Rainwater spilled from the overhang canopy and splattered the Jeep’s windshield as Ben pulled out of Luke’s Corner Gas parking lot. It was Ben’s turn to man the wheel for the last leg of the trek to Falls Lake State Park with his father. A weather announcement flashed through static on the radio.
“Flash flood and thunderstorm warnings are in effect until 8:00 p.m. tonight, as the last remnants of Tropical Storm Theodore pummel the region’s northern areas.”
“I haven’t seen flooding like this since I bounced you on my lap in Oshkosh overalls.” Mr. Knight said after sipping his coffee, “Proper timing for our father-son cabin weekend, wouldn’t you say?”
“Impeccable timing,” Ben replied drolly. “Murphy’s law as usual.”
Ben’s father chuckled. Mr. Knight was shorter than his son, Ben, but he remained as stocky as a moose and built like a boxer from the thirties, even into his late fifties. His once thick, dark hair was now salt and pepper, thinning, but his scruffy beard was full. A pouch of Captain Black pipe tobacco bulged out the top pocket of his faded, red-checkered flannel. The scent of his Brut aftershave coupled with two freshly filled thermoses of silky brown coffee reminded Ben of road trips when he was young, when his parents were still together. Those good times then smelled and felt a lot like this. As it was then, despite the storm, Ben felt secure and comforted next to his father.
“We’ll make the best of it,” Mr. Knight said.
“Always do,” Ben replied.
“Won’t be long now 'til we’re in the wild, toasting cold ones, roasting a few hot dogs, and watching a crackling fire under the stars, without the rain, preferably.”
“This trip is long overdue. Despite the weather, I’m glad we’re sticking to the plan. Can’t wait to kick back and relax like we used to and get away from it all.” Ben said.
“Made a lot of good memories up here, haven’t we?” Mr. Knight said. “Shame we waited this long to come back.”
“Yeah, feels nice knowing the hiatus is behind us now. Hopefully, this will be the first of a new annual tradition, father and son, just us guys from now on.”
“Hopefully, father, son, and grandson before too long.”
Ben coughed on his coffee.
His father laughed. “You all right, son?”
“About that…” Ben lowered the volume on the radio. The sound of raindrops pelting the roof and windshield became more pronounced than before.
“Did I steal your thunder on that one, by chance?” Mr. Knight said in a curious and convincing tone.
Ben shrugged his shoulders. “That’s a good way to put it.”
“Whoa!” Mr. Knight stared at Ben and cracked a grin. “Really?”
“All signs point that way. I was going to pick a better time to tell you. But I suppose this is as good a time as any.” Ben couldn’t fight his smile.
“That’s incredible!” Mr. Knight love tapped his son’s knee. “My boy is going to be a father!”
“I almost didn’t come on this trip because Carrie wasn’t feeling well, but she insisted we go,” Ben replied. “She said she would be fine. She didn’t want me to worry, because this is a good thing. A good kind of sickness, if there is such a thing.”
“The best kind of sickness,” his father said as his eyes took on a glossy sheen. “I… I am so happy for you, son. You’ll be a great one.”
“You taught me how.”
Ben accelerated the windshield wipers as the rain intensified and pinged the Jeep’s roof.
“I wish we were in a better financial position, you know? I hear people say that there’s never a good time for these things, kids and all, and you can never be fully prepared, but money has been pretty tight as of late. I’m nervous about being promoted from husband to father. I haven’t mastered the whole husband title yet. Hard to imagine my role getting any bigger.”
Ben’s father nodded. “Yeah, I know the feeling. I can’t tell you how many nights I stayed up late, wondering if I could put food on the table for you kids.” Mr. Knight’s voice dripped with melancholy. It was the voice of yesterday, of mistakes, but, more importantly, a voice of wisdom. “But you know what? We never went hungry. We always got through it somehow. It wasn’t easy, but we got through the occasional ruts with a lot of faith and a lot of grit. You will, too.”
“I’m getting laid off soon.”
“Oh.” Mr. Knight said as he stared at the dash.
“I haven’t told Carrie yet. I was planning to, but the day I found out was when she presented me with a gift.”
“Pregnancy test—rolled up in a new BatDad t-shirt.”
