The Road Less Traveled – Chapter 2

If anything, Bakersfield was even more rundown than when I was there for Mom’s funeral. Abby’s little row-house was landscaped as well as one could expect on a teacher’s aide’s salary. But it beat the hell out of the overgrown yard next to hers, with plastic pink flamingos scattered about the lawn.

When I drew alongside the curb, I wondered how safe my motorhome would be. Even with skyrocketing property values hereabouts, my RV was easily worth twice the most expensive house in the neighborhood. I put the vehicle in park and set the emergency brake. For the first time since buying the luxury RV, I wished I’d splurged on an alarm. When you’re writing a bodice ripper in Mt. Rainier National Park, you don’t worry about someone stealing the hubcaps off your $800,000 motorhome. I pressed the fob on the key chain and locked the door opposite the driver’s chair and walked up the broken sidewalk toward my sister’s house.

The door opened before I was halfway toward the house and my sister threw herself down the rickety stairs. A half-dozen steps and she nearly bowled me over, “You’re a sight for sore eyes, Sis. You got here faster than I expected. You were in Washington yesterday.”

I threw my arms around Abby, “Wild horses couldn’t keep me away, Abby.”

When she let go of my neck, the dark circles under Abby’s eyes stood in stark contrast to my memories. She had always been vivacious and lively. Now she looked visibly sick. “I’m glad you came when you did. The specialist overseeing my care called last night, and she wants me to come on into the hospital tonight to start the treatment.”

Until I laid eyes on Abby, I wouldn’t have believed it. I had missed Mom’s long decline last year. Was this how it had started for her? Her words were like a sledge hammer to my heart, “So soon. God, I thought we’d have a couple of days.”

Abby’s laughter was brittle, “Your wheels would walk off in this neighborhood if you left that here overnight, Sis.”

She paused and looked at the motorcoach that took up the entire front of the postage stamp lot on which her modest home sat. “I knew you’d done well with your writing, Sydney, but damn, girl, you’ve done better than I thought.”

I forced a grin, “Over a million copies sold over the past five years. Can’t make me put down roots, but I like my comforts too.”

Abby flashed a tired grin, “Gabe’s gonna like his Aunt Sydney’s digs.”

“How is he?”

She turned away from the RV, hooked my arm and led me toward her home, “I told him last night. Kinda what you’d expect. Denial at first. Fear. Now he’s angry that I’m going into the hospital. He feels like I’m abandoning him. It’s just after what I went through with Mom last year, I’ll be damned if I’m going to ask the same thing of my kid. Gabe deserves a real summer, not sitting in an uncomfortable chair in a dimly lit hospital room.”

I was at the crossroads of my own career. For the first time since I told Abby I’d take Gabe for the summer, I decided the two of us getting away, clearing our heads really was the right thing to do. “I’m looking forward to finally getting to spend some time with my nephew.”

Abby rested her hand on my arm, “You’re a bit of a hero to him, Syd. He’s been writing stories for the past year. Even won a creative writing contest at school this spring. Don’t be surprised if he badgers you with a billion questions about writing. He wants to become a professional writer like you.”

Even though it was the end of May, the weather was mild. Yet the heat on my face had nothing to do with the weather. My voice cracked, “Like me? Does he know the kind of stories I write?”

She chuckled, “I don’t think so. I’m super proud of you, Sis, but I don’t leave your books lying around the house.”

I had images flashing through my mind of my nephew staring, mouth agape, at one of my racier novels. Since college, I’ve always lived alone. My books were part of my life. I had copies of all fifty-five in the RV. I was rethinking my offer to watch Gabe right then. “You know, I’ve got deadlines and a couple of books to finish this summer, manuscripts around the RV that I’m editing, and my personal library. I’m not sure how to keep Gabe away from my stories.”

