The clouds broke open for the drive home. They loosed a dreary rain, sweaty dap-dap-daps that turned roads to rivers and drummed people to sleep. Everyone else had given in, but Collin was awake and driving, because that’s what the father did. The captain, the rock, guiding their tiny, battered pillbox of a sedan through the storm that was chasing them all the way home. A ship in a tormented sea. Maddie snored in the front seat, Mira blissful and dreaming behind them, her socks muddy from running back to the house without her shoes on. She had to say goodbye to Granddad one more time because he looked so sad.
Her granddad—Collin’s father—wouldn’t get better. Anyone who spent five minutes with him could see that. He’d given up. Eighty years: he’d lived through two grapefruit-sized cysts plucked from his abdomen; he’d lost a kidney, beat prostate cancer, and lived with diabetes; but finally, something Parkinson’s-like was fuzzing his brain and bleeding away his strength. Did you say Parkinson’s? Parkinson’s-like, the answer always came. Parkinson’s-ish. As if being consumed by something not quite Parkinson’s made it better somehow. His legs had failed, and he couldn’t stand up any more. Now there was no more talk of doctors or tests or procedures; now it was just hollow-eyed whispers: I’m dying.
Out of nowhere, they skidded sideways on the water, then just as quickly jerked back into the lane. “Do you need me to drive?” Maddie asked sleepily, automatically.
Collin kept his voice even. “We just hydroplaned a little. Go back to sleep. Everything’s under control.” Even though it wasn’t true. Nothing was under control, not really. Control was a lie we told ourselves until we couldn’t believe it anymore. And what came after we stopped believing…well, that was the true measure of the soul.
The true measure of Collin’s father’s soul was watching TV and switching the channel every two minutes when he got bored. Collin had asked: is there anything you want to do? Write your story, do some video and talk about what makes you you? Anything? A barely noticeable head shake and a whispered no was all he gave. Dad, do you want to just flip channels and wait until you die? His father never answered. He just changed the channel. And again. And again. And again.
“Are we almost home?” Mira wailed. “I want to be home.”
Maddie patted her head. “I know, sweetie. We all do. Try to sleep some more.”
A few quiet minutes more of rain and muted truck roars, and Mira asked, “Granddad’s fixits don’t work, do they? If they did, we’d be home by now.”
Maddie looked back. “I know it’s a long ride, Mira, but there’s nothing—Honey, what are you eating? Spit that out. Give it here, please.”
“They’re fixits. Granddad said they fix all the problems. He said I could have a lime fizz if I got his fixits from the basement for him. Cause he can’t walk down stairs anymore. And some of them fell out of the bag in my pocket. But I don’t think they work, cause we’re not home yet.”
“What is this?” Maddie dropped something in Collin’s hand: light, hard, shiny, like a pill, sort of. He held it up and turned on the map light.
It was a bullet. Small, maybe twenty-two caliber. “What the…Mira, you were going to swallow this?”
“I did,” she smiled. “I took two. Like Granddad does.”
Collin skidded the car to a crooked stop on the shoulder and pawed his phone from his pocket. “Maddie, get your phone and find an emergency room. Or urgent care. Whatever.” He called his father’s phone, but no answer. His mother, same thing. He tried again. And again. And again.
“There’s an urgent care close to the interstate about twenty miles further on,” Maddie said. “It’s open. If you need me to drive, I can. Or if you want me to keep trying your father…your parents.”
His breath caught, his heartbeat pounded in his temples. Mira stared at them, her eyes wide. “No, just tell me how to get to the urgent care place. I think she’s probably okay, but…I don’t know.” He pulled back onto the road. The rain still came, but the storm had lost its heart and started to move off. With each distant thunderclap, Collin winced. Maybe control was a lie, but still you craved it when you didn’t have it. And so you controlled what you could. Even if it was the tiniest of things. Even if the captain’s last act was to steer the ship straight into the rocky shore.