“Thomas, you want me to drive for a bit?” Bram offered as he watched his father, with the window rolled down, music blasting and chewing incisively. Mouth wide open, lip-smacking, saliva spitting chewing to keep his eyes from closing while he drives.
“Naw, I’m good.” Pride forced him to keep driving, but when he began smacking his cheeks, Bram tried again.
“I have my license Thomas, and I can drive. I’m not even tired!”
“It’s okay, bud. I’ve driven further before.” His father hardly even makes sense anymore. Bram rolls his eyes but knows he can’t force his father to switch spots. They were a solid 11 hours into the drive. The radio clock was reading 3 am but the time had changed several times too. The sun was rising, and Bram knew he had dozed off numerous times.
The offer had been given several times from Bram to drive. Thomas would start blinking continuously and roll his window down again for a blast of cold air every twenty minutes or so. The weather changed again. Snow dissipated into fat raindrops making the road even more challenging to see. At least snow was white, fluffy, bright flakes falling. Now the rain was reflecting off the blacktop road, and there was no yellow centre line or rumble strips for his father to mark his space. The oncoming headlights seemed to add to the chaos of trying to see.
“Even for an hour, Thomas. It will help.” What he wanted to say was, ‘Aren’t you always telling me to ask for help? Like how Mom always asks you for help?’ He swallowed the statement and nudged his father playfully. He was trying to get him to ease up enough to hand over the wheel. Staunton was reading 500 kilometres away now, a good sign. He wasn’t sure his dad would survive another hour, let alone keep the car straight between the lines for five hours. The next town on the highway list was Bartonville. The name caught Bram’s attention since he recalled snowboarding with school trips, the Burton snowboard he would rent and the times he shared. He pointed out the word to his father, but Thomas’s nod in response was such a slow up and down, Bram was nearly positive the downturn was a nod off.
“Thomas,” he repeated sternly, and his father jumped. Just enough, Bram knew they had to pull over. He plucked his father’s phone out of the centre console and googled hotels in Burtonville. Without asking his father, he called the hotel and was relieved when they answered.
“Oh, hi. You’re open still?”
“Twenty-four hours, sir.”
“Of course.” Bram said, “Do you have any vacancies?” His father never even glanced at him as he made the call or booked the room. Bram planned to pay for the hotel. He had plenty of extra cash in his pocket. It would be his surprise for his dad. He directed his father where he needed to stop in the next town, and there was no argument to it. Indeed, he was accepting now he could not drive on for the night. He knew they needed to stop.
When they pulled up, it was pitch black, the only light coming from the first two letters of ROOMS. Bram’s father exited the vehicle moving zombie-like. If his arms were any longer, the knuckles would drag on the concrete. The front of the hotel looked to nearly fall right off. As if torn apart by a tornado and glued back in place by a toddler. The concierge handed Bram the key as his father stood on the front sidewalk. The strip hotel had a Bates Motel feel to it, and Bram could only hope the door would lock properly. The guilt of the stolen money hadn’t sunk in yet, and he used the cash to pay the hotel clerk happily an extra fee. Bram felt rich and powerful, if even just for a little while, with this pocket full of cash. Bram didn’t allow his thoughts to linger on the fact he had stolen. It was the first time in his life. It seemed a necessary action at the time. But the reality of what he had done was slowly creeping up on his conscience. He would have to face it sooner or later.
The man behind the counter agreed, happily stuffing the crisp bill into his pocket. His receding hairline covered by long strands outgrown purposely. Greasy and pedophile looking, the man shuffled them in the direction of their room. Looking appropriate for the decrepit look of the place he worked. He might as well have a hunch and a lazy eye with spooky suspenseful music playing as he directed them down the front sidewalk. Then they can say the building is haunted and scare guests by grown earning extra money.
