I looked away momentarily from the road ahead, glanced over my right shoulder, and answered to the little voice calling to me urgently from the back seat, "What is it, Son?"
My five year old pointed at his sister, Shes hurting me Daddy!
A quick flip of my eyes to the rearview mirror revealed my eight-year old daughter peering back, a radiant smile on her face. I didnt touch him, Dad. She held up both hands. See?
Alright you two. I have to drive. Cut it out now. Do you hear me?
Yes, dad, my daughter said. My son sat in stubborn silence, glaring back at his sister.
The quiet lasted maybe thirty seconds.
Shes hurting me again, Daddy! She hit me. Make her stop!"
Another look to the rearview mirror and then to the back seat. Nothing, no movement. If my daughter had reached across to hit her brother, I didnt see it. My daughter sat smiling, hands neatly folded in her lap, looking out the window and humming to herself. Natalie, just keep your hands to yourself, I said, thinking that maybe she was quicker than my eye could discern.
But I didnt touch him, Dad. My daughter held her hands high above her head and shook them at me. I promise, I really didnt, she said, grinning ear to ear.
I knew my children well---or so I thought. Both were bright, healthy, and well-behaved most of the time. Sure, there were times when rivalry between the two of them drove me nuts, but I needed them to put their differences aside for the moment and behave; we were in heavy traffic and there was a good hour or more of driving before we reached my parents house.
I drove on, my eyes darting back and forth between traffic and the backseat, my ears super-tuned to the quiet behind me. Another thirty seconds passed. Silence. I needed it. I had quit smoking the day before and just wanted peace so I could suffer my withdrawal in pitiful solitude. Wonderful, its finally quiet---but for how long?
An answer came quickly. She punched me in my nuggets Daddy. Ow! my son yelled out. Again, I had seen no movement from my daughter; she obviously had not raised a hand to him.
Harrison, stop it. Your sister didnt touch you, I said. I could see my daughter squint her eyes at her brother. An evil smile followed by a diabolical smirk, rose from the corners of her mouth. I knew at that moment something wasnt quite right and she was possibly the mastermind behind whatever mischief was at hand---her face was laced with a not-so-obvious innocence. She giggled. Natalie, its not funny. Whats going on between you two?
My daughter quickly snapped her head to the front, her smile disappearing, Nothing Dad, hes just being a baby again and trying to get me in trouble.
Another outburst and Im turning this car around and going back home. Do you both understand me?
There was peace for the next half-hour. My daughter played quietly with her toys. Cars to my left sped by. I noticed those drivers approaching to my right slowing, laughing and pointing at my son as he slept soundly, his head rolled sideways to the window, drooling and snoring in a coordinated bliss. I gave a cursory smile, waved back and murmured my thanks to all the numb nuts for not blowing their horns. I reached over and turned on the car radio. Easy listening music played softly. I smiled and thought about my wife. I rolled over in my mind why our children never misbehaved when she was in the car. What was her secret? I wished she were here with us. Unfortunately, she was at home sick with a winter cold and grateful for my offer to take our children off her hands. She needed the time alone, so there was no way I was going to turn around and head back, even if the two angels behind me re-ignited the heavenly war between themselves.
I heard my son cough. And then again twice more. He made a gurgling noise. I turned my head to see him holding his throat. I was terrified, afraid that he was choking on something. That fear faded when he released the grip on his throat and pointed at his sister again. She tried to break my neck Daddy. Im scared. Shes gonna make me pee my pants!
What are you screaming about? Nobody is breaking anything except my patience!
I pulled the car off to the shoulder, marched around to the right passenger door and unbuckled my son from his child seat. Come on. Ill take you to go pee in the woods.
My son shook his head repeatedly, No, theres monsters.
Who told you that?
My son stuck his bottom lip out and looked at his sister. She did. She's a meany.
Am not! my daughter spat back.
Are too meany!
Am not and youre a big baby!
Am not girl---icky girl!
Hush, the both of you, I said.
My daughter looked up, fire in her eyes, He started it, Dad. Its his fault!
Did not stupid girl! My son put up both fists, Just you wait!
My daughter raised one fist and held it out, Only takes one for me---girl power! she shouted. She lowered her fist slowly, and again, smiled that evil smile at her brother. And I have other powers. You know what I mean, dont you?
For just a moment, I thought I could see terror in my sons eyes. But he looked away and said nothing.
I buckled my son back in and we drove onward for the next twenty minutes while the war of words raged behind me, occasionally broken by my sons even louder outbursts. Shes pulling my ear Daddy!, Shes trying to twist my arm off Daddy!, and Shes gonna tie me up Daddy! It was about the same time a commercial on the radio chimed out that pathetic ditty, Whos your Daddy? Thats when I lost it---time to throw my own damn fit.
Both of you...hope you like the walk back home. And you better be back there in time for dinner. Got it?" There was about a thirty-second pause before my daughter spoke up.
You cant do that. Thats against the law, Dad.
Her brother joined in with, Yeah, thats mean, Daddy!
Dad or Daddy isnt here anymore. Hes gone. Daddy has left the car. Im just the guy driving. The crazy guy. So do yourselves and me a favor---AND SHUT UP!
The verbal sparring was finally over. The silence was unbelievably soothing and wonderful those last ten miles.
I pulled into my parents driveway, relieved, grateful that the drive with the two demon possessed children was over. My mother wasted no time in opening the car door and hugging her grandson, Im so glad to see all of you!
My daughter sat quietly, her arms crossed, staring to the left and out the window, waiting to be unbuckled (her moms rule). My mother reached across the seat, patted her granddaughters leg and said with a smile, Got some fresh baked apple pie inside for you and your brother sweety. There was a slight pause from my mother, Where are your shoestrings? I watched in the mirror as my daughter pursed her lips, rolled her eyes up to the window and moved closer to the door.
What is it, Mom? I asked, my attention divided between her and my father, who stood on the front porch, the Sunday paper neatly tucked under his arm, and a Marlboro dangling from his lips. I smelled the cigarette smoke, sighed and licked my lips, but quickly put my cravings aside to deal with my mothers inquiry. What are you talking about shoestrings?
Where are Natalies shoestrings? she asked again. There was another pause, and then I heard my mother begin to laugh. Oh my God, and what, what is this!
Mom, what are you talking about? a slight note of exasperation evident in my voice. By the time she had reached the porch with my son, she was laughing, holding her side, and doing her best to clue my father in as to what she had seen in the back seat. My father, with a puzzled look on his face, leaned in close to my mother, to try to capture her words, most of which were broken between outburst of laughter. He started to smile and then laugh.
I stood there dumbfounded. Nearby neighbors began to pull curtains aside, peeking out, opening their front doors, curious at my parents raucous laughter. Within the span of a few seconds, my parents were waving their next door neighbors over to come and join the celebration of humor, more aptly, the laugh circus. In a short time, my parents front porch soon filled with a melee of more knee slapping, stomping and hilarity than I could stand.
I steeped out of my car and threw my hands up in resignation. Care to enlighten me what the hell is so funny? The crowd laughed louder as if my question were the punch line to a joke and of course, much to my chagrin, came more annoying knee and back slapping.
My mother, holding one hand to her mouth and pointing at my car with the other, blurted out, stammered out, Behindyouryour car seat. She laughed even louder and turned away, the hilarious moment obviously too much for her to handle.
I opened the back door and unbuckled my daughter who wasted no time in getting out. She pushed past me and ran to the front porch. The laughter reached an even higher crescendo as fingers started pointing at her flopping pink tennis shoes sans shoe strings. I was still in the dark until I looked on the floorboard behind my seat and saw it. I rolled my eyes up and shook my head in disbelief, Holy crap, what the---!
I pick up the toy doll, a very likeness of a young boy, dressed uncannily like my son: legs and body held captive, bound together with one pink shoestring and the other string, formed as a noose around the dolls neck. One arm and an ear had been torn off. Numerous pins, taken from my wifes sewing drawer, protruded from and through the dolls body. I tried to act unconcerned and held the doll overhead, Is this what all the laughing is about? A make-believe voodoo doll? More laughter was the response I got, and thats when I let it fly to the front porch comedy club. Hey folks---I dont find this damn funny!
My dad waved me off and laughed, Take a chill pill Ed. No harm done.
My mother chimed in, You wont understand why we think its funny until your kids are up and grown, and then gone one day. Were just having a grandparent moment honey.
I must have not been the sharpest tool in the shed at that moment because I still didn't quite get the over-the-top reaction from the front porch peanut gallery. Maybe something was in the water, or who knows what crazy things lurk in the minds of our senior citizens.
My son clung close to his grandmother and pointed at the doll, See Mawmaw, thats what Natalie was scaring me with. She said she had special girl powers.
No such thing, my father said, leaning out and smiling at my son.
My mother stopped laughing, squinted and cut her eyes at my father, Says who?
My daughter stood quietly in her laceless, floppy-eared, pink tennis shoes, grinning, with her arms crossed. I raised an eyebrow, shook my finger and spoke in a mock sinister voice at her, Well talk my darling she-devil---when I get back. I heard her giggling as I tossed the doll to the backseat and climbed in to start the car.
My mother left the porch and walked toward me. And where are you going young man? she asked.
I didn't say a word. I just smiled and waved as I drove away---to get that hard-earned pack of cigarettes.