Abby shrugged, looking tired. “He’s almost twelve. He’s read most of the books in the school library. I was reading some pretty steamy books when I wasn’t much older than him. I remember some of that smut you were reading at twelve, so if your bodice rippers are the worst he reads this summer, I’d call that a win-win for all of us.”

I wasn’t sure I was ready to see my nephew reading my soft-core porn for middle-aged white women. I couldn’t figure out how to say that, so I pulled the front door open wider, “Come on, Abby. Let’s go enjoy some air conditioning.”

Abby’s house was small. Most of the houses in the neighborhood weren’t much bigger. But the living room was clean and well-lit. Light spilled in through the windows on the front of the house, giving it an airy ambiance. The furniture was well used, but clean. The only hint that a preteen lived in the house was a pair of sneakers and a spiral notebook with childish doodles on the cardboard backing.

From a hallway that led toward their bedrooms came a familiar voice, “Mom, I can’t find my shoes. Where’d you put them?”

Abby rolled her eyes, “It’s not where did I forget them, it’s where did you put them. In some ways, he’s still my little boy. In other ways, it’s like having a teenager in the house again.” She gave me a pointed look.

I knew the dig was directed at me. She had been 18 when I turned 13. She had just given birth the previous summer, and I had been less that magnanimous about sharing a house with a squalling baby. I didn’t take the bait. I just gave her a big grin, “Karma?”

She snorted, “Maybe. God knows I gave Mom plenty of crap when I was a kid. And I was the only daughter to get pregnant in high school.”

“After that, the bar was pretty low for me.”

A moment later, a boy I hardly recognized came from the hallway. Gabriel was shirtless, wearing just a pair of denim shorts, when he stumbled to a stop as his eyes fell on me. Then he shrieked, “Aunt Sydney! You’re here!”

Unworried about being half dressed, the boy raced across the room. For the second time that day, I was nearly bowled over. When he threw his arms around my shoulders, I was stunned to find he was every inch as tall as me. I couldn’t believe it. Even though Mom’s funeral was eighteen months before, Gabriel had been a typical ten-year-old. Maybe a few inches over four feet.

Abby came to my rescue, “Your shoes are on the floor. Where you left them. Now, quit trying to squeeze your aunt and go put on a shirt.”

Gabe blushed. I wasn’t sure if his realization came from leaving his shoes scattered about or from clinging half-naked on me.

When the boy retreated, with sneakers in hand, Abby and I collapsed on the couch. “You weren’t kidding, sis. He’s as tall as me. When did that happen?”

Abby shrugged, “Who knows? One minute he was my little darling child. He’s still my darling child, but he’s grown a foot in the last year. He’s taller than me.”

I put my feet on top of the scuffed top of a coffee table, “He’s taller than some teenagers. Maybe I need to give him lots of privacy. I know what I was like as a teen.”

Despite the circles under Abby’s eyes, her cheeks held a hint of scarlet, “I don’t think you have to worry about that. There are no playboys under his bed, no pile of tissues in his trashcan, no strange stains in his underwear.”

My sister wasn’t the only woman in the room whose cheeks were hot. When I had volunteered to keep Gabe, I hadn’t considered how awkward those tween years could be. Even at twenty-four, I’d done a good job of forgetting about them.

Gabe chose that moment to reenter the living room, “What’s that about underwear? I remembered to pack them.” He turned his attention to me, “Mom said your RV has a washing machine and dryer in it. Is that true?”

Abby traded a knowing glance with me, but I was glad Gabe hadn’t heard all of our conversation. That would have been terribly awkward. Then I wondered, had Abby given her son the talk? That was definitely not on my list of things to discuss with my nephew. I nodded, “Yep. It’s a self-contained house on wheels. Every creature comfort and then some.”

The boy’s eyes lit up, “Cool. I’m packed, can I go on and take my stuff and load it?”

I glanced over at Abby. As much as I wanted to spend the whole of the day with her, I could see our brief visit had already sapped her vitality. She offered me an apologetic smile, “Go on, show him the RV, get his stuff stored. I’m going to rest until you’re ready to head out.”