“That’s a thoughtful and clever way to tell you, I’ll say.”
“Yeah, it was about the only thing that turned my bad day into something good. But then there was the added dread and uncertainty.” Ben sighed. “Talk about hiding the ugly truth with a smile.”
Mr. Knight pursed his lips and lowered his head to search for the right words. At length, he said, “Well, what happened?”
“Our company was acquired last month, and our department will outsource to another service provider,” Ben said in a matter-of-fact tone. “Boss said he would endorse me in any future endeavors, so that makes it all better….”
“What are you gonna do, son?” Mr. Knight asked.
“I don’t know yet,” Ben said with a sigh. “Hence my anxiety. I didn’t see either of those curveballs coming, and I hoped to land a better job first and get on solid ground before having a kid. Looks like I don’t have a choice anymore.”
The conversation paused as sheets of rain and windshield wipers filled the audible void.
“Son of a motherless goat.” Mr. Knight growled.
Ben’s eyebrows raised as he rounded his mouth, but no words passed over his tongue. His father believed that extreme profanity was the language of the ignorant or indecent folks who didn’t know how to articulate feelings buried inside their thoughts and therefore settled for ugly jargon.
“Yeah, that’s right,” Mr. Knight said proudly. “They are dirty, selfish, bottom-line loving sons of motherless goats!”
Ben offered his thermos in a toast. “I’m shocked by your cavalier language, old man, but I happen to agree with your sentiments!”
Father and son toasted and clanked their thermoses together in agreement.
“Now, you said you hated that job a while back, right?”
“Right, well now, to be candid, I still think….” Mr. Knight paused.
“Yeah?” Ben replied. “Your thinking is dangerous.”
“Well, that’s to be determined, but I digress.” Mr. Knight cleared his throat. “Son, I believe you are meant for more. You are meant to write. You always did so well in creative writing classes and seemed to have a knack for interesting stories.”
“A dream, and not a practical one, unfortunately.”
“Last I checked, most dreams aren’t—”
“True,” Ben interrupted. “Established writers say that writing camps and creative writing courses are a waste of time. Read a lot and write a lot. Those are the two keys. Simple. No secrets, only hard work. Unfortunately, I don’t do much of either these days.”
“Maybe you should,” his father said as he unbuckled his seatbelt and stretched for the backseat floorboard.
“What are you doing?”
“I’ll show you.” His father dug around, shuffled through his bag, and pulled out “The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien.
“There it is,” Mr. Knight said. “Yes, sir, there’s that big whopper of a book.” He plopped back down in his seat. “Listen here, son. I can see your name on the cover of a book like this one. In big, bold letters, it’ll say, ‘New York Times Best-Selling Author, Ben Knight.’”
“I like the sound of that. Certainly beats my current title.”
“I suppose it has a nice ring, doesn’t it?”
Ben nodded as he fought a grin.
“You should really go for it, Ben. Life is fleeting. What do you have to lose, anyway?”
“Great wife, kiddo on the way, crappy rental, oh and a crappy car.” Ben said dryly.
“Yeah, so?” Mr. Knight replied.
“So… it’s an awful lot of commitment and responsibility.”
“Well, do you love them, son?”
“Your wife and unborn child, of course.”
“Do you love writing?”
“Of course,” Ben said in an insistent tone.
“Well, as long as you keep your family close and your dreams within reach, you’ll find the time. You’ll make the time. You’ll want to teach your children to go after what they believe in….” His father paused. “Children learn how to reach for their dreams and goals from their parents… from you.”
Ben glanced over at his father before returning his attention to the wet road ahead. “I have a manuscript that I tinker with from time to time. It’s in the back, and I thought I would work on it while staying at the cabin. Keep my mind off things.”
“Good, good.” His father smiled. “It’ll be the perfect place to write. You ought to do it each day and get into a habit. Twenty-one days is all it takes, and it will feel as natural as eating and sleeping.”
“I’ve heard that before,” Ben replied.
“Yeah, believe it or not, I’ve been walking five miles a day for twenty-eight days and counting. Dropping some of this love handle weight. Old Dr. Lightfoot said I must if I hope to keep the blood pressure and cholesterol in check.”
