The Road Less Traveled – Chapter 3
A click of a door opening and closing brought me out of my sleep. Light filtered through the curtains when I blinked my eyes open. We plugged the RV into the 50 Amp outlets at the camping site the previous night and the air conditioning ran off the city power, keeping the coach cool. Just the way I liked it. I pulled back the covers and rolled over, searching for my phone. When the back-light came on I groaned. It was a few minutes after seven.
Now that I knew I wanted to write, I was itching to be six hundred miles away, exploring ways my billionaire bad boy could seduce the heroine. Before, I would have grabbed some powdered donuts from the nearest convenience store, along with a cup of coffee and a twenty-ounce Coke. Even though I lacked any maternal instincts, I knew Gabe needed better than junk food.
The door to the half-bath opened right then. At least I wouldn’t have to wake the boy up. I called out, “Good morning, sunshine.”
His bare feet shuffled across the tiled floor until he stood in the opening between the bedroom and the kitchen area. Sunlight filtering into the RV behind him outlined his body. His hair was mused, and he yawned as he leaned against the wood-paneled wall. He was dressed in the same white briefs he slept in the previous night and nothing else. He yawned, “Good morning. What’s for breakfast?”
As my eyes went to his tighty-whities, he seemed oblivious to his semi-naked state. That was the Gabe I remembered from when he was little. In between his legs, there was a slight bump outlined in the white fabric of his underwear. With only one truly horrible experience under my belt about men, I was hardly an expert. But he seemed soft to me, for which I was grateful.
Stunned at where my eyes had gone, I glanced away, ashamed I had chosen to gawk at my preteen nephew. “Um, probably McDonalds. You want an Egg McMuffin?”
He stretched, drawing my eyes back to him. He was definitely related to me. He wasn’t simply slender. No, he was skinny and reminded me of when I was his age. Mom had been on me all the time to eat more because I was just skin and bones. He nodded, “Yeah. Sounds good.”
Glad I had slept in a t-shirt and pajama shorts, I rolled toward the other side of the bed, closest to the rear bathroom, “Cool. You should probably get dressed. You don’t want any preteen girls spying you strutting your stuff.”
Gabe gasped, as though only now realizing how little he had on. He was halfway back to the sofa when I heard a faint, “Right.”
I grabbed my jeans from the previous night and a clean shirt and headed toward the rear toilet. While I sat there doing my business, I noticed the envelope Abby gave me. In all the hubbub of getting away from the house and the drive, it had skipped my mind.
I pulled it from the back pocket. It was heavier than I first realized. Abby hadn’t sealed the envelop; she just folded the flap inside. There were folded sheets of paper, plastic cards, and a spare key to her place. And money. I sighed with exasperation. I was the successful writer, with a million copies of my books sold. The last thing she needed was to give me money.
I rifled past the money. One of the plastic cards was Gabe’s insurance card. The other was the previous year’s student ID. It must have been taken at the beginning of his sixth grade. Even though his face lacked the angular lines of adolescence, there was something still innocently boyish in his features. There was just a lot more of it in the school ID photo.
There were a couple of folded up sheets of paper. The first was a simply power of attorney Abby got notarized the same day she called me. The second was Gabe’s birth certificate with his social security card stapled to it. The last set of pages was a will. It was simple. Like our Mom, Abby didn’t have much. Even the house was a rental. The will reflected her simply lifestyle. Her one prized possession was getting dressed in the front of the RV at that moment. And she named me his guardian in the event of her death. She signed and notarized the will the same day as the power of attorney.
I bit my lip and blinked back tears. I still hoped she would call us after the chemo treatment, but seeing the will and other documents, I felt a sense of finality in the previous day’s visit. As I dressed in the closed confine of the little room enclosing the toilet, I wondered for not the first time what I was getting myself into.
We ate breakfast in the parking lot behind the one-horse town’s McDonald’s. Even though we had retracted the RV’s slide-outs when we pulled out of the RV park, we still squeezed into the dining table seats behind the passenger’s seat. Thoughts of the contents of the envelop filling my mind. But the last thing Gabe needed was for me to confess my worries. I needed to be strong for him.
