This story first appeared in The Bookends Review on December 16, 2016.
Even the cats were skittish. They normally couldn’t be bothered with whatever was going on in the house, where they looked down upon their owners, or so it seemed to Claire. Now they watched Claire and her mother more carefully and started at the slightest noise.
Claire sensed that there was something amiss. She was only twelve, and sometimes didn’t think she knew enough to trust her suspicions.
Tick, she thought. A mark in the notebook in her head.
Her mother was more high-strung than usual, ready to pounce on her daughter for the slightest infraction. Claire was not looking forward to asking her mother for permission to go on the school camping trip. It was optional for seventh graders, but she had overheard a group of eighth grade girls talking about how much fun it had been last year. She was determined to go.
Claire decided it was best to just get it over with quickly this morning.
“Mom, there’s a school camping trip I need you to sign this permission slip for. It’s at the end of year and I’d really like to go,” she said, peering up at her mother, who’s head was in the fridge, looking for the cream.
“Oh. Hmm. Well, I don’t know Claire. When does the permission slip need to be signed?” She asked, bothered, Claire knew, at having to make a decision. Her mother fretted over making decisions.
“Um, well today, today or tomorrow I think,” Claire said.
“Nothing like waiting till the last minute,” her mother huffed, scolding. But then she stopped, paused, enjoying the thought of what she was about to say.
“Why don’t you call your father, Claire. Call and ask him.”
Surely her mother was confused. Here it was only seven in the morning in Virgina. Her father was in California on business, where he’d been during weekdays for the past months. Could her mother possibly intend for her to wake up her Dad at four a.m.?
But then she was handing Claire the phone. Her mother’s expression was not quite discernible. She looked at once angry and slightly pleased at what was unfolding.
Her father sounded only surprised to be woken up, not angry at her for calling so early.
“Mom said I should call you,” Claire explained hesitantly, “because my permission slip is due today, for our end-of-year camping trip.”
Her father had told her that she could go, of course. He asked her, in a rush, how she was doing, how her school week was going, and told her that he looked forward to seeing her at the end of the week. He sounded distant and not like her Dad.
Her parents had been different since her brother had left for college this fall. It was strange being alone with them in the house; she missed her brother, Scott, painfully. Then, with her father gone in California so much, it was just Claire and her mother at home, and that was even worse. She could barely remember what it was like - the four of them together in the house, even though Claire knew this was ridiculous. Only last year, it had always been the four of them. Then it was over so fast.
On the bus to school, Claire thought back on an awkward conversation from last summer. Her parents were sitting on the wicker couch on the porch. Scott was in the hammock and she was sitting on the floor, arranging her beading supplies.
“We wanted to tell you guys,” her father had said, uncharacteristically grave, and clearing his throat for emphasis. “Unfortunately, that Uncle Tad and Aunt Margie are separating. They’re getting a divorce. We just want you guys to know that your mother and I will never get a divorce. We want you to know that.”
She remembered how her father’s words had come out sounding so odd, as if she or Scott had asked if their parents were getting divorced, which they had not.
Claire decided to call Scott’s dorm room that evening, after school. Normally, Scott treated her seriously and with the devoted care of an older brother. Perhaps she might voice her concern that their parents’ relationship had been upset — the four a.m phone call suggestion, her father’s distance. Scott was disappointingly dismissive on the phone, and evaded answering her questions. It was possible, Claire thought, that Scott knew something about her parents that he wasn’t telling her.
Tick, Tick, Tick.
She plodded through the rest of the week. On Saturday morning, Claire found her father at the breakfast table reading the newspaper, home from California and freshly showered. He asked if she wanted to catch a movie with him that evening, and have dinner out, since her mother had plans with her book club. Claire was thrilled; she relished time alone with her Dad. They decided on a romantic comedy, the most promising-looking choice of what was playing that evening. During the movie, Claire could not help but see her father looking up at the screen with a pained expression on his face. It was an obvious storyline, parents fighting and making up, teenage kids experimenting and coming into their own. A family camping trip scare bringing them all together. Yet her father’s eyes, Claire saw, were possibly tearing.
The ticks were adding up and she was no longer so proud of herself for finding them.