“I didn’t know you went to the doctor.”
“Yeah, regular check-up.” His father muffled a grumble. “Nothing too scary to report, really. I suppose the old ticker is still ticking away, but not as well as it used to tick. Ben, don’t be like me and put your health on the back burner.” His father’s belly bounced as he snickered. “Shoot, by the time you realize it’s too late, you only have two options. Either the things you did and didn’t do will come bite you in the arse, or you’ll have a doctor up your arse! Trust me—somehow, you’ll want the latter!”
Ben joined his father’s belly-hurting laughter.
“Hey, you laugh, but one way or another, it won’t end very well, and you’ll be limping around with a throbbing butthole, wondering how you lived to see the day! But at least you’ll be alive!”
Ben wiped away funny tears that welled in his eyes as both men calmed their laughs.
“I’m gonna try that twenty-one-day habit thing,” Ben said. “I need to drop a few pounds myself and get back to jogging in the morning. I feel so much better when I’m active. It’ll probably help my confidence when I interview at a new company, too.”
“I’m sure it will,” Mr. Knight replied. “You’ve been taking it squarely on the chin for a while now. Sometimes, it feels like the waves never end. In some ways, it doesn’t. In other ways, it does, but I know….”
“This too shall pass.” Both men quoted the phrase collectively.
“You got it,” his father said confidently.
“Remember good, bad, or indifferent, no season lasts forever. Do your best to enjoy the moments you have, even the bad ones. It’s hard to explain, but when the moments are finally gone, you will miss them. And you’ll be grateful for them. You’ll be grateful for who you are and who you will become because of those good, bad, and indifferent moments and seasons. Sometimes, those moments, those seasons, they’re simply preparing you for what you prayed for initially. Understanding this is what will help you become who you should be.”
Ben grinned. “You should be an inspirational speaker or something. Maybe that’s your calling!”
“I have my moments of brilliance now and then. And hey, I made a lot of mistakes when I was your age. It all turns into experience, eventually. Usually when it’s too late.” His father’s lips pursed as he reflected. “So, learn from my mistakes, and learn from others as much as possible. Better days are always ahead.”
“I love you, son.”
“I love you, too, Dad.”
Ben’s father packed a few pinches of Captain Black’s Cherry Tobacco inside the bowl of his pipe, bit down on the mouthpiece, and flicked the lighter wheel. After a few puffs, the stale air burned and held a divine and nostalgic flavor of Ben’s childhood glory days. Pipe tobacco had a much better aroma than run-of-the-mill cigarettes. If pipe tobacco was a Yankee Candle, a cigarette was a granny fart. Ben’s father took in the Carolina landscape as he settled the pipe in his mouth.
“I’m sure everything will be fine for you guys in the end. Always have for you and Carrie. You gotta give it some time.”
“Do you remember the two phrases you taught me as a kid when I had a bad day at school or got rejected on dates?” Ben asked.
“Absolutely,” his father replied. “No matter the situation, no matter the circumstances, be who you are. Be the hero in your own life.”
“And the other?”
“The two most powerful words put together in the human language: not yet. Not yet reminds us of our potential, so even if you’re not where you want to be, always remember… not yet. There is power in not yet and hope for tomorrow.”
Ben nodded as he recalled all the times his father had expressed those words of encouragement since Ben was a small child. He hadn’t felt this carefree and confident in a long time; Ben needed this moment. Ben looked away from the road briefly to turn up the volume on the radio. His father moved closer to the windshield.
“Dad, what is—”
His father’s eyes squinted before doubling. “Son! Watch out!”
In an instant, the moment Ben needed was over.
The torrential downpour had soaked the land like freshly brewed coffee grounds. An angry black mass awakened from the hillside and sent a monstrous stampede of boulders and rock debris tumbling across the median ahead.
Ben followed his father’s eyes and jolted backward as he slammed the brake into the floorboard, but there was not enough time to stop. Ben had two poor options to choose from: either he could ram straight into the teeth of the landslide, or he could attempt to steer clear of the mess in the middle and avoid the human meat grinder accident that would surely result in two fatalities.
