that sitting around your place all day was boring.”
Henry resolutely ignored the snickers emanating from the back seat, veering the truck hard to the right to avoid a fallen sapling that had blocked off the left half of the road. Another hard tug to the left pulled the vehicle sharply around a particularly deep hole. One last sharp jerk and the truck straightened. A quick check of the mirrors confirmed that the gear was still strapped down securely – not that he expected anything less, having secured the load himself.
“And you’re sure it’s okay to use the cabin.”
“Yes pop,” he assured again. “it’s fine.”
“You’re absolutely certain. After all, you’re technically not the owner anymore,” Gramps made sure to point that out – as if he’d forgotten that little tidbit.
“Technically, I was never on the paperwork before. It was fine then, it’s fine now,” he stated with finality hoping to put this painful discussion to rest where it belonged.
“But you’re sure it-“
“Dad!” He spared a quick glance to his right to fix the older man with a glare. Quickly, he turned his attention back to the pitted road. He made several quick adjustments in the nick of time just as the right tire glanced the edge of a large boulder.
“All I’m saying, Henry, is that Maddie may not appreciate trespassers on her property. But if you’re absolutely certain she won’t mi-“
“it’s fine. I called her before we left. It’s fine. Everyone got that?” He projected his voice authoritatively and felt the vibration from the resulting rattle as the windshield rattled slightly in protest. “ It’s fine.”
“Are you sure?”
Henry took in a deep breath, ignoring the question and tightened his grip on the wheel. He was determined not to lose control over the weekend before it had even started.
“So mom’s a property owner, huh?” The peanut gallery piped up from the backseat. Shawn, not content to merely sit back and enjoy the view, wiggled his shoulders to lean over the back of the front seat. “That’s pretty sweet!” He exclaimed as he once again began messing with the buttons on the radio.
“Shawn,” he warned before slapping the hand away from the stereo system. His dad had just dropped the subject and he’d be damned if he wanted to start round two. Leave it to Shawn.
“Ow! What? I’m just saying that I didn’t know that. What else does she own that I don’t know about? What else are you hiding out on me, dad?” Shawn demanded in whining tones.
“Technically, your mother doesn’t own the property either. It belongs to her side of the family and the property is held in trust.”
“I have no idea what you just said to me,” Shawn huffed as he roughly set further back in his seat. “None. Gus?” Henry could feel him crossing one leg over the other as the driver’s side of the seat was pushed awkwardly and uncomfortably forward. He frowned but said nothing, determined not to give the kid the satisfaction.
“He means you can’t sell the cabin on ebay to support your churro habit.”
“Weellllll doesn’t that just suck?” Shawn whined.
“Yes, Shawn, it sucks,” Henry pitched in, glancing at his son via the rear view mirror. “Especially when the responsibility will eventually fall on you to manage the upkeep of this place.” Shawn’s eyebrows rose questioningly and he pursed his lips in consideration of the words. A moment later, the questionable look was gone and blankness took its place. Henry merely rolled his eyes as Shawn began shaking his head in confusion.
“What are you saying to me? Gus?” Shawn looked towards his friend for support.
Gus shrugged before letting his focus drift sideways and stared back through his own window. “I’m staying out of this. You’re on your own.”
For a moment, Henry truly considered just letting the matter drop. After all, it would certainly be easier for all involved. But, being that Shawn was the eventual rightful heir, Henry finally decided that it was only fair to inform the kid. Someday, he’d be the one making that annual trek to the mountains, someday. Truth be told, Henry didn’t mind any of this. He enjoyed the process of light handiwork involved with keeping tabs on the old place. If Mad never did a thing with the family property it was fine by him. He was fairly certain that his son wouldn’t be too keen on any of this anyway.
“Who do you think manages this property, Shawn? Your mom? Who lives out of the country most of the year?”
“Umm…I was thinking maybe helper elves?” Shawn cocked his head, daring his father to deny the possibility.
“Well put on your pointy hat and shoes, pal – welcome to the North Pole.”
“Oh. My. God – that’s what this is about! We’re your hired hands.”
“Shawn,” the eldest Spencer admonished. “Don’t be ridiculous, you should know your father better than that.”
“Thank you, dad.”
“You’re welcome, Henry.” Henry smiled proudly as his dad clapped him on the shoulder in a rare show of a united front. “Shawn should know by now that you have no intention of hiring anyone. You’re all about the free labor.”
Henry opened his mouth to respond to the barb before promptly shutting it. The last turn leading to the cabin had approached much faster than expected – which was exactly why he shouldn’t have allowed himself to be distracted. Taking his foot off of the accelerator, he allowed the truck to coast for a few seconds before applying the brake and giving the wheel a hard crank. Dust billowed up in swirls, surrounding the truck and leaked into the semi-lowered windows. He duly ignored the dramatic coughs and yelled protests of the passengers as they were thrown about the cabin.
The last leg of the journey surpassed all previous legs in sheer torture. Not so much a road, anymore, as a hollowed washed out trail that had seen better times. The deep ruts encapsulated the tires and ensured that the truck had to take on each dip and hole. Like a train car attached to the rail, the truck was now part of the environment. Taking it slow just prolonged the agony. And so with grit and determination, Henry blocked out the protests and whines and plowed ahead theorizing that if he went fast enough the tires would skim over the deepest parts.
The truck lurched again, pitching and rolling violently before settling back down hard into the established rutted rails. Readjusting his grip on the wheel and using the leverage it offered to shift his seating position back into line, Henry, not for the fifth time, congratulated himself on the strict ‘no beverages/no snacks’ policy he’d instituted before pulling out of the driveway earlier that morning. There was no way that the interior of the borrowed truck would survive unscathed if open containers were allowed in the cabin.
There it was. Just ahead. Sweet relief and their destination.
Henry allowed himself to take in the sight, drinking it deep. He could easily look past the overgrown vines which wound themselves tightly against the rough hewn siding year after year. More trees had fallen victim to the elements though, gratefully, none had landed on the cabin. Based on their leafless state, he surmised that the trees had died out during the previous year. This was fortunate as he had remembered to bring along the chainsaw. If he got nothing else out of this trip, he’d make dead sure he’d at least get some seasoned firewood for his efforts.
Finally the road smoothed into a vague imitation of a driveway. He followed the graceful curve and slowed the truck, letting it coast to where the established drive ended, a hundred yards or so from the cabin. Shutting off the ignition, the diesel engine rumbled down, clicking as the built up heat released into cooler air.
For just a moment, he sat there, taking it all in – the beauty of nature highlighted by the graceful sway of pines and oaks in the gentle breeze. The loud chugging of the borrowed truck and the worsened road conditions had taken a toll on this senses. He’d been so focused on navigating the terrain that he simply hadn’t allowed himself to dwell on the serenity of the shaded cabin, the songbirds happily chirping and the quiet rustle of…potato chip bag?
He quickly released the seatbelt buckle, placed his elbow on the back of the bench seat and whipped himself around, glaring at his son who sat carefree and oblivious surrounded in crumbs, greasily smeared and scattered all around the back of the interior.
“What?” Shawn shrugged glancing around with his trademark ‘who me?’ expression.
Inhaling deeply, Henry slowly turned back to grip the steering wheel tightly and questioned himself again on just what he had thought they would accomplish with this outing.
Counting down from ten, he felt his blood pressure begin to ebb back down towards tolerable levels.
“Henry,” pops piped up from where he sat still gathering his belongings in preparation to exit the truck. “You’re certain this is alright with Maddie?”
Again, Henry said nothing but clenched his jaw tightly and opened the door with a little more force than normally required. Slowly, he eased himself out of the truck and to the ground. The rough ride had done a number on his back. He stood there for a moment, just allowing his legs to get used to the idea of standing upright again after being cramped for much longer than anticipated.
With the last of the immediate bags pulled from the truck’s interior, the party had all agreed that the remaining supplies would be unloaded later…much later.
They made their way closer to the cabin, Henry being waved off of any attempts to help his father traverse the uneven footing finally gave up trying. He shook his head at Shawn who passed them both without a backwards glance.
Something had been niggling at him for the past few minutes, but whether it was the rough ride that could be blamed for possible brain damage or just the fact that he was already at his wits end with his family and the weekend had not yet even officially begun. Whatever the reason, Henry cursed himself as his senses caught up with him. In a state of renewed urgency, he rushed forward to intercept Shawn. Quickly, he reached out and clapped his hand on his son’s shoulder, pulling him backwards and directing him to stay behind. With an index finger held to his lips, Henry motioned to everyone to remain quiet and stay low.
Stiffly, with protesting knees, he crouched down. Without looking, he deftly reached down and lifted up a pantleg to re move the small gun from the holster.
“I do NOT believe you!” Shawn whispered in horrified outrage.
With brusque movements imitating the slashing of a throat, Henry motioned at him to shut up. The gesture was futile as his son’s ire only increased.
“How come Gus and I couldn’t bring our phones, iPods or games but YOU get to bring a gun, huh?” Shawn hissed with drawn eyebrows.
“Shut up already and get down you idiot,” Henry whispered in return pointing at a focus point behind him.
“It’s not fair,” Shawn whispered again from behind. He pouted in disappointment but nevertheless actually did what he was told.
Henry scrunched his face in disgust and once again waved and arm, gesturing the group to stay behind him.
“Henry?” His dad questioned in a hushed whisper. Not wanting to risk unnecessary noise anymore than they had, he chose to signal instead; pointing towards the smoke drifting from the chimney. Gus raised his eyebrows in dawning understanding and simply nodded.
They broke formation, creeping low to the ground as possible. The tall redwoods provided a lot of cover and the men took advantage of this, moving strategically closer to the small house in slow increments.
They all fanned out, spreading themselves further apart and covering a larger area. Of course, Henry thought, the problem of only one gun between them might cause an issue later on – but, they had to work with what they had available. Still, he had to give the boys credit where credit was due; Shawn and Gus were doing an adequate job of advancing quietly across the flanking perimeter. He watched in satisfaction as they crept along on the balls of their feet – just as they had been taught. They had the side and back covered, nodding that all was clear. He glanced to the opposite side of the house where his dad, despite his advancing age, also slipped back into the familiar role with practiced familiarity and gave the signal that he too was in place.
Henry, himself, couldn’t deny the thrill and nerve-wracking tension of advancing into the unknown. Bringing the weapon up higher and gripping the handle tautly, he would forego using the handrail for balance as he quietly inspected the three short stairs. The wood was old and though he knew the supporting joists were solid last year on his annual visit – last year the need for a stealthy entrance wasn’t a key factor. He shuffled slightly to the left with the strategy of attempting to land on the stairs where they rested on the supporting frame underneath – if it went according to plan, any resulting creaks would be kept to a minimum.
He took a deep breath and willed his heartbeat to slow with his movements. This could not be rushed. He shifted his weight back, tightened the grip on the handgun and readied himself to ease up on the first step.
A large hand clapped hard on his shoulder and very nearly did him in. Experience and sheer dumb luck kept the gun from firing as he jerked backwards, startled off balance. He whirled around in surprise, unable to form words just yet as he met his opponent head on.
“Hey bro. Whatcha doing?”