Friday, March 18, 2011

Emperor Dad (Part 4 of 47)

© 2003 by Henry Melton

The house looked deserted when James came home a few days later.  Dad spent most of his time out in his office.  Some of the days, he drove Mom to work, so that he could have the car, but whatever he was doing on the computers seemed to be taking up all of his time.  
After rummaging through the pantry and coming up with a bag of microwave popcorn, he prepared for a snack.  Right before he pressed the start button, the phone rang.
“Hello?” “Hello?”  Dad on his extension had answered at the same time.
“Hey, Jimbo!”  It was Drake.
“I’ve got it Dad.”  There was a click.
“What’s up?” he asked.
“I left my Government notebook in your pickup.  I need it.”
James felt a twist in the pit of his stomach.  How could he get it to Drake’s house?  He certainly couldn’t come over here to get it.  But Dad was home.
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah.  I forgot it.  So sue me.  Can you bring it over?”
“Um.  Let me go hunt for it.  I’ll call you back.”
James went out the front door and around to the driveway.  He was head down, digging under the seat when he heard the garage door opening up.
He looked up, the worn and dog-eared spiral notebook in his grasp.  Dad was standing beside the pickup, garage door opener in one hand, and a tool kit in the other.  The movement caught his father’s attention.
“James!  I didn’t see you there.”  He set the tools on a shelf and pressed the opener again.  As the door rumbled he looked at the notebook.
“What have you got there?”
James was tongue-tied for two heartbeats—not a long time at the rate his heart was pounding.
“Uh.”  He had to say something.  “It’s Drake’s notebook.  I need to get it over to him.”
His father said nothing for an age.  The garage door closed, finally, and he put the opener in his pocket.  He glanced at his watch.
“Okay.  We promised your mother that you would stay out of evening rush-hour traffic.  I’ll ride along.”  And before James could react, he opened the passenger side door and strapped himself in.
There was no choice.  James started the engine.  His heartbeat sounded louder.  Did Dad know he had been driving Drake home?  No side-trips.  Mom said that.  Dad had agreed.  
Keeping his eyes on the road, but trying to sneak looks at his father’s face as they drove over to Drake’s place, James worried about what he was thinking.
When he pulled into Drake’s driveway, he killed the engine and reached for the notebook, but his friend was too quick for him.  He ran up to the window.
“Hi, Mr. Hill.”  He grabbed the notebook.  “Thanks Jimbo.  Sorry for the extra trip.  Slick had talked my ear off and I was too anxious to get out of range.  Remind me next time, won’t you.”
James just nodded.  His father smiled and returned the goodbye.
When they were halfway home, he couldn’t take it any more.
“Yes, James?”
“I’ve been taking the guys home after school.  I know Mom had said no side trips, but it was just impossible to say no.”
There was no reply for a quarter mile, but as they approached home, he said, “James, I don’t believe it’s ever impossible to say no.  But I do understand.
“I’m disappointed.  I’ve always wanted you to be responsible.  We gave you our trust, and it hurts to find out that you have betrayed it.”
James felt his insides twist up.  For as long as he could remember, nothing hurt worse than his father’s calm disappointment.  He pulled into the driveway and turned off the engine.
Dad put his hand on his shoulder.  “Honesty is important too.  I’m glad you told me.  I’ll talk to your mother.  She’s getting used to the idea that you are driving.  Perhaps it makes sense for you to help out your friends.”
Back in his office, the shed’s window open to let in a little breeze, Bob Hill sat down at his desk and stared at the stack of bills.
I’m the biggest fraud.  How could he come down on his son for hiding a minor infraction from him when he was hiding so much more from Diana?
He hadn’t been paying any attention to his family, had he?  If James hadn’t confessed, he would have been oblivious to it all.  With Drake’s notebook right there and the boy blurting out what had happened, he’d been lost in his own problems, thinking about the Bellerman equations.
He looked at the bills.  Their household debt was climbing, and that didn’t even count the three new computers he’d purchased to add computing horsepower to his little network.
And hidden somewhere in the stack of papers was the little check he’d received from his last job.  It would hardly cover his expenses.  As a businessman, he was a failure.  He should confess it all to Diana, and spend his time and energy hunting for a real job.
But the Bellerman space—it was such an intriguing concept.  He reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a sketch.  The crude diagram for an initiator was the key.  If he could just build it!
Drake tapped him on the shoulder.  “Hey, any second thoughts about the movie?”  He set his lunch tray down beside his.
James shook his head.  “Sorry.  But it’s all your fault for forgetting your notebook.  Just be happy I’ve got permission to drop you off after school.  Otherwise you’d be back in Frank’s car.”
Drake nodded across the room to where Suzie was eating with her friends.  “I’d bet you’d take her to the movies.”
James concentrated on his pizza slice.  “Um.”  It wasn’t a topic he cared to discuss.
Bob hesitated over the letter he’d pulled from the mailbox.
It’s ridiculous to turn down a job offer.  His work for Terrain Resources must have made a better impression than he’d thought.  Now they wanted a bid for another project.  He returned to the shed.
The web browser showed a line of thunderstorms approaching.  He let the letter drop to his desk.
I can’t think about that now.
An old beat-up folding table in his work shed held two gadgets he intended to connect today.
Unpainted, and missing the fancy decals, was the most powerful model rocket he could find in the local hobby stores.  At its base was a trio of H-class engines, much more powerful than the D’s he used years ago when he built hobby rockets for fun.
The other gadget was copper tubing in a wooden frame to channel the lightning strike, pinching it into an intense magnetic field.  The electronics box was enclosed in a soldered copper shell.
It’s the best I can do on my budget.  It had taken close to two thousand dollars, and he had no idea what he would tell Diana if she ever found out.
There was a brief rattle of hail on the metal roof of the work shed.  It’s coming.
He pulled on a green poncho and carefully loaded the gear into a wheelbarrow.
As he headed out into the pelting rain, he thought, I feel like Ben Franklin.
The rain felt good on his head.  James grabbed for a water bottle with the rest of the defensive team and labored to catch his breath.  Slick was out on the field, trying to crack the Bulldog’s defense.
He wished him luck.  A dozen times already, the announcer had said, “Play stopped by 53, James Hill”.  He was doing well, and his teammates had slugged him plenty to show their appreciation.
The crowd came into focus.  Normally he tuned them out, concentrating on the game, but today he scanned the crowd.
With his mother at work most nights, he missed her clear voice shouting “Go James!”  And his father was out of town a lot doing his consulting thing.  He should be here tonight, but he was rarely in the stands.  The men of his town tended to walk the fence line, keeping close to the action, shouting encouragement and advice to the players.
Suzie, flushed and waving her pom-poms, blew him a kiss.  
The whistle blew, and his focus snapped back to the field.
Everything was football from then on.  It was a tough game, but at the end, 21-20 was a win no less.  He looked around for his father after the team circled for the coach’s last words and the crowd started drifting out onto the field, but with no luck.  Then the team went to their bus, the band went to theirs, and the cheerleaders went to their minivan.  The drive back to the school was a pleasant celebration, but they were all tired.
After the showers and the congratulations, he went outside.  The rain was letting up and many people were standing outside anyway, talking about the game.
Suzie dashed out of a doorway and hopped into the pickup beside him.
“Change of plans,” she said hurriedly.  “Cheerleaders are having a late meeting, and I’ve got to stay.”
“I’ll wait.”
“No need.  We’re going to Julie’s house after.”
And before he could complain, she leaned into a kiss.  His arm went around her and he could have stayed that way forever, feeling the heat between them.
She broke the kiss and left.  “Gotta go!”
This is nuts.  He sat still for a moment, tasting her makeup and letting his heartbeat settle.
I should ask her out—a regular date.  This hit and run stuff is going nowhere.

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