There was no time to think, only time to react, and Ben’s instinct and white knuckles took over.
Ben ripped a right turn that cracked his head into the driver’s side window and sent his father sprawling, unrestrained, over the Jeep’s center console.
After retrieving the novel, Mr. Knight had forgotten to refasten his seatbelt.
The tires screamed like ghouls as the Jeep veered off-road and sideswiped the landslide, decimating the guardrail that separated the asphalt from the steep hill.
The Jeep fishtailed as soon as the tires hit the pulpy, waterlogged soil that sloped down to Cherokee Creek.
Ben tried to regain control and whipped the front axle back towards the road, but the tires could not bite into the slurry gravel that had the consistency of wet dog crap rather than solid earth.
The back end slid sideways and crept up at the front end’s pace.
Every cause and effect fired in rapid succession.
No time to think, only enough time to feel the fear.
The world blurred. But when the Jeep’s passenger side wheels locked and dug deeper into the muck, forcing the driver’s side to levitate, time slowed to a near stop.
The world of father and son started turning upside down like a carnival ride gone horribly wrong. As the ride glided off the rails, Ben could feel his stomach jump up and tickle his tonsils before dropping back deep where his guts belonged.
Ben shot his hand upwards, towards the oh-know handle on the Jeep’s ceiling and prepared to hold on for dear life. Mr. Knight did the same with his right hand and instinctually pushed his blocky left hand deep against his son’s chest holding Ben in place as they locked eyes. Mr. Knight’s gaze was often comforting and pleasant, set behind a thin smile, but now, his eyes were poignant, absent, spinning, and leaking water.
“Hold on, son. No matter what. Just hold…”
Time accelerated again.
The old half-ton Jeep smacked the drenched earth with a ferocious blow that sent thunderous shock-waves through Ben’s spine. In unison, the most awful, metal-striking, glass-breaking, and eardrum-rattling noise he had ever experienced crashed through his skull and shot bright red rockets off in his vision.
Before Ben could react to protect himself from the impending rollover, the steering wheel’s airbag exploded like a hidden IED and sucker-punched him in the nose at 200 mph.
Blood sprayed from Ben’s nose and moistened his face as the blast pushed his neck back into the headrest. The cauliflower airbags blossomed through the Jeep’s cabin and coated him in a floury, acrid powder.
The windshield and side windows split and starred on the first impact before splintering and shattering into beads on the second spinning revolution. Ben’s head flung around in the cab cyclone as gravity yanked him from the top down and back around again. The barrel roll drop bounced off the crown of his head as consciousness flashed in and out like a rifle’s muzzle blasts at night.
Ben’s eyes went blurry with tears laced in blood from the air bag’s rabid left jab, and then another jarring blow to the top of his head invited blackness to come in on the fringes. The shadows came in hard on the crimson edges of what was real and what Ben imagined. He thought of Carrie, and he thought of his unborn child. He felt he was seconds away from meeting his Creator. Ben remembered what his father had said.
The blackness settled in deep for Ben.
The rolling was relentless as gravity kept pulling the Jeep farther down the hill. As Ben slipped further into an unconscious state, the slippery slope continued to aid the Jeep’s built-up momentum. It was tough to know who was taking a worse beating in the heavy-weight title match between Jeep and earth as the SUV hammered deep cuts into the waterlogged hillside. The ground collisions resembled exploding minefields as each flip slung flying chrome and fiberglass dipped in black mud through the air, while slogs of debris and rocks peppered the dreary grey sky.
The half-ton Jeep resembled a battered Coke can as each blow from the hill bashed and cracked the SUV into submission. At last, gravity delivered what remained of the Jeep to its ultimate resting place, upside-down in a ditch. Chaotic destruction lined the creek bed. The Jeep’s interior and exterior auto parts minced into scraps beyond recognition of their original functions and forms.
Thunder rolled near as raindrops pinged and clinked off the wreckage and plunked into nearby puddles. Somehow, the radio survived the tumble, along with one hanging speaker as Aerosmith’s “Dream On” chorus played through the cracked tweeter. A muddy stream snaked through the busted windows and splashed against Ben’s unconscious bloody and mud-caked face.
Death crept near as Ben laid unconscious.