Bram helped his exhausted father to their room. He requested only one bed. A stupid oversight. Had he been a little more put together, he would have thought of two, but he could settle with the couch for the night. It wouldn’t kill him, and at least his father would have a good night’s sleep. Opening the hotel room door, he half expected cockroaches to run out everywhere. Surprisingly the inside was immaculate, surprisingly cleaner than his mother seemed to keep her own house. Too haunted with ghosts in her mind to focus on washing the floors. The bed was adequately made, the sheets folded and tucked into each corner. The pillows fluffed and positioned square to the edge of the mattress. They even had small square gold chocolates on the pillow cases’ tops. A single TV with rabbit ears sticking out from opposite directions. Bram doubted cable still worked like that.
There’s a single bathroom with a stand-up shower and pocket door. Bram shuddered at the sight of the folding door, springing to mind the kind old lady he had flushed the pills on. He recalled reading the obituaries for weeks afterward, wrought with fear she would die without her heart meds. Luckily, she seemed to live on for a while after Bram had left anyway. There was no fridge, no microwave, cooktop or dresser. Not even a night light, but the walls appeared clean, old-style wallpaper halfway up the way, met with beige paint. But clean, and he was thankful.
“You can have…” his father began, but Bram had already ripped one pillow off the bed and thrown his body onto the couch.
“No worries.” He forced a smile at his dad. Pride swelling in him, he had paid for this room. His father’s body crashed onto the blankets, and without even removing his shoes, the snoring filled the room.
Bram laid on the couch, staring at the ceiling, going over the turmoil of the day. Excellent how one short day can seem like an eternity. His grandmother’s funeral seemed eons away already. The grateful and fearful tears of the hostess held a picture in the forefront of his mind now.
He picked up the tv remote. He clicked the power button and was surprised it turned on. The glow of the tv filled the darkroom, the snores of his father soundly sleeping were drowned quite quickly. The crackle of the tv faded and turned to voices. It was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. When he was growing up, his favourite was one of the few movies his mother owned on VHS. He could easily pop the film into the VCR and play repeatedly. He recalled even when he was only maybe 5 or 6 years old, pushing the classic two arrow pointing to his L forming hand, and the umpa lumpas would dance and sing over and over.
Charlie stood next to the oversized bed with his grandparents. The four of those older adults, snug in layers of blankets. More flawed than low but happy as could be. Bram watched the movie play out and thought of his grandmother. An incredible feeling when her face came to his mind; he felt nothing. The sorrow he had felt earlier in the day at her funeral was rid of him now. The love he felt for her from years of living and being raised by her devoid was suddenly from his heart. He searched for those feelings, knowing they brought him comfort to have someone so dear. Even the sadness of losing her was a warmth he had not been ready to give up, but they were gone.
As if someone had snuck into the dark recess’ of his mind and stolen the last bit of love and admiration he had for her. Deprived him of the memory of what it was to have a reliable family member love and care for you, the feeling of loss would be thick, but you could still bask in the comfort of having had a passion from her. All gone and stripped from him. It was all gone. A sinking feeling overcame Bram as he realized Obscura had taken something from him. Just as it had once filled him with panic and anxiety when he had watched his mother through its dark matter vision, then again, it had filled him with sickness and forced his insides out when he helped an innocent woman, now for stealing. The cash burnt an imaginary hole in his pocket. It was an exchange, and one Nought made sure would happen. To take something from Obscura was to give something up.
He had taken force from Obscura to steal money, and Nought had stripped him of the love he had felt from his grandmother. It was gone now and left a void in him. In a swift and silent motion, he had been stripped of one for the other. That was his sacrifice to Obscura for it buckling up and helping him, just as his physical illness had been payment for him saving the woman.
