Reflecting the Unclear

February 12, 2008
By Nico Grant, New York, NY

Thunder and lightning usually didn't plague the lakeside community of Sherwood, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C., at the end of June, but on that particular year, storms became common and expected. As did the morning fog and all-around gloominess of the weather. Such colossal amounts of rain in the early summer were disappointing to its residents, who had prepared for long, sunny days with cloudless blue skies and few cares. No longer were children allowed to play outdoors for their parents' fear of them getting wet, and no longer could the usual outdoor charity events and fundraisers be planned amongst the adults.

Sherwood had everything to be found in the average suburb: classic two- and three-story family houses with white-facade, dark shingle roofs, and requisite red and green doors alongside a matching two-car garage. Sherwood was also filled with clean-cut family units, and the general facade of politeness found in such family-oriented communities. In the early morning, husbands drove to closeby downtown D.C., to generate six-figure salaries, while housewives attended to the upkeeping of their five-thousand square feet homes and argued with each other about who most enjoyed raising their families. Perhaps the only difference between Sherwood and other American suburbs was its sheer setting. Few suburbs were smack-dab on a lake and surrounded by forest as densely packed as ashes in an urn.

In essence, Sherwood was the most heavenly and picturesque family community that could be found in the Western Hemisphere, even if the clouds were tinged with melancholy.

Josh Brooks had spent his entire life in Sherwood. Since he was eleven, Josh accepted he would forever be average, and since then, he swore by that truth. Nothing stood out to him about his life because it was mirrored by those of dozens of other Sherwood spawns. Throughout high school, his grades had seldom been above a ninety ¾ common in Bradshaw Academy; his childhood consisted of play-dates with children possessing the same haircut as his; even from a young age, he acknowledged there was an eerie sameness to all the stark white colonial houses. Of course, that only meant he had fewer questions to ask his parents.

Never in his life did Josh feel special, except when he spent time with his dog, Max. Ever since Max's adoption into the Brooks family when Josh was four, dog and boy had such chemistry. When he was a boy of six, Josh taught Max how to play dead and catch a Frisbee. Hours of their time were spent together, playing or lounging on the lawn while staring up at the twinkling night sky.

But what Josh loved most about Max was his intuitiveness. He always sensed when Josh was upset and lingered to show he was there for him. He rested his chin on Josh's reclined knee and whimpered for the both of them. The sight was so heartwarming to Josh that he would wrangle up the large dog and kneel down while scratching behind his ears before hugging him. Sometimes, Max rested a front paw on Josh's shoulder. Josh's family enjoyed Max, but was startled by how much Josh cared for the canine. Over almost fourteen years together, Max and Josh became inseparable. Their bond grew more each day, and Max became one of Josh's best friends. The golden retriever was a safe haven; he was pure and he was good; most of all, Max was loved. It is not shocking that the day Max died was Josh's worst.

It was mid-morning and the cloudy, gray skies and brisk wind were all apparent to Josh as he stood in the threshold of the French back door of his family's house. He saw the expansive green lawn with shrubbery and pockets of flowers garnished at the sides, which opened to Lake Sherwood. The lake reflected the unclear skies. Josh felt a slight, moist nudging behind his knee and looked behind him to witness Max, his aging golden retriever, try to slip past his legs. He smiled at the dog before saying:

"Not so fast, big guy. I have to get your leash, first."

Josh headed to his room, snatched up the leash, and peered out from his window pane factions to view a scene he wouldn't soon forget.

Max had somehow gotten out, and had run onto Lakeside Terrace as a large silver sedan cruised northward down the road. The dog continued to bark excitedly as the car swerved in the wrong direction. Josh heard tires skidding on the cement as they rolled forward toward the barking dog. The car was moving closer and its speed was not curbing. The machinery made impact with Max's frame and struggled to stop as Josh's modest facial features squirmed in shock and disgust.

Dropping the red harness onto the floor, Josh ran out of his bedroom and down the steps, with a haste he had never before experienced; faster even, than when he rushed through his homework to spend time with his friends, Charlie and Maddy. His surroundings changed around him ¾ his kitchen into a wide hall, the wide hall into the outdoors. Josh ignored both the foreground of the Brooks' front garden and the background of Sherwood Pine Forest, to the patch of gray cement, then at the center of his consciousness. He also ignored the biting wind, slapping his face. From afar, Josh looked at the dog he loved for the past fourteen years. His body lay limp, injured, and covered by the car's robust overhang. He immediately recognized the chrome front grille, the modern headlights, and the large tires. It was a new Volvo S80. He recognized the woman exiting the car. Her brown highlighted hair, her costly sundress, her four-inch heels, and her black leather satchel. It was his mother.