Gabe’s eyes cut between me and his mom. There was pain behind his golden-brown eyes that wasn’t there a moment before. What little I recalled of my nephew was that he was a smart kid, given more to reading than playing outside. I got a vibe he understood more than he was letting on.

I dipped my head to Gabe, “Sure thing. Go grab your first bag and I’ll give you the grand tour.”

By the time I climbed from the couch, Gabe was back with a duffle bag. It pulled on his right shoulder. How much of his wardrobe was he lugging in that bag? “Come on, let’s get your stuff stowed away.”

As I reached for the fob, Gabe gave an appreciative whistle, “Dang, Aunt Sydney, your ride is sweet.”

I gave him a knowing smile, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” And with that, I unlocked and opened the door. The steps were tiled in subtle shades of brown.

When he joined me at the top of the stairs, I pressed the fob and the door hissed shut. “Automatic. How sweet is that?”

The sadness in Gabe’s eyes was replaced with excitement and buoyant curiosity. “Dude, the driver’s seat looks like something out of Star Trek.”

I gave him a playful jab to his shoulder, “Dude? Really. Come on, there’s more to see.”

I pressed a button along the huge dashboard, bathing the whole coach in soft ambient lighting. I ignored the passenger seat behind the stairs and pointed behind it to a table and booth with leather bench-seats big enough for two people at the table. When I needed to write and the weather outside proved uncooperative, I had sat at that table for countless hours, crafting dozens of stories over the past year. “I’ve done lots of writing here. But I imagine we can eat plenty of meals here.”

I pointed to the other side of the motorcoach. Behind the captain’s chair was a full-length sofa. At the far end of the sofa, we could pull it into an “L” shape when the slide-outs were open. “I’ve fallen asleep on the couch more than a few times. But it also folds out into a bed. Either way, I hope it’s comfortable enough for you.”

Gabe set the heavy duffle on the sofa and then plopped down now next to it, testing it out, “I’ve fallen asleep on the couch, in the living room. This is loads more comfortable than that.”

I moved along the narrow path between the two retracted slide-outs. Beyond the sofa and dining table was a kitchen, with the sink, countertop, and stove on one side and a big, residential style fridge on the other. “Here’s the kitchen. I guess I should learn to cook better, although I’m a bit addicted to Subway sandwiches.”

Gabe ran his hands over the smooth composite countertop, “Sweet, it’s almost as big as our kitchen.”

A pang shot through my chest at those words. Pregnant at sixteen, a mom at seventeen, Abby never really got out of the working-class neighborhood in which our mom had raised us, on the edge of poverty. I had fled as soon as I self-published my first successful book, while attending the local community college, and until now, hadn’t looked back.

I couldn’t deal with those thoughts, and pushed them aside, and moved past the slide-outs. I opened the door to the toilet, “Here’s the half-bath.”

I closed the door and turned to the other side of the coach and opened a cabinet. Racks of electronic devices were arrayed before us. “Here’s the audio-video setup for the RV. The DirecTV box is here as well as a stereo system. You know, I’ve had this RV for almost a year and I think I only got the satellite working once. Maybe you can figure it out for me.”

Gabe leaned forward, his chin touching the top of my shoulder, as he peered into the storage closet’s shadows, “Cool. Mom said I had to ask you if it’s okay for me to bring my laptop.”

He stood straight as though wanting my approval, adding, “Mom tell you I want to become a writer?” His voice faltered, and the soft overhead lights showed the crimson on his smooth cheeks as he finished, “Like you.”

It was my turn to feel flushed. I was pretty sure the last thing Abby wanted was for Gabe to write soft core porn for women. The earnest look in my nephew’s eyes took me back to when I was around his age and discovered how easy words came to me. “We’ll see. What’s your favorite types of stories?”

Gabe scrunched his eyebrows in thought, “I liked the Narnia books, like, forever. I just finished Tolkien’s The Hobbit. I guess mostly fantasy.”

Somewhere inside me, I breathed a sigh of relief. Fantasy didn’t stoke my engines, but I knew enough about the genre. I figured I could give him some pointers.

With the engine cut off, the coach was growing warm. The walkway in between the half-bath and electrical equipment was narrow and Gabe was so close to me I could see beads of sweat pearling above his upper lip. I could see what Abby meant about his development. Some boys have a sheen of peach fuzz over their upper lips; a hint of puberty on the way or already arrived. But Gabe’s face was baby-smooth. Even his vellus hairs were so fine as to blend against his smooth skin. Aware I was staring, I said, “Alright, come on. Just a bit more to go.”

What had sold me on this particular luxury coach were the last two rooms. The bedroom held a king-sized bed on one slide-out and a huge flat-screen TV on the other. There were spacious mini-closets on either side of the TV. With the slide-outs retracted, there was no room to walk. I knelt on the edge of the bed and opened the nearest closet. I had a couple of shirts on hangers, which I pulled out and threw on the bed, “You can use this for clothes you need to hang up. There are some drawers down below that you can use for anything else.”

Gabe eyed the bed and then the closet next to the TV. The scarlet in his cheeks nearly reached his ears, “But this is your bedroom, Aunt Sydney.”

Clearly embarrassed at the thought of being in a place so intimate, Gabe reminded me of the little boy I still remembered. I shrugged and crawled across the bed toward the back of the coach, “So? This is an RV, not a house. There’s no place to store your clothes up front. Also,” I stood and walked over to the second reason I bought this model, “You’ll have to go through the bedroom to get to the shower and second bathroom.”

The bathroom was easily the largest I saw when I had been shopping for an RV. On the other side of the doorway was a second enclosed toilet. Just beyond the toilet, on the passenger side of the RV was a large, marble-tiled shower. A couple of feet wide and four feet deep, it was one of my guilty pleasures. The tankless water heater, fueled by propane, barely kept up with my long, luxurious showers.

Gabe opened the glass door and poked his head inside, “This thing is freaking huge.”

I smirked at my nephew, knowing how Abby complained about getting him to take a bath. “You know, my standards of hygiene are pretty high, kiddo. Once a week baths aren’t gonna cut it when you’re traveling with your Aunt Sydney.”

I’m not sure how it managed, but his blush spread to his neck as he mumbled, “I’m not that bad anymore.”

I patted him on the back, “Good.” Then I turned to the other side of the bathroom where we faced highly polished wood panel doors. “Then that means you won’t mind doing your own laundry either.”

I opened the rear-most door, revealing a washing machine stacked on top of a dryer. When I told him earlier it had all the comforts of home, I hadn’t been lying.

The with the slide-outs retracted, the parts of the RV with the most room were the cockpit at the front and the bathroom at the rear. I was able to pirouette around, throwing my hands wide, “What do you think?”

The boy grinned, “It’s really nice, Aunt Sydney. All of this from writing books?”

After spinning around, I was none too steady on my feet. I reached out and grabbed his shoulder to keep from falling, “I guess those ballet lessons were a waste of money. Yeah, Gabe. I got lucky with my first book, and things have gone well since then.”

I collapsed on the bed to let my head stopped spinning. Once things stopped spinning, I looked up at my nephew. He had put his hands in his pockets and looked around the back half of the RV. “You okay, champ?”

His lips tried to curl into a smile, but the ends quivered until he sat next to me, “I’m scared. I know Mom is really sick, even though she’s trying to hide it. She wouldn’t be going into the hospital if it wasn’t serious.”

He bit his lower lip as his chin trembled. In that moment, even though he was about the same size as me, he was still that little boy I knew before I found success. I reached around and pulled him into a half-hug, “I know, Gabe. I’m worried too. But I love your mom and you and if what she needs right now is time to fight this illness, then that’s exactly what we’re going to give her–Space to fight it on her terms.”

A tear spilled down his cheek, “What if…”

He choked back a sob. He couldn’t finish the words. I squeezed his shoulders tight, “Let’s not go there. We’re going to do what she asks, and she’s going to fight this and get better.”

The look he gave me was enough for me to know he didn’t believe it. But I couldn’t think about losing Abby. She had to pull through. With no more comfort to give, I climbed across the bed and said, “Let’s go check on your mom and get the rest of your stuff.”

We found Abby resting on the couch. She was streaming some Clapton through the TV when we came in. Her eyes fluttered upon, resting on Gabe, “Did you get the grand tour?”

The boy came over and sat on the edge of the couch, “Yeah. It’s really sick, Mom.”

I shook my head; kids and their slang. Gabe rested a hand on Abby’s shoulder, “You okay, Mom? Get you anything?”

Abby forced a smile onto her features. Her eyes winced at the effort, “Never better, sweetie. Why don’t you get the rest of your stuff loaded up? A van from the hospital is supposed to pick me up by four.”

Reflexively, I looked at my watch. Only thirty minutes. While Gabe hurried back to his room, I took his place next to my sister, “Are you sure you don’t want us to stay here. We could come visit you.”

Abby’s hand shot out and gripped my wrist. “No. I had to watch our mom waste away. And hated every minute of it. I don’t want Gabe or you to have to go through that. And when I’m better, and they’re ready to send me home, I’ll let you guys know and you guys can come and pamper me then.”

The words were chipper, but her eyes told a different tale. Now that I could see Abby in the flesh, I knew the cancer was farther along than she had admitted. I wanted to be upset with her, but I couldn’t find the anger; only the sadness. I went along with the lie, “I can hardly wait. After chemo is over, you and I, we’ll go find you a beautiful wig. How does that sound?”

She smiled, and for a flash, the brightness of her smile lit her eyes. “That sounds like a wonderful plan.” The spark fled, replaced by the pain and anguish. She glanced toward the hallway, where we could hear Gabe raising a ruckus in his room. In a voice so quiet, I had to strain to hear her, Abby said, “You guys will be back within a couple of months, and we’ll look back on this and laugh. But,” she sighed, her shoulders slumped, “if things don’t go so well, you’re the only family Gabe has. He’s all you’d have.”

A moment later, Gabe returned. He had a suitcase in each hand. “This is everything.”

I rose and saw both suitcases bulged. He had to have sat on them to get them closed. “What all are you taking? Is that the kitchen sink in one of them?”

A ghost of a smile crossed his lips, “No. Just more clothes, some books, my collection of stories, and my laptop.”

Abby rose, albeit much slower than I, “Did you check with your aunt about bringing a laptop? Maybe she doesn’t want you hunched over trying to outdo that story from school.”

Gabe shot me a pleading glance. I bobbed my head, “No problem, Abby. I told him I’d give him some pointers on writing.”

She gave me a sly grin, “Oh, heaven help me. The last thing I need is Gabe submitting a bodice ripper for his seventh-grade creative writing class.”

While the boy gave his mom a confused look, I tried my best to look innocent as I drawled in a faux Southern accent, “Why, I declare, I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about.”

Gabe shook his head, “Women are weird.” He hefted the suitcases, adding, “These are getting heavy. Where can I put them, Aunt Sydney?”

I dropped the Hollywoodish Southern accent, “We’ve got lots of storage under the RV. We’ll get them stored there for now.”

As Gabe headed out the front door, Abby rested her hand on my arm, “Just a sec, sis.”

She leaned over and pulled an envelope from under the cushions and gave it to me, “There’s some legal stuff, like power of attorney for Gabe in there, just in case you have to take him to the doctor. His birth certificate and CHIP card, too.”

I slid the envelope into the back pocket of my jeans as Abby leaned in to hug me, “Thanks for keeping Gabe while I deal with this, sis. You’re the best.”

I returned the hug, “I’d do anything for you. I’m sorry to have been MIA for so long. It was selfish of me.”

She let go my neck, “You always come through in the end, Syd. Let’s go outside. I bet there’s an eleven-year-old trying to picklock your storage bins.”

It was close. Gabe went from the first storage bin, trying the handle, then going from one to the next. There were five bins below the RV and even though I had plenty of stuff stored under there, two more suitcases wouldn’t be noticed.

I opened the middle bin and revealed an electric sliding cargo tray. The cargo tray rolled toward us. There were a few boxes already on the tray, but plenty of room for Gabe’s suitcases. Once he set them on the tray, he pulled the tab open on one of my cardboard boxes, “Oh, cool. Are these your books, Aunt Sydney?”

Sure, it was warm outside. But that had nothing to do with the heat spreading across my face as my nephew held up one of my first books. Flowing cursive script revealed the title; His forever. But my eyes didn’t pay any attention to that. The artwork on the cover showed a beautiful woman, whose naked back was partially covered by an equally handsome man’s naked torso. They stared at the reader; their lust carefully drawn on their faces. My voice was strangled, “Um, yeah. But why don’t you put it away?”

That’s when my nephew realized the scantily clad figures on the book’s cover and dropped it like a hot potato. The mirth in Abby’s eyes almost made me want to claw her eyes out, but those years were a decade gone. Instead, I just shrugged. Then, to make the matter worse, she leaned in and whispered, “He doesn’t really understand any of that stuff yet. Haven’t had an occasion to give him the talk.”

She chose that moment to give me a tight hug before drawing Gabe into a deeper hug. They were both crying by the time Abby stepped back. She sniffled, “Okay, you two. I love you both. My ride will be here soon. You should hit the road before rush hour hits.”

There were more hugs and when we finally managed to pull away from the curb, a glance through the driver’s side mirror showed a mini-bus pulling into the drive. Gabe strapped himself into the passenger seat. He wiped as his eyes, trying to keep the tears from flowing. I was a mess too, but back behind the wheel, I did what I could to block those thoughts. There would be time enough later to cry.

The sun reflected in the driver’s side rear-view mirror as I pulled off the highway in Barstow. Two hours of travel and I was hungry. I glanced at Gabe. He hadn’t said more than a dozen words since leaving his mom’s place. “You hungry?”

He ran a hand through auburn hair and seemed to come alive as we passed billboard advertisements, “Yeah. You?”

“I could eat a horse or two,” I replied with a grin.

We found a place we could park outside of Barstow station. Decorated like an old style train-station, there were a handful of restaurants in the building. After paying for some imitation Chinese food at Panda Express, we sat by a window overlooking railroad tracks. After tearing into my General Tso’s, I said, “There are a couple of RV parks nearby. I figured we could stay for the night, get a good night’s rest.”

Gabe stabbed a bit of battered chicken into a cup of sweet and sour sauce, “Where are we going?”

Since leaving Abby’s, that thought weighed heavily on me. On one hand, I was now responsible for an eleven-year-old boy. On the other hand, even with the setback of my latest manuscript, I had several books plotted for my publishing business. “I was thinking of going someplace where I could get some writing done. Some places in Colorado come to mind. Maybe pick someplace where there’s some cool shi-, um, stuff to see.”

Barely gone for a couple of hours from Abby’s and I was already falling back into my old habits. Gabe smirked. He was eleven, not seven. He knew what almost slipped out. “Show me how to write better?”

Abby hadn’t even taken the time to tell my nephew about the birds and the bees, I sure didn’t want his first awareness of those rights of passage to come from my soft porn for middle-aged women. Even so, I figured I could balance some instruction with my own writing schedule. “Sure, Gabe. You’ll have to show me the story you wrote to win the contest at school.”

He beamed; It was nice to see him forget his mom’s unfortunate situation, if just for a bit.

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