Halfway through his McMuffin, he asked, “Aunt Sydney, Mom said you write bodice rippers. What are those?”
The biscuit, already drier than most, seemed to stick in my throat. “Your mom said that?”
He rolled his eyes at me. I couldn’t let the fact that his eyes were even with mine make me forget he was still a little boy, not a teenager. In the back of my mind, I really wished Abby hadn’t sheltered him as much as she had. He deadpanned, “You’re too young to be forgetting stuff.”
I always thought kids my nephew’s age thought everyone older than sixteen or seventeen was ancient. The few times I included children in my stories, that’s how I played them. My voice was droll, “How old do you think I am?”
“Twenty-four. That’s only twice as many years old as me. Mom’s almost thirty,” his eyes sparkled with mischief, “you know that’s almost ancient.”
My lips curled into a smile, “When we talk to your mom, I’ll make sure to tell her that.”
He crumpled the wrapping on his biscuit, “You getting forgetful, Aunt Sydney? You didn’t tell me what a bodice ripper is.”
So much for hoping he’d forgotten. My mind went into overdrive, wondering how to keep our conversation PG rated. “It’s just a nickname for a type of romance novel.”
Gabe’s eyebrow furrowed, “I get that. Um, what’s a bodice?”
Keep it PG, Syd. “It’s an old-fashioned name for the part of a woman’s dress, from the waist to the neckline, but excluding the sleeves.”
The golden-brown eyes looking back at me were intelligent, and one wrong step would be more than my sister wanted her son to know. Slowly, those eyes grew round and his mouth formed a little oh. “The ripper part means the man tears her clothes off?”
I flushed. “Maybe we can talk about that later, okay?”
A smile slid across his features, “Your stories are sexy. That’s what Mom meant. That’s why that man and women were naked on the book cover. He ripped her bodice off.”
Despite the air conditioner, I was hot. “Gabe, I don’t think your mom wants me talking about this with you.”
He leaned back in the booth, “I’m almost twelve. I know all about that stuff, I’m going to be in the seventh grade in the fall. Just because mom won’t let me watch any sexy movies, doesn’t mean I don’t understand about it.”
If there were a hell, I was risking damnation. But the smug look on his adorable face was too much. I leaned against the table, “Really? Like what?”
It was Gabe’s turn to turn red. He stammered, “Well, um. A man, um, puts his, you know, thing, into a woman’s, um, thing. That’s how they have sex.”
It was all I could do to not laugh at his description. “That seems so, ah, precise and scientific.”
Gabe giggled. “I know the words. It’s just mom would whip my butt if I used them around you.”
It was my turn to smirk, “Best stay out of my books, they’re full of language your mom wouldn’t want you to say.”
The smile remained on my nephew’s face as he leaned forward. “You use words like, um, shit and fuck in your stories?”
Those words were scarcely out of his mouth when he bit his lip, as though trying to gauge my response. I just smirked and slid out of the booth and tousled his hair. The language he used reminded me he was his own person, developing his own identity. Parents are there to keep kids going the right direction. Grandparents are there to spoil them and give them presents. Young, single aunts, we’re there to be a bad influence.
“Yeah. I use shit and fuck in my stories. Sometimes dick and pussy too.”
The scandalized look on my nephew’s face was priceless. I turned and said, “Come on, let’s hit the road. We’ve got nine hours ahead of us.
The sign read another forty-five miles to Flagstaff. My stomach told me we’d be going through it just in time for an early dinner. The drive reminded me why I enjoyed heading north when leaving SoCal. Arizona was dry and dusty; all the more so along Interstate Forty. Gabe was quiet. He propped his laptop on his lap. The typing didn’t bother me and he had been quiet, which let me do lots of thinking and praying.
I grew up lapsed Catholic and hadn’t been inside a church for anything more than a wedding or funeral since high school. It’s not that I didn’t believe, just that I didn’t think any of it mattered. But that didn’t stop me from praying. Maybe prayer is like a lottery ticket. For the 99,999,999, it’s a waste of time, but that one person with the lucky numbers, maybe God would hear that one prayer and answer it.
Not that I really believed, but I didn’t want to lose my sister. I loved Gabe and if it came down to it, he could stay with me if something happened to Abby. But I knew I wasn’t a proper role model for my young nephew. I mean, for God’s sake, I write soft core porn for women. Not exactly conducive environment to raise a boy. All the same, he was more like me than his mom. Abby was the one with the feminine curves, although none of us Nelson women were going to win the Most Buxom contest. She had briefly flirted with a c-cup after giving birth to Gabe. It’s not that I had a boyish figure, after all, my hips were wider than my shoulders, it’s just I was lean, to the point of gauntness, and had been that way all my life. And Gabe’s thin arms and legs, his narrow torso, those were traits we shared. Even our hair was the same russet color, a genetic reminder of our Irish roots.
But whether he stayed for a couple of months, while his mom fought the “Big C” or whether he took up permanent residence on my sleeper sofa, bad influence or not, there was one thing I could teach him; something else he shared in common with me. Writing.
I lowered the volume on the radio, sending CCR fading into the background of road-noise, “So, tell me about that story contest you won at school.”
Gabe pulled his head up from the laptop. A smile danced across his preadolescent features and a spark lit in his eyes, as though pleased I bothered to ask. “It was about a boy who was picked on by bullies at school. One day, he discovered he had magical powers. And he used those powers to turn the things the bullies did to him and other students back on themselves.”
Tall for his age, the idea bullies would tease my nephew hadn’t crossed my mind. “Are there bullies at your school?”
Gabe shrugged, “There are bullies everywhere, Aunt Sydney.”
The maturity of his answer struck a chord in me. Even a dozen years before, in the same junior high, a couple of girls had tormented me almost every day for two years. It wasn’t that I had been a late bloomer, it’s just what tits nature had endowed on me and my sister had mostly gone to Abby. Even twelve years later, if I wanted to look even the slightest bit busty, I wore a padded bra.
“Yeah, I guess so. So, what’s your favorite scene in that story?”
His eyebrows furrowed in thought, “There’s this one time when a couple of bullies push the hero into a toilet stall, and they’re forcing his head into the toilet when he works his magic, and reverses their positions. Only their heads start out in the toilet. That was the first time when he stood up to them. But there are a couple of more times where he has to do similar things to the bullies to finally get them to stop.”
Something I learned later than Gabe seemed to have, for most of us, our stories come from our fantasies. “That’s a cool story. Turning the tables on the bullies is an awesome idea. I know what those old kill-joys called teachers couldn’t have approved of the idea, but you still won. That’s something.”
Gabe grinned. “The contest was voted on by all the students in the creative writing classes. The teacher took everyone’s names off their stories, so that everyone would vote for their favorite story, not the one by the most popular student. And, well, a lot of kids get bullied. So, I won.”
Hearing my nephew’s enthusiasm was almost a window into my own youth. I didn’t discover my passion for writing until high school, but I’ll never forget the feeling as people raptly listened to my stories. More than that, though, getting him talking brightened both of our days. “What’re you working on now?”
He glanced at his laptop, “Just an idea I’ve been playing with for a few days. It’s a story about this kid who lives in a magical land. Kind of like England, but with magic.”
I offered, “Like Harry Potter?”
He scowled, “That’s der-, deriv-, a copy of stuff already done. More like Merlin and King Arthur. Anyway, he wants to become a knight because a fire-breathing dragon killed his parents. The dragon has everyone in the kingdom scared, so the king promises his daughter to whoever slays the dragon.”
The idea intrigued me. The great thing about self-publishing is that you don’t have to please some progressive moral busybody in New York or San Francisco with your own progressive ideas. If you write something appealing, people will read it, no matter how un-woke it may be. And the traditional gatekeepers would certainly think some young man slaying a dragon to win the hand of the princess was positively neanderthal. Of course, it sprang from the mind of an eleven-year-old boy, and they’re hardly civilized; so, it’s almost the same thing. More than that, I loved the idea for him.
“That sounds exciting, can you read to me the first chapter?”
If Gabe hadn’t been buckled into the seatbelt, he would have floated away. A moment later, he read, “Jack snuck off and went fishing the day the dragon struck his parents’ farm…”
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