Josh's pulse raced. His heart beat faster, rushing blood to every inch of his body trying to process what his eyes relayed to his mind. He heard the beating in his eardrum. He felt the beating throughout his stature. Sweat trickled down his forehead. His mother stood at the left side of the sloping hood, bending down over the unmoving body, but not too close, for fear of ruining her Carolina Herrera dress. Linda's piercing green eyes averted and fell onto Josh's gaze. Josh flinched. The sight of her slightly creased, middle-aged face made him want to cringe. His lower lip trembled. His ears, cheeks, and nose became as red as the blood on the blue Volvo emblem. He walked seven yards to the car. The breeze pressed his gray shirt closer to him. Then, there was Max ¾ poor Max.

Max was immobile, not emitting a single yelp. Josh began to gingerly walk closer. He stopped looking toward his mother before he faintly heard her call out. But he didn't listen. Soon after, Josh stood over over Max, breathing hard. Josh's skin was as scorching as Sherwood Pine Forest only one month prior. His knees buckled and soon he was only several inches away from Max's perfect shining coat. Josh saw that Max's wide eyes were still open, gazing up at the lonely human with love and longing, even after his sudden departure.

The warm emotion in Max's eyes drifted away as swiftly as Linda's presence had years earlier as she discovered her neighbors' nannies. Josh was aware of the contrast between his body's warmth and the air's cool cuts. His eyes became bloodshot and a blockage in his throat constricted his swallowing. One tear droplet evolved into two as Josh bit his lower lip in sorrow. He used his left hand to close Max's eyes.

Josh could tell that his mother was speaking again, but he neither looked in her general direction nor paid any attention. His body convulsed with anguish; his vertebrae shook as more tears fell from the corners of his eyes. After looking at Max one more time, he stood. His jeans once again became loose as his head turned slowly to his right. Josh looked at his mother, panic-stricken, but not showing signs of deep affliction. Josh believed she looked no different than when she discovered she had no flour to bake homemade cookies.

" my dog. You...killed Max." He struggled to find words, as he usually did in troubling circumstances.

"He ran into the road so...suddenly. I tried to avoid this, but..." She was flustered.

"'Avoid'? 'Avoid'? He's my dog! He's...Max!" he bellowed. "You speak of killing like gathering you're trying to get out of."

"Josh!" She spoke in a hushed whisper while looking around to see that no neighbors were eavesdropping. "I know he was your dog, and I know that you loved him. Yes, he had his place in the family, but I am your mother, and I refuse to be spoken to like that. I would like..." She cleared her throat in her usual proper, lady-like manner. "I demand respect. You should feel fortunate that I wasn't harmed."

Josh noticed that she spoke in past-tense about Max and it made his skin crawl. "'Fortunate'? I should feel 'fortunate'?" he stared at her incredulously. "You've never been a 'mother' to me. You've been the woman who paid someone to tuck me in. The lady who decorated the house I live in. The wife of my absent father. But never my mother." Josh knew that his words were strong, and thought they may have been too strong. He remembered it was he who left the door ajar just before the collision. He who had initially screwed up. It was as much his fault as it was hers. He contemplated apologizing.

Linda slapped Josh across his face. His cheeks flushed with color as his mother looked around the debacle of a situation ¾ from Max, to the car, to Josh. Without saying anything, Josh began to walk away. He went next door to Charlie's house. The wind guided him and the evergreens of Sherwood Pine Forest swayed back and forth, quietly assuring him that he was doing the right thing. He arrived at Charlie's green wooden door and looked back from the porch to see his mother on her mobile phone while leaning against the hood of her car. Her face was scrunched with irritation, which almost made her look her full age.

Josh turned around and ran into The Harts' house.

“Charlie…Charlie, are you here?” Josh yelled up the wooden staircase. He began to climb the steps when Charlie appeared at the top landing. His usual jolly face was gone, in lieu of a grim, somber one. He walked down the steps slowly, while there was silence between them. He opened his mouth and shut it before saying:

“Josh, I'm so sorry. Lois just told me,” he said, referring to his stepmother.

Josh said nothing. He looked down at his tennis shoes and found traces of Max's blood on the soles. He fought back tears while swallowing, as Charlie continued, “It's just so surreal,” he breathed. “He's gone. I can't believe it: Max is dead. But you're okay, and so is your mom."

Josh winced in response to the blunt articulation of his loss. It wasn't like Charlie to be so insensitive, but it wasn't unlike Charlie to react awkwardly in intense situations. Josh's eyes swelled and he struggled to maintain his composure. He raised his head and looked Charlie in his dark eyes. He could tell that his friend was trying to reach out to him, and deep down, he appreciated the effort. Charlie continued walking down the steps, as his chestnut hair swayed.
"Hey," he whispered to Josh when he reached the bottom landing, "you're going to be okay."

Josh wondered if he was even capable of getting over Max's death. Between the three souls of Max, Charlie, and his other best friend, Maddy, Josh found comfort and reliability ¾ things Sherwood didn't offer him. Things he didn't often count on from his family. The only time his mother cared about his life was when she had to make an appearance at Bradshaw, to show the school, and her fellow housewives, that she was a caring parent. His father had simply never cared. Jack would rather bark orders at the office than ask about his son's pursuits. And Josh's twelve-year-old brother, Greg, was a pesky and immature annoyance. Without knowing it, Josh created his own family and support system with Charlie, Maddy, and the ill-fated Max.

Josh had to do something to salvage the vestiges of his life. A flood of ideas conspired in his mind, but one conceit stood out in particular. He looked at expectant Charlie, whose hand was patting his back, and realized that his eyes had been glazing over for quite some time.

“I'm going to find Maddy so we can have a proper burial,” Josh said as he stepped outside, onto the semi-circular porch surrounded by tall white pillars. The wind had calmed, and because of the recent weather history, he barely remembered it hadn't been raining when he was last out.

But just then, he noticed a large white van with Petmergency plastered on the side in bold green font. And a heavyset man in a green uniform. And a filled-out black bag being shoved into the rear of the van. Josh wanted to run over and scream and throw a tantrum, but Charlie grabbed his upper arm and said, "Josh, don't. It's for the best, this way. Now, you don't have to deal with it."

Josh felt defeated. He saw his mother peripherally watching the van drive off in front of her house, but was, for the most part, invested in her conversation with Lois. She held a red lace umbrella that was the color of murder, and her frivolous body language and nonchalant facial expression made Josh sick. He saw her car in the driveway and when giving the street a once-over, realized that it appeared nothing had occurred there at all ¾ there was no blood, no body, and certainly no somberness in the air. Sherwood was back to normal, just a little grayer. Josh discovered that tears were rolling down his cheeks and he had been making a whimpering sound, similar to Max's.

Why did she have to be so conniving and loathsome? Why did she have to mask her lowness with expensive fashion? Why did she always have to appear the picture of perfection ¾never allowing anyone to see her vulnerable or involved in issues? She sacrificed some of her relationships for her image of housewife extraordinaire and Über Husband-supporter, not caring that she didn't fulfill the roles that she claimed she adored.

And yet, Josh couldn't help but feel that she is his mother, and hoped that some long-ago suppressed emotion could churn inside of her and cause Linda to once again become human.

Josh found himself in the passenger seat of Charlie's Toyota RAV4 ¾ a graduation present from his dad. Charlie started the engine with a rumble and stalled when he saw their mothers. Josh rolled up his window; Charlie rolled the window back down, and swallowed deeply when Josh glared at him.

With her freshwater pearls jiggling but her shoulder-length hair in perfect place, Linda sashayed to the passenger window of the eldest Hart boy's car, where her own stubborn son could be found. He was being incredibly selfish. The disrespect he showed confused Linda. She wondered what she could have possibly done wrong while raising him as she cleared her throat in the general direction of the open window. "Joshua," she called flatly, "where are you going?"

"Linda," he gritted his teeth while allowing them to show. "Right now, I don't think it's any of your business."

"I am your mother." Linda tried to keep calm while straightening her dress. "You spoiled little ingrