by Jim Maher
This is Chapter One of my novel, Seamus & Tessa: The World is Just the Beginning.
|CHAPTER 1 – ROAD TRIP
Eight year old Tessa Benjamins squirmed around in her seat, anxious to know the answer to the timeless question hated by every parent in the world. Her strawberry blonde hair was being whipped across her face, thanks to the gaping window rushing hot air in from outside. Seamus, her twelve year old brother, was fast asleep in the seat beside her. His mouth hung open, and a little rope of slobber dangled from his lip. His mop of wavy brown hair flopped around, helpless to the wind’s power. She desperately longed to pinch him or tweak his nose, just to see what would happen. She was feeling nice, though, so decided to let him sleep.
The Benjamins family was crammed into their 1973 green Dodo, off once again to Grandma and Grandpa’s house. Rhonda Benjamins, Seamus and Tessa’s mother, was sleeping awkwardly in the passenger seat. Her head kept bouncing off the window, and her strawberry blonde hair, the same syrupy colour as her daughter’s, wisped around every which way. Ben Benjamins was driving the car, his long brown ponytail whipping around behind him as the stale wind assaulted the whole family.
Tessa looked at her father peering back at her in the rearview mirror. His warm brown eyes matched her own, which was a thing about her own eyes that Tessa loved.
“No, we’re not there yet, Tessa,” Ben replied for the ten millionth time. “Why don’t you try to get some sleep, like everyone else?”
“I’m not sleepy,” Tessa retorted, shortly before opening her mouth wide in a cavernous yawn. She gave her father a sheepish look and snuggled into her seat. Moments later, she was fast asleep.
Every year it was the same thing. Get out of school. Start swimming lessons. Finish swimming lessons. Hang around the house for a week. Pack the clothes. Leave for Grandma and Grandpa’s house. Always leave on the hottest day of the year so that the trip was as uncomfortable as possible. And never, ever get the air conditioning in the Dodo fixed, so the only air whisking around was the hot, stinky air from outside. It was always a fun trip, and the ratty old Dodo made it all the more fun in spite of its shortcomings. Nothing in the world was funnier than watching Rhonda stand guard on the side of the road while Ben cursed under the hood when the old beast decided it needed a break. Tessa and Seamus would press their faces up against the car window and watch with glee, wondering which new filthy word they would learn next as another rusty part came flying out from under the hood.
Rhonda suddenly snorted awake. She took a fuzzy look around and yawned deeply. She peeked into the back seat to make sure her two wee ones were still there, and seeing them both asleep made her sigh. She reached back and brushed a bit of Tessa’s wild hair out of the girl’s eyes, and turned back to face front.
“How long was I asleep?” she asked her husband.
“I don’t know…since the end of the driveway?” he joked, chuckling at his own one liner. This was a habit of Ben’s that was none too popular with anyone he had ever met. He was constantly playing with words and making horrible puns, and then laughing at them as though they were the very funniest things that had ever been uttered. Almost exclusively, they were not.
“How’s the Dodo doing?” Rhonda asked, peering over at the dash to check out some of the dials and gauges. They told her nothing, for they hadn’t worked properly since before Ben had purchased the car. “Has the blue smoke started to billow out yet?”
Ben shook his head. “Nope, still green. We’re safe for at least another hour.”
Rhonda leaned back in satisfaction. She looked out the window and watched the countryside roll by for a while. It was lovely, seeing the rich green fields being buffeted about by the wind; the occasional cow poking its head up to see if anything had changed since the last time it had bothered to stop eating. These were Rhonda’s stomping grounds. Living in the city was fine and dandy with the young ones bouncing about and involved in nearly every after school program available, but Rhonda was a born and bred country girl. She loved these trips, because she could leave all of the crunchiness of the city behind and go barefoot for two glorious weeks during the summer.
“We are going to have to stop for gas sooner than I’d like,” Ben announced, tearing Rhonda from her tranquility. Ben was the opposite side of the coin. He loved the tall buildings and the noise of the city. Every night, he had to open the window of the bedroom wide, just so he could hear the traffic. Rhonda would never understand how someone could be lulled to sleep by the sound of screeching tires, but Ben wouldn’t have it any other way. He appreciated the country, and admitted that it did have its merits. However, he had been born in a hospital two blocks away from his parents’ apartment. Seamus and Tessa had been born in the same hospital. The family still lived in that same apartment. Ben and change did not go hand in hand, but meeting his country girl wife had definitely relaxed Ben a good deal. He had never actually left the city until 12 years ago, when they went out to introduce the baby Seamus to Rhonda’s parents. It was now a tradition to go back for at least 2 weeks every summer.
“How far to the next gas station?” she asked, watching the road signs.
“I think I see one just up there,” he replied, pointing to a small gathering of buildings about a mile ahead. She nodded in agreement and relaxed back into her seat. The radio started playing her favourite song, ‘Country Girl, Get out of the City While You Still Can,” and she began to softly sing along.
“Oh country girl, you saucy minx…” Rhonda sang.
“Don’t you know the city stinks…” Ben chorused.
“Leave now before you cry…” Rhonda belted.
“And mama’ll make you a big fat pie!” they joined forces and sang the last line at the top of their lungs. Seamus awoke with a start. He hated loud noises, especially off-key and nasal loud noises.
“What’s wrong with you people?” Seamus whined, rubbing his eyes. “Have you never heard of common courtesy?”
“Sorry, Seamus,” Ben apologized. “We were just getting a little carried away. Your mom and this country music…”
“You were singing too!” Rhonda bellowed. She shot Ben a reproachful look, mostly for Seamus’s benefit.
“Hey, Seamus,” Ben said. “Can we make it up to you? What do you say to an ice cream at this gas station up ahead?”
“An interesting proposal,” Seamus replied. “What kind?”
“Whatever kind you want,” Rhonda said, turning around to face her son. “I know you’re partial to Peaches & Gravy…”
Tessa’s eyes flashed open at the mere mention of Peaches & Gravy. If there was one thing in this world that these kids loved, it was Peaches & Gravy ice cream. Seamus and Tessa would often leave horrible welts on each other’s hands beating one another with their spoons as they scraped the bottom of the carton, desperate for that last hint of Peaches & Gravy. They single-handedly kept the company that made Peaches & Gravy ice cream in business by buying 2 litres of the awful stuff every week. It was a hideous brownish pink, and they actually threw in fake peach fuzz to give it that ‘authentic old-time peach’ feel as it oozed down the throat. It made Ben gag, and Rhonda got an itchy, bumpy rash any time she had to scoop the filthy muck out for her kids. Seamus and Tessa loved it with all their hearts, and became very excited whenever their parents let slip that there might be some nearby.
Ben pulled off to the right as they reached ‘Big Phil’s Fill-Up!’ Tessa rolled down her window to take a closer look at Big Phil’s. The land was flat in every direction, and Tessa felt that if she stared long enough and hard enough, she would be able to see all the way to her own front door. The huge painted piece of wood that was Big Phil’s sign clung for dear life to a telephone pole, and came dangerously close to flying off with each gust of wind. The letters on the sign were crudely scrawled with black paint, and what appeared to be a self portrait of Big Phil himself smiled down at them with balloonish cartoon eyes. Phil’s was a very simple, dusty little pit stop, and was home to only two faded blue gas pumps. One pump had a sign hanging off of it that said “OUT OF ORDER”, and looked as though it hadn’t been used in years. A tiny spider was actually dangling from its web on the end of the nozzle. Tessa giggled and pointed out the window at the spider, and Seamus turned to look at it.
“Don’t point at it, Tessa!” Seamus ordered. “You don’t want to make it mad!”
“I’m not making it mad!” she replied. “I’m just looking at it!”
“Yeah, well, don’t look at it! They get mad when you look at them!”
“Don’t look at it!” Seamus barked, giving her a look to indicate the discussion was over. He was always ordering her around, and gave off an air that he always knew best. When he played with his school friends, they always got to do what they wanted. He never tried to boss them, and he never sulked if he didn’t get his way. She, on the other hand, couldn’t look in the wrong direction without him taking notice and ordering her to do otherwise. Getting her own way was an event that only ever happened on special occasions like her birthday. More often than not Tessa was forced to do what everyone else wanted to do.
Seamus had changed ever since he had changed schools. His new school was full of tougher, older kids, so he had changed his behaviour to fit in. Tessa longed for the days when the two of them would make up superhero names for each other and fight crime in their underpants, but that was far too beneath Seamus for him to even consider these days. He was still her hero, but every time he said something mean and hurtful, or treated her worse than his friends, she felt it a little less. She threw a pained look his way, but he had already decided to ignore her once again, so her look hit the back of his head.
A scraping noise to her right brought her attention back to Big Phil’s gas station, and she looked out the window to search for the sound. All she could see was a little ice bin, or what might have at one point been an ice bin. The lid of the bin creaked open, and a baby skunk poked its squirty little head out to see what was going on. He was a teeny ball of black and white fuzz, and his beady eyes darted back and forth, taking in everything. His squirmy wet nose flexed and sniffed, trying to get a handle on all of these new smells. An angry squawk from the bowels of the bin made the baby jump, and he ducked his head back inside. Apparently momma skunk didn’t want the babies going outside just yet.
“I wonder if this place is full service,” Rhonda said, looking at the ramshackle building that was more tool shed than convenience store. There was no sign of movement from inside.
“Doesn’t look like it,” Ben said, undoing his seat belt and opening his door. “Looks like Big Phil is really a Big Nil!”
He swung his door shut and laughed uproariously at his joke. Tessa giggled at her dad, more at his silliness than the joke. She loved how he could find the fun in everything.
“Kids, stay in the car and I’ll go get the Peaches & Gravy,” Rhonda said, grabbing her purse and undoing her seatbelt. “Be nice to each other.”
She gave Seamus a meaningful look as she left the car. She trudged towards the little shack without a glance back.
“Yeah, Seamus, be nice,” Tessa warned, edging away from Seamus. “For once.”
Seamus ignored her, and instead focussed on Ben pumping the gas. Ben liked to stop pumping gas bang on a certain amount. Today his goal was forty dollars, zero cents. The problem with reaching that goal was Ben’s painfully slow reflexes. By the time he stopped the pump, it had sailed past forty-seven dollars and seventy-six cents.
“Closer than last time!” he quipped. “One day I’ll nail that sucker!”
He hung the nozzle back on the pump and followed his wife into the shack. He gave the kids a quick wink and a gun, and went inside.
“I hate it when he does the gun,” Seamus complained. “We aren’t cowboys.”
“I like it,” Tessa disagreed. “It’s his special thing.”
“You’re a special thing,” Seamus retorted. He had recently developed a rather unfortunate habit of thinking himself cuttingly clever by replying with ‘You’re a ____!’ to any statement. If Rhonda said that she liked marmalade, it was a sure bet that five seconds later she would be accused of actually being marmalade herself. It destroyed conversations and made Seamus look silly.
“Good one,” Tessa whispered to herself sarcastically.
“What?” Seamus demanded. “What did you just say?”
“I said, boy, I hope they get a huge bucket of Peaches & Gravy,” Tessa lied. “Because I love it so much.”
“You said all that?”
Seamus stewed on this for a moment or two. Tessa looked determinedly the other way, smirking to herself. Older brothers could really be so dumb sometimes. She heard the skunk family chittering away. She quietly watched the bin for a few minutes, hoping to catch just one more glimpse of the baby skunk. Something far, far away on the horizon caught her eye. It was tiny and black, and moving very quickly. She blinked, and it had disappeared behind a cloud. She decided that it hadn’t been there, and turned her attention back to skunk watching.