Bram laid frozen on the couch, not feeling sleep come over him or even a fleeting feeling of drowsiness. He felt drained and weary from the realization of losing this bond he had with his grandmother. Guilt was not the word for the feeling the money was giving him now. There was no taking back what he had done, and somewhere deep inside, he knew there was no receiving back what Nought had stolen from him. Flicking off the television, he gave up the joy he had felt from watching the movie. It had always given him hope, the golden ticket Charlie had found. At one time, he thought Obscura was his Golden ticket. It would get him. Further, today he had proven by pocketing all the money. He had felt rich, and now he felt lower than before. Obscura was not his friend, it was his enemy, and it would take more than he realized to use it. An empty shell now, devoid of love, even the faint memory of what love once had been. Gone.
Eventually, sleep found its way to Bram, and with it, a dream. No, not a dream. A nightmare. A nightmare formed from the memory of using Obscura to attempt at rescuing his grandmother. Trying to find her before her heart stopped and ripped her away from him forever. Before his stupid dog, Denim could be the last to say goodbye to his grandmother, and he searched for her. Amongst the dark spaces, all there was to be found was ash. Seemingly floating where the black used to be, it now clogged his mouth and nose. Threatening to take away his oxygen too, promising death will come to remove his everything. Nought was there, threatening to crush Denim. He could see the outline of the dog’s ears. The wet nose, the damp tongue, had licked his grandmother’s face obsessively. Bram pushed the floating ash away, it was suffocating him, and ultimately it would choke his dog too. Denim was whimpering, and the words Nought spun around Bram was a bargain.
Just a chance. At what? Bram tried to ask Nought; all he could see was Denim’s head pushing pushed down. It was threatening to crush his skull—just a moment. Nought enticed Bram, words are growing in Obscura into promises. I will give it back. Like a contract, the words grew, Bram tossed in his nightmare, beginning to understand the offer. Shaking his sleeping head back and forth, he tried to resist the nightmarish offer from Nought, but ultimately, it was just a dream. He wanted the offer.
Take this life, and I will give you love. Bram knew precisely what love Nought was offering, the love he had felt for his grandmother. The love he had felt from his grandmother. Being dangled in front of his nose like a treat. Like a dog, like his dog being crushed in the ground. Bram shouted his agreement and cried in his sleep as he watched Denim have his life crushed out of him. It’s just a nightmare. Bram chanted as he held his eyes tightly closed. He didn’t want to see Denim get crushed, not even in his sleep, but it was an offer he had to attempt at taking.
Even in his sleep, with Denim breathing his last breath, Bram feels the warmth of his grandmother’s love return. The sadness of her loss return with it, but it was worth one for the other. And to just dream of losing his dog was worth this. Nought stood, black and disguised in Obscura and sent out one more worded promise in the space around them. Death was a certainty. It would be here for Bram. It would be Bram’s if he used the dark matter in Obscura again. It was not for him.
The threats continued as Bram pulled himself back out of the darkness and fell into sleep.
Pulling up to his father’s new house was like remembering an old foe. He was excited to see the house, looking forward to spending time with Justyce again, but he also dreaded the whole situation. His mother had called this morning, nearly a solid 24 hours after his disappearance. She hardly seemed fazed when she asked her ex-husband if he had seen their son. As if she silently wished the answer would be no, and she would no longer have to concern herself with him. Indeed, he had to remind himself of his sad state, which brought those thoughts. His father simply stated into the phone that Bram is with him, and he will fly him home next week. Next week meaning now only six days away, they had lost a whole day’s drive.
The home was a stunning farmhouse, Bram had to admit. Solid brown planking on the outside with triangular-shaped top windows gave the impression there was a creepy attic on the top floor. It was the games room up top, is where Bram had slept every time he came to visit. Sometimes a better idea than others. When Justyce had friends over for a sleepover, they would take the games room, and Bram would be left sleeping on the living room couch downstairs.
There he was tortured, having to listen to his father and giggles from his step-mom. He was grateful in those times for Obscura, an empty vastness where he would not have to be forced into listening. He could hide from any problems; even physical pain would not affect him there. The threat from Nought lingered, though, and he wondered if the dark creature would allow him to share the space at least. Maybe if he promised not to use the dark matter to affect anything or anyone again, he could at least hide there occasionally.
The car came to a stop just in front of the ramp like an entrance to the house. A smooth incline made for a grand skateboard entrance in or exited out. The ramp spilled open to the patio, which wrapped all around the house. Bram would spend hours doing circles around the house, driving Sam nuts having to listen to the ‘wam wam wam’ of the board’s wheels hitting the seams in the deck boards. When Justyce was younger, she would use her rollerblades on this circuit, and they would race, now she hardly came home on the weekends when Bram visited.
Long past were the days when she would bring Bram to hide with her while she smoked cigarettes. Now she would roll her eyes when he arrived and hardly say hello.
“I don’t have to, Mom!” Justyce would scream at Sam, with Bram sleeping just above her. No door and hardly a floor to separate the horrible curses she had at him.
Bram wished now he had the foresight to bring his skateboard. It would have given him something to do this week. Exiting the car, he trudged up the ramp with his head hanging and caressing the newly returned love from his grandmother and promising not to let it go again, especially not for just paper cash.
“Tell Sam to get some lunch going for us!” his father called to Bram.
“Yeah,” Bram hardly muttered. The morning drive had still been a long haul, and the only breakfast he had yet was coffee. The white farm door screamed as he opened it. There was no silent entry for him. Even the floor seemed to argue his approach, moaning under his weight. Not being a heavy boy, but his adult figure was beginning to fill out. Just one step into the house, and Bram was met with a glorious smell of fresh baking.
“Hello!” Sam’s voice rang through a sincere greeting for whoever should walk through her door. Her kindness was sickening at times. The greeting echoed through the empty living room to Bram’s right. The furniture clean, neat and straight in the room. The stairs to the second and third floor leapt out straight in front of him. They were cutting the main floor in half. His father’s bedroom was located directly behind the staircase, Justyce’s bedroom and bathroom on the second floor and the infamous games room on the third floor.
The basement below him had been gutted and used as cold storage for Sam’s garden offerings. Bram always wondered why his father didn’t have much money. The tire shops he worked at didn’t pay much. In recent years since his father moved, he had soon learnt Sam was quite an avid gardener. She also baked and sold many of her goodies in farmers’ markets. The two put together a lifestyle, not quite creamy but better off than he and his mother were.
Bram followed the rich scents into the kitchen to his left, not bothering to kick off his shoes and not caring when he left a trail of dirt. Sam swayed to music from a black boom box while cooking pastries, danishes, cookies and pies.
Bram noticed there was a single crumb on her floor and not a blueberry stain on her cooking apron. Her perfectly moving hands expertly rolled the dough.
“Oh, Bram,” Sam said, then turned to wash her hands, “Hey, how’s it going?”
“Hi, Sam, and good,” Bram replied, admiring the sweets covering the countertops.
Sam wrapped her arms around Bram and gave him a good squeeze hug. She felt thinner than the last time he saw her. Age was creeping up her face. Her hair, unlike his fathers, showed no signs of greying yet. Not even the thinning of middle age some women get. It was still thick and voluptuous. She would have been beautiful sporting a beehive hairstyle from the ’60s. No makeup on her face. There was no need for it. Her skin glowed with such happiness, Bram wished he could pocket just a bit for his mother. Maybe he could make another bargain with Nought, although the one with Denim had only been a dream. There was nothing really to it. There was no way he could fix his mother. Not even at the cost of someone else.
“Hi, Bram.” She held him while she spoke. He didn’t fight it. He could smell chocolate and creamed kinds of butter on her clothes.
“I’m so sorry about your loss.” She pulled him back to look him in the eye, but he had grown taller than her now. She had to look slightly up, “your grandmother was a great woman. If there’s anything, I can do…”
“Thomas wants lunch,” Bram cut her off. The courtesy of sympathies for lost loved ones was redundant now. His grandmother was gone, and no amount of sympathies would bring her back. All he could do was hold on to the love he had almost lost for her.
“Of course, he does!” Sam laughed, her face lighting up with the mention of Thomas. Bram could see the love she emitted for his father. There was no faking.
“I made you some treats.” She panned her arm to present the countertop of offerings to him. Bram smiled at the gesture and didn’t hesitate to pop a red velvet cupcake into his mouth. “And I already made your father sandwiches.”
“Thank you,” Bram muffled through a mouthful. The sandwiches looked terrific as well. “Is Justyce home?” He grabbed two sandwiches and stuffed a few cookies in the nook of his arm to prep for his shower.
“Yes, but she hasn’t left her room all morning,” Sam replied, even her eyes smiled as she spoke.
“Can I have a shower?”
“Of course, Bram, mi casa es sous casa.”
Bram headed to the wooden spiral stairwell. The wood knots highlighted as if painted. As if his father loved this house more than anything in the world, he kept it well. The first stair groaned loudly under Bram’s weight, and his eyes shot up to Justyce’s bedroom door. He didn’t feel like greeting her yet, he hadn’t showered now in two days, and he was tired. Tired, hungry and not looking for a fight with his stepsister now.
He could smell his BO, and the last few times he had seen Justyce, she had razzed him so bad. About the stubbly hair on his chin, the matching shadow on his lip. The pudge leftover from puberty on his middle. The acne on his forehead, she called him Shrek for being too tall. He couldn’t fathom what the names would be for wearing the same clothing for two days, the sweat and emotions he had endured and then running away with his father. He planted his footsteps lightly on the stairs as he climbed. One whole sandwich was gone before he reached the top step. He hesitated for a moment to try to hear behind her door.
Bram turned the shower hot, hardly touching the cold tap. He wanted it to cleanse his skin. He felt shrouded in untrue emotions. He willed the steaming water to wash away the evil glinting memory of stealing the money. The closeness he had gotten to not remembering his grandmother’s love, he shook away the faulty memory of trading his dog’s life to have the feeling of love back. Even with it being a dream, the images still haunted him. The hero moment he had had earlier in the day left him with a sick stomach. Always, it felt as though his insides would never settle again.
Now he felt as though more than just his skin was damaged. His inner being was marred past recognition and no longer his own, warping into something Nought wanted and taunting him with the imaginary death of his dog to turn his soul black like its seemingly. The steam billowed in the washroom, too heavy for the fan to move out in time. It flooded the tiles of the shower, blocking out even the small intricacies of the colouring. The steam washed over his face faster than even the water was, and before he accepted it, Obscura flooded his vision.
The threat from Nought hung heavy in the dark place now. He had to remind himself not to force anything, and not will any change or difference here. He could not risk losing his grandmother’s love again. He allowed it still, the dark curtain of that other plane to take him over. Before him then, a flash of skin tone. The curve of the small of a back. Soft, smooth flesh filled a pocket full of jean material and turning the Obscura vision, and he realized he was staring at a shirtless body. A female’s body was attractive, the smiling slit of a belly button showing just before the billow of white cotton fell over, and he saw Justyce’s face.
Bram jumped back so quickly out of Obscura, causing him to slam his head against the tiles on the back wall of the shower. Slipping and falling on his ass from the hit, he ended on his tailbone. Sore from crown to toe, literally. His eyes whirled for a moment, and he thought he might lose consciousness. The only thing preventing this from happening was the soap dripping in and burning his eyes. He hadn’t meant to spy on Justyce. When he was looking at the skin’s smoothness, he hadn’t even realized it was her. Sitting under the running water now, he was mesmerized by the memory of her naked skin. The freshness of seeing such beauty. He swallowed thickly, unsure of how to comprehend the attraction he had just felt. He spent the rest of the shower, convincing himself he hadn’t known it was her. If he had, he would have left Obscura sooner.