So today I took a very important test that I spent the last eight months preparing for.
That went well. I passed! Part of that I credit to a teacher’s advice to shut my books and do something creative before the test. So, with just hours to go before the test, I smashed through the first story I’ve written in over a year. It felt good.
This story was prompted by Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction challenge, hope in the face of hopelessness. This may not be as serious as some other entries there (which I recommend reading, there’s some good stuff coming from these challenges), and it may quirk a few of my regular readers’ eyebrows, but I enjoyed exploring a perspective somewhat different from my own. I hope you enjoy reading it, just below!
The two of them crouched at the edge of the roundabout, peering over the bushes.
Master Sergeant Arturo Mendez brought out the tiny set of binoculars from his bag. Unfolding them, he sighted on the target location.
“Looks quiet,” he reported. “No sign of hostiles.”
“Let me see, dad,” said Juan, sounding patient, calm, collected. Sergeant Arturo knew better , though. The boy quivered with anticipation.
With a rustling of bushes, Arturo handed the binoculars to Juan. “With no unexpected incursions,” he speculated, “chance of mission success increases.”
“Duh,” said Juan, then he winced. “Sorry, sir, I mean, yes sir.”
The bushes shading his face, Arturo grinned. Returning to a stoic expression, he grunted. “Zero hour, boy. Time to go.”
Juan tugged at the pouch in his shorts, extracting a small device. The transceiver was not available on the public market yet. Arturo’s commanding officer had approved his request to borrow it for this mission. “Be careful with it, son,” Arturo reminded Juan for the fifth time. “That thing costs more than your college education.”
“If I even go to college,” Juan drawled, expressing with his tone the eye roll he meant for Arturo to hear. “Let’s get through ninth grade before we start shipping me off to parts unknown.”
A dog barked in the distance, setting off sympathetic barking from other dogs. The sound may not spoil the mission, but Arturo willed them to silence all the same.
Arturo positioned the transceiver, a set of two pieces connected by a thin braided wire, within the cap’s paneling. Arturo thought the hat looked ridiculous. Its diameter exceeded Juan’s head. Arturo bit his tongue. Fashion was not his area of expertise.
The soft pad of the speaker sat high upon Juan’s temple. Arturo craned his neck away from Juan and muttered into his microphone. “Testing, alpha, bravo, charlie.”
“ABC, check,” Juan replied. A clean transmission.
Master Sergeant Mendez and Juan then synced their timepieces. Timing was not critical but the tradition helped calm Juan. Arturo’s was a crisp digital watch, Juan’s a hand-me-down pocket-watch from Arturo’s father.
“Ready?” Arturo asked.
“Ready.” The boy’s teeth chattered despite the warm, humid air. They caught each other’s eye and Arturo nodded briskly. It may be an impossible mission, but that was no reason to discourage the boy.
Without further pause, Juan rose from the vantage point and strode to the sidewalk. The target location was at the end of the cul-de-sac, a quaint two-story with beige siding and a net overhanging a moderate sized swimming pool.
Arturo watched Juan’s approach, expecting his son to turn back to look for support. The boy did not look over his shoulder or even so much as turn his head. Mission-focused, that’s good. When you walk into enemy territory, best to look like you belong, act as if you’re supposed to be there. You can fool the enemy, and maybe you can fool yourself.
Before a minute passed, Juan reached the front door of the beige house. All was quiet on the comms and in the surrounding neighborhood. The boy came to a stop just before the welcome mat and stood still.
Arturo raised the binoculars to get a better look at his son. Was he frozen in fear? Was he gathering his courage to face the challenge laid before him? Had he seized up, had some kind of ischemic attack? Arturo drew in a breath to speak, to offer a brisk word of encouragement, but Juan’s hand shot up and knocked a rapid pattern on the door.
The knocking gave way to silence until the soft clatter of a deadbolt came through. The door opened to reveal a woman, dressed in slacks and a patterned blouse. Arturo recognized her from their shared PTA functions. He sank deeper into the bushes.
“Hi, Mrs. Jensen,” Juan said. The high-grade microphone captured and transmitted the boy’s reflexive swallow.
The binocular vision left something to be desired. Arturo wished he’d had access to some kind of shoulder mounted camera, but nothing like that could easily be hidden on Juan’s person. What could Juan do to bypass this insurmountable barrier to his main mission objective?
“Is Aaron home?” The brave boy.
Mrs. Jensen smiled and nodded. “I’ll go and get him. Do you mind waiting here, Juan?” Juan nodded and fell into a sort of parade rest.
“You’re doing well,” Arturo murmured as Mrs. Jensen stepped away from the door. “Stay calm, stay cool.” Juan’s arms relaxed in response and he shifted around, trying to find some kind of alternate use for the now-vestigial limbs.
Aaron Jensen stepped into view, descending the stairs visible through the doorway. The lad had hit his growth spurt a second time around, Arturo saw, since the master sergeant had been on his last tour. The mop of sandy hair stood five or so inches higher than Arturo remembered.
“What’s up?” Aaron said, leaning against the door frame.
Juan’s breathing accelerated. Arturo hoped it was only noticeable through the microphone. He thought Juan’s pulse might come be audible, though it could be his own thumping.
“I wanted to ask you something, um, about later,” Juan said.
“About later?” Aaron quirked an eyebrow.
“Yeah.” Juan fell silent for several agonizing seconds.
Arturo couldn’t stop himself from intervening. “The dance,” he muttered, and Juan flinched, his gaze returning to Aaron’s eyes.
“The dance!” Juan squeaked. Arturo winced.
“You mean homecoming,” Aaron said, more a statement than a question.
“Yes,” Juan said, his voice returning to normal. “What, uh, do you think about it?”
Arturo bit his lip. The mission was in jeopardy, its success or failure balanced on a knife’s edge. That knife could slice through the veil that stood between Juan and success, or turn on the boy and leave him hurting for having tried it.
“I mean, it’s cool, if you’re into that kind of thing,” Aaron said. He shrugged. “Why, are you going?”
“I want to,” Juan said. He nodded vigorously, the big baseball cap bobbing up and down and threatening, Arturo feared, to dislodge the transceiver. “I want to, but I don’t have anyone to, you know.” The phrase misfired and jammed in the boy’s vocal cords.
“You don’t have a date,” Aaron said, shifting his angle on the door frame. The other boy’s arms crossed over his abdomen. Arturo was no psychologist, but he’d been around every type of person in his career. Aaron was guarding himself, but against what, Arturo could only speculate.
“I don’t have a date,” Juan confirmed. Another gulping swallow. More silence. The cicadas keened their protest of the awkwardness, or reveled in it.
“So,” Aaron said. “You think you can’t go without a date?”
“No, that’s not it entirely,” Juan said. “I just thought it would be better, you know, with a date?”
Aaron nodded. “That’s what I’ve heard. I went to last year’s homecoming, since Rebecca invited me. It was fun, I guess, even if Rebecca didn’t actually hang out with me.”
“I’ll hang out with you,” Juan blurted. Arturo winced. It was an uncontrolled burst fire, without careful aim. “I mean, I want to hang out with you. I want to…”
Aaron waited, cocking his head to the side. The boy’s arms closed a little tighter around his waist.
“You’ve got this, son,” Arturo whispered. Juan’s head snapped erect, straining against the urge to look back at his father.
“I want to take you to Homecoming,” Juan said, a firm tone accompanying his quivering stance. “I want you to be my date.”
Another blanket of silence fell upon the pair, threatening to stifle the spark that Juan had lit. The nighttime insects did their best to fill the quiet space, not helping at all. Arturo watched the back of his son’s head, admiring how Juan seemed to keep a steady gaze upon the target.
Aaron finally broke the stare, looking to the side. Arturo’s stomach dropped an inch.
“I can’t,” Aaron said. His eyes flicked up to Juan’s and then away again.
Arturo’s shuddering breath matched Juan’s, though the father’s was less muted. He held his breath while covering the microphone for a moment, then inhaled. Aaron’s gaze shifted back to Juan and his face seemed to lighten.
“Um,” Juan said. The boy wasn’t look at the target anymore, he had diverted his eyes. The subtle shift in his stance indicated an imminent retreat.
“Stand your ground,” Arturo ordered. “Face to objective.”
Juan straightened, his shoulders settling as his stance widened. No retreat today, no matter the consequences. If he must face defeat, he would face it straight on.
“I can’t,” Aaron continued, “be seen with only you. You know how it is.”
Arturo didn’t know how it was, but he saw Juan nodding.
“I have to think about college,” Aaron said, “or at least that’s what my parents keep telling me.”
“College is important,” Juan agreed.
“Don’t interrupt him right now,” Arturo whispered.
“I have a real shot at student body president,” Aaron continued. “You know how much influence the PTA has in that kind of appointment?” Juan shrugged and nodded. “They wouldn’t be thrilled to see, you know, people like us together.”
Juan’s shoulders tightened, bracing for impact.
“Okay, I understand, that’s–”
“But, ” Aaron cut in. “But I do want to go with you. If we’re careful, if we balance time together against time socializing with others, then it can work. I think. I know it’s stupid and repressive and socially regressive or whatever so if you don’t want–”
“No, it’s fine!” Juan squeaked again. “I totally get it.”
Aaron’s face lightened and he smiled for the first time. “Once I’m in whatever office my parents want, I think it will be different. We’ll go to the next homecoming together, officially, if you want.”
Another silence fell, even the dogs and cicadas granting a reprieve.
“Objective complete,” Arturo murmured. “Time for extraction.”
“Sounds great, I’ll meet you here.” Juan stuck out his hand, his arm stiff.
Aaron took the hand and shook it, then stepped forward to close the distance between them. Arturo lowered the binoculars and muted his headset. This part of the mission was need-to-know, and for Juan’s sake, his dad didn’t need to know.
Several minutes later, the bush rustled. Juan plopped down beside Arturo, grinning from ear to ear. “Can you believe it, dad?”
“I can believe it, Juan,” Arturo said. “Mission success. I’m proud of you.”
Father and son extracted themselves from the roundabout and walked home together, Juan grinning and Arturo planning the homecoming mission.