Sam took his time getting off the plane, waiting until the flight attendant told him he had to leave. He didn’t know how he could face his parents, not after everything that had happened. He hadn’t told anyone except Kevin. He trusted Kevin enough to tell him the truth, but was afraid to let anyone else know. Not Director Chuck, not Mary Larry, and definitely not his parents. His tormentor had made it perfectly clear what would happen if he spoke up.
Faith stood with open arms, as she did every year, ready to give Sam a big welcome home hug. She looked the same as she had after that first summer at camp. Time and Dan’s mistreatment hadn’t dulled her beauty in Sam’s eyes. Kevin Lowry still thought she was hot as ever too. These days, Kevin called her a milf.
Dan, however, had completed his metamorphosis from sales exec to … something else. The man who taught Sam to walk, to ride a bicycle, to throw a football, and to read the Bible, had vanished from the earth. The person next to Faith bore no resemblance to the father Sam remembered. This man leaned lazily against a square column, wearing loose-fitting jeans and an untucked, short-sleeved Oxford exposing a hairy paunch. A Sears nametag was pinned to the pocket. His eyes drooped from too little sleep and he stank like the counselor’s den two hours after Taps put the kids to sleep.
“Dan! Sam’s here. Snap to it!” Faith hugged Sam like she never wanted to let go, then kissed him on the cheek like he was ten years old again, but he wasn’t a kid any more. His childhood was over. She whispered in his ear. “I’m sorry your dad’s so … he’s always at his worst the days you come and go from camp. I think it’s because he loves you so much.”
“Hi, Dad.” Sam didn’t know how he felt about seeing his dad in such a state. Part of him wanted to hit Dan, both to show how angry he was and to free him from the nightmare that had become Dan’s life. Since that first summer Sam had gone to camp, Dan Spencer had been spinning ever closer to disaster. If he really cared, shouldn’t his dad have found some way to carve out a better life for Sam and his mom?
Dan issued a series of burps. “Hi, Sam. C’mere. Give your old man a hug.”
Sam kept his eyes closed while embracing his dad. If not for the stale beer odor, Sam could have almost pretended that he was hugging his Beamer-driving, big shot, dad of old. After a few seconds, he pulled away.
When he opened his eyes, Faith was wagging her finger at him. “How was your summer? Do you know why I have to ask, Sam? It’s because you only wrote us two letters. They should make CITs write home too. No letter, no lunch. I like that rule.”
He hadn’t even wanted to write that many. He couldn’t tell them what happened in a letter. He didn’t know if he could ever tell them. “Sorry, Mom. The kids kept me busy.”
“Don’t worry about it. You’re home now. You can tell us everything.”
“Sure, Mom. Later, okay? I’m kind of tired.” In a few days, he hoped she’d stop asking.
Faith tried to hide her disappointment. “Whatever you want, sweetie. Let’s get to the car. I’m sure you’re anxious to get home.”
Anxious wasn’t the word Sam would have used.
He sat quietly in the back seat for most of the ride home. The rattle from the beat up, old Kia was so loud that he had trouble hearing himself think. When they were almost there, Faith glanced into the rear view mirror and caught his eye. “I’m afraid have some bad news, Sam.”
He braced for the inevitable Bruce Lee update. He intentionally hadn’t asked. He no longer cared whether Bruce Lee had wandered off or not. “What is it?”
“No barbeque tonight. The Parkers said they’d love to, but Anna has a gymnastics meet, and Aunt Jeannie said football comes first. Sean and Keith are both playing at different local colleges this year. I’ll be lucky to see Jeannie once before the seasons end if I don’t take in some games.”
Sam uttered a silent thanks to God for answering his prayers. “It’s okay, Mom. I’m not in the mood for a party anyways.”
“Are you feeling all right?” Faith stretched out her arm, placing the back of her hand against Sam’s forehead while keeping her eyes on the road. Dan was snoring, with his face smushed up against the passenger window, but Sam thought he was partly awake. “I don’t feel a temperature.”
“Let him be, Faith,” Dan yawned.
“I’m fine, Mom. Really, I’m just tired.”
She pulled into the driveway and put the car in park too quickly. The car came to a stop with a jolt. “Okay. There’s one more thing. In fact, I’m surprised you didn’t ask. It’s about Bruce Lee. He …”
“He just wandered off, just like the rest of those good for nothing cats,” Dan, now fully awake, interrupted. “Good riddance, I say. Goddamned Siamese. They’re the worst. All like mizz …” His dad’s words trailed off into a mumble.
Faith swiveled, turning her cold stare on Dan. “Be nice and show some respect. Sam really cared for Bruce Lee.”
“It’s okay, Mom. I’m kind of used to it.”
“Oh, Sam. That’s horrible!” Her gaze softened.
“It’s true,” his dad snickered.
“I’m sorry, Sam. I can’t believe this keeps happening either. If you’d like, we can get another cat. Isn’t that right, Dan?”
“No!” Sam shouted louder and more vehemently than he’d intended. Then he realized that he meant every last decibel. “I don’t want another cat. I don’t ever want a cat again. Never, as long as I live.”
Sam’s mom shrank back from his ferocious reply. Dan sat up and turned sharply towards him, his visage more sober than Sam had seen in years. “What did you say?”
Sam glared back defiantly. “I said I don’t want a cat. You were right, Dad. They’re no good.”
Dan’s eyes grew moist. The corners of his mouth drooped into utter sadness.
“What’s with you, Sam?” Faith huffed. “Honestly, sometimes I just don’t understand you. When you’re ready to act like a human being, come inside and we’ll have dinner.” She slammed the car door shut and headed towards the garage.
Dan didn’t exit the car. Instead, he returned Sam’s glare with a penetrating gaze of his own. It felt to Sam like a blade cutting away armor, leaving him bare. Sam couldn’t have broken away, even if he’d wanted to. Dan’s stare held him fast, while it searched his soul for answers. Finally, after what seemed like forever, Dan broke off the staring contest.
“Mr. Quivers?” Dan whispered.
Sam sensed a new bond form between them, a burgeoning camaraderie that must remain forever unspoken. He nodded.
A pool of tears formed in Dan’s eyes. “I’m sorry, Sam. I just couldn’t …”
Suddenly, everything made sense to Sam.