“Hey bro. Whatcha doing?”
Shawn heard the familiar voice and raced around the back of the cabin and launched himself to the top of the porch – opposite to the mother of all staredowns currently in progress.
“Get the hell off of my property.”
“Oh wait there now, big brother, in case you might have forgotten this isn’t exactly your property if, uh, memory serves correct.”
Shawn couldn’t see his father’s face from his current vantage point. Not that it really mattered – his dad’s posture; wide shoulders set square, visible on either side of his uncle’s narrowish features combined with the cartoonish plumes of steam rising from the reddened bald forehead filled in the missing picture quite nicely.
Henry was pissed.
Truth be told, Shawn could honestly say he’d never seen his dad quite so pissed before. Remarkable, really, not even when he was carted off to the holding cells had he ever seen such a look of pure, murderous, rage.
“Uncle Jack!” Shawn hastily ran forward to interrupt the showdown before it had a chance to escalate.
“Shawny – my boy!” Jack exclaimed and pulled him into a restrained hug. Jack pulled back after a quick slap to his back and then stepped back to look at him from an arms-length away. Shawn noted the way his eyes crinkled around the edges – more accurately, the way the crow’s feet seemed much less than pronounced, more restrained, than they had been since the last time. The last time he’d seen his uncle’s joyous expression as he sped away – leaving Gus and himself to the wolves.
Shawn glanced over his uncle’s shoulder to catch the gaze of his father. Henry had a moment to simmer down from a rolling boil, but Shawn knew he’d have to keep the two men separated for the time being. That little bald teapot had yet to shout. When the time came to tip him over, well, Shawn thought, he wasn’t planning on being anywhere near for that.
“I can manage by myself, thank you very much!” Gramp’s distinctive voice rasped echoing through the woods. Shawn stepped back from his uncle, taking in the expression of surprise. Jack’s throat worked up and down. Shawn looked back and forth between the two as Gramps struggled to make it up the short stairs, proving to everyone that he did not need help – thank you very much. Regardless, Gus hung back – always the boy scout – ever prepared, Shawn noted with no subtle amount of pride.
As if this doomed trip to the rugged underworld wasn’t already uncomfortable enough, his skin crawled as he watched the group come to terms with Uncle Jack’s unexpected presence. Henry’s reaction was a given; Shawn knew that the next time the two brothers met, there’d be fireworks. He wasn’t quite prepared for the level of Henry’s sheer rage, but he anticipated it nonetheless.
Gus was also an enigma. Shawn couldn’t help but glance furtively as he made his way cautiously to his best friend’s side. Apathy. Not hardly ever a word associated with Gus. After all, when Gus went out of his way to look like he was pretending to not notice someone there was a distinctive nose-flick (apart from his super cool nose-flick) and he absolutely refused eye contact. Jack actually seemed to shirk from the gazed daggers that Gus shot his way. Shawn’s lips pursed and his eyebrows waggled in dumbfounded amazement.
But Gramps, Shawn breathed out; Gramps was turning out the be the biggest mystery of them all. He had yet to say anything to his youngest son. A fact that did not seem to go unnoticed by Jack.
“Hey there, Pops,” Jack said softly. His shoulders slumped and he jammed his fists into his pockets. “I didn’t figure on seeing you here.”
“Hmmpff,” Grandpa huffed. His bushy eyebrows quirked this way and that as he gazed up and down on his youngest son. Shawn noted the familiar appraisal and the way it seemed to make Jack turn in on himself in absolute discomfort. “It’s been a while.”
“Yeah, pop, it has,” Jack stammered. Suddenly, he threw out his arms and gestured to the great wide open. “But I’m here now – what say everyone come inside and we get this party started? Huh? Whose with me? Kid?”
Shawn startled as Jack pointed his direction. He questioningly brought a finger to his chest and looked questioningly to Gus. Gus just clamped his jaw and slightly shook his head. Shawn cocked an eyebrow and gestured towards the door, ticking his head to the left and shrugging with his shoulders.
Gus’ head jerks became more erratic and he started mumbling something through his teeth that sounded something like “dohnjooet”. He scoffed at had to have been an old spelling word and sneered. If Gus wanted him to do something, Shawn figured that he should know by now to use small words and easily understood phrases. It was Gus’ job to provide clear and concise direction. “Shawn, don’t use peanut butter to clean the tv screen.” But if Gus couldn’t spell out what he was thinking, how was Shawn supposed to know the difference?
“Uncle Jack! How on earth did you find us here?” Shawn bounded back to Jack’s direction. Not giving him a chance to respond, Shawn guided him by the elbow, rushing him into the house and away from the others before round two had a chance to begin. As he shoved Jack through the door, he glanced over his shoulder and glared at everyone to make nice and behave.
Shawn slowed in his own entrance, taking in his surroundings. It had seemed like a small eternity since he’s been here last. Of course, then he’d just assumed that it was just another cabin. Knowing now that it was his mom’s place, or her family’s place, or whoever’s place caused an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of his stomach. All the years he’d just assumed she had nothing – was left penniless and homeless…
He coughed down the thought and fanned the air of non-existent dust – wishing at the curious glance of his father that the interior of the cabin supported his efforts.
The place just seemed so much smaller than he remembered from the few outings here as a kid. The mounted deer head still hung from the wall. Someone had long ago removed the hat he’d so carefully placed on Alfonso’s head years ago. Shame, that.
The fireplace still looked exactly as he remembered, he noted. Shawn continued to walk slowly around the room, picking up various objects, touching others. Soaking it all in. Memories. Some good. Others more…complicated.
His father’s voice cut through his inner musings. “So Jack, how did you find us?” Shawn was grateful in the short term that he had yet to really dwell on the feelings that returning here had awakened. But maybe he spoke too soon as his dad crossed his arms and fixed his uncle with a stare. Henry wasn’t going to back off of this, he was sure. Maybe it was for the best, he wondered. They could get this done and over with and get back to the idea of having ‘fun’.
“Regardless of what you might think, Henry, I wasn’t actually looking for you. But I’m glad to see that you still think of yourself so highly, big bro.”
“Save it Jack. You’re here for a reason, so spill. If you’re not tracking us down, then why are you here?” His dad’s cold, blue, eyes burned with fury.
“Why can’t a guy just show up and visit family?” Jack asked defensively.
Shawn watched in curious amazement as Henry stalked up to his brother and stood within an inch of his nose. Given the fumes of barely restrained anger still billowing off his dad in waves, Shawn thought briefly of calling in a tip to Lassiter; a domestic disturbance in the making. Given that his phone was confiscated, well, Shawn had no option but to sit back and watch with ever growing discomfort.
“Family, Jack? You dare bring up family?” Henry brought up a finger, pointing it just under Jack’s eye line. “You left my son to face down your armed partners and ran to save your tail – you have no business wanting to visit family, Jack.”
“Oh come on, Henry! That was two years ago,” Jack whined. “Are you really gonna hold that grudge? Look,” Jack pointed in Shawn’s direction again. “He’s fine! Look at him.”
He caught his dad’s gaze again, very briefly, before he carefully began his review of the floor. The hardwood needed refinishing and splinters had started to form. Someone should definitely take care of that soon. He scuffed his sneaker against the grain.
“It’s getting late. You’ll stay the night, but I expect you gone in the morning. That’s an order.”
Shawn winced again as the front door slammed behind Henry’s wake. His steps fell hard on the front porch. Quiet reined inside the cabin and each breath could be heard. Even the birds had fallen silent outside as the slamming of the truck’s doors echoed through the hills. He supposed most of the gear would remain intact.
He glanced out the window to watch one of the bedrolls fly through the air and land against the base of a tree.
“You okay, man?”
Shawn glanced up quickly, surprised at Gus’ stealth. He nodded. “Yeah, I’m good.”
“Your dad is really mad,” Gus acknowledged.
“Yeah, he’s pretty mad,” Shawn agreed.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen him that mad ever,” Gus shook his head, scrunching his face. “I thought he was scary before.”
“Hmmm…he’s even scarier mad than that time I told him that you broke his special police scanner.”
“Shawn! I didn’t break nothing,” Gus exclaimed.
“Don’t worry, buddy,” Shawn assured. “He knows you didn’t mean it. And look! He forgave you eventually, so it’s all good.”
“Whatever Shawn. All I know is that the sooner we can get out of here, the sooner-“
“-we can get you back to your Animal Planet documentaries…I know, buddy,” Shawn placed a hand on Gus’ shoulder watching with delight as his friend refused to make eye contact. He held his hand in place until Gus flicked at his nose and then released him with a chuckle.
Gus’ expression as he stalked away, slamming the door and quickly walking out to the truck to help ‘unload’ the truck lightened Shawn’s mood considerably.
He looked around the interior again. The waning daylight serving only to increase the shadows in the corners, reminding him once again just how creepy this place could be at night. Gramps and Uncle Jack stood off to the corner, deep in conversation. He had no idea what had exchanged between the other two, but at least they had seemed to reconnect. He sighed out in relief, unsure of why the slight confrontation between the two would cause him such surprising anxiety.
Shawn pushed off from the table, suddenly feeling the smallness of the room closing around him. He padded across the wooden floor, sure to roll from the balls of his feet, and made his exit unnoticed. He sauntered across the porch and leaned heavily on the handrail, allowing his head to dip forward and his eyes to close.
He stayed there for a while. Long enough that he finally noted that the songbirds and woodland insects had begun their signature calls once again. He smirked at the thought of the creatures become acclimated to Henry’s moods rather quickly. Blowing out a long breath, he allowed the built up tension to flow out of his body, giving one last grip to the rail beneath his clenched fists. He stood transfixed on the glow of dusk as it fell across the tree tops.
Hollow steps announced the presence of an approaching companion. Without having to look he recognized the unique gait of his father, even feeling it through the vibrations under his own feet. Shawn looked up in time to see his father’s eyes crinkle as he moved to stand shoulder to shoulder with him, not before clapping him solidly on the back.
“Nice night,” Henry stated.
“Yeah,” he admitted with a nod. “It is.”
“The truck is unloaded and everything is unpacked.”
“Sweet,” he said softly, grateful that his dad didn’t seem to be upset, merely stating a fact. He halfway expected a lecture on helping pull his weight this weekend, or to at least carry his own luggage. Probably for the best, he mused. Uncle Jack’s unforeseen addition to the festivities had the dramatic effect of throwing everything off balance. It’d been hard enough trying to find his center with working between his dad and Gramps after so long apart from them both…but this…well, it seemed to be affecting everyone.
Whatever, he was just grateful that his dad had seemed to calm down for the moment. He’d take it. Whatever ‘it’ was.
“What do you say we get supper on, pal?”
He considered it for the first time since arriving. His store brand mini-bag of potato chips had long worn off. Then again, dredging up sore memories did not for a good appetite make. The outside fresh air and dramatic cooling off of nighttime did, however. His stomach protested instantly, encouraging him to return to the close confines of the cabin.
He followed Henry cautiously inside, amazed at the transformation that had occurred while his mind had demanded a temporary separation. Gus stood near the fireplace, adding another log. He struggled to awkwardly place it on top of the burgeoning fire. Shawn could see that he was reluctant to get too close to the flames while keeping a tight grip on the roughened wood. The aroma was comforting in its earthiness, mingling with the wondrous smell emanating from the kitchen area. Shawn craned his neck forward, trying to catch a glimpse of the heavenliness that would be their dinner.
Around and behind him, cots had been unfolded and tightly draped with bedding – complete with hospital corners and crisp edges. He’d expect nothing less, after all.
All in all, the place looked suddenly very…homey, lived in, warm.
The fire finally took hold, casting long and dancing shadows against the textured walls – bathing the room with an eerie glow. For all of its warmth and comfort, Shawn could as well admit to no one but himself that it scared the hell out of him.
The way he figured he had two options. Option one: hijack the truck and beat it back to town. Doubtful that he’d manage that one successfully. Option two it was.
He made his way to the corner of the central area that serviced as the kitchen and began rummaging through drawers, pointedly ignoring the curious glances directed his way. It took some sifting through various odds and ends, the likes of which he couldn’t begin to imagine what kinds of torture they were designed to inflict. Somewhere amidst the sharp and pointy unrecognizable knick-knacks, wads of rubber bands and spools of fishing line, he at last found what he was looking for.
Gathering the box of matches and handful of candles, he set out on his own personal mission. His dad looked at him knowingly but thankfully remained silent, resuming his seasonings to the stew simmering on the stove. Shawn made his way clockwise around the cabin’s open floorplan. He lit every oil lamp he could find. If there was a corner or nook that didn’t have a furnished lamp, he set out a candle in its place.
When at last every last wick had been attended to to his satisfaction, Shawn stepped back to admire his handiwork. Now this was home. He nodded in satisfaction as the little house glowed, biting back a pang at the crying shame that such a romantic setting should be wasted. He was pulled from those self-defeating thoughts suddenly before he had a chance to dwell.
“What’s the matter there, Shawny,” Uncle Jack laughed. His eyes twinkled with amusement. “You’re still not scared of the dark, are you?”
He could only stare at his uncle dumbfounded, his lips slightly pursed as his mind struggled to respond.
Rescue would come from an unlikely source – not Gus, although his buddy had taken up position next to his side, resuming his previous glare with hands in his pockets. Shawn had to admit, with a nod in his friend’s direction, Fearless Guster was a bit of a badass.
“Lay off Jack,” Henry sat the pot of steaming beef stew on the table, likely harder than necessary as liquid sloshed down the sides.
“Oh come on – I don’t mean anything by it. After all, it’s not like the kids not what? Thirty years old?” He chuckled, compounding Shawn’s humiliation.
“I don’t know about anybody else, but I’m scared of the dark,” Gramps’ scratchy voice crackled in sync with the fire. “Always have been.” Shawn turned his head towards Gus to see a mirror image of his own surprised expression. Who knew? Though it was a nice save on Gramps’ part, he didn’t get the feeling that the intervention was anything but a happy coincidence. No way did Shawn share anything but simple, shallow, pleasantries with Gramps and he knew for a fact that Henry wouldn’t divulge info upon pain of death.
It was the Spencer way.
“I remember,” Henry joined in. “You always did keep the bathroom light on. Said it was for ‘us kids.’”
“It’s true, all of it,” Grandpa Spencer laughed loudly; his merriment infectious. Before long, Shawn chuckled and felt his own anxiety begin to melt, dissolving with the shadows into the far corners.
His dad gave a subtle wink in his direction. Shawn was very nearly overwhelmed at that moment, surprising himself with a sudden and unexpected flood of warmth. For the first time in the entirety of his life, he realized that he couldn’t care less that his Uncle Jack was here in town.
He loved his uncle severely. Where trinkets and dime store baubles used to capture his imagination of his uncle’s heroic travels, they now seemed trivial and paltry. Perhaps he’d change his mind, someday. Maybe the day that Uncle Jack chose to dive under a pier armed with only a Swiss Army knife, he would once again look up to him with starry eyes and a puffed chest. But until that day, that honor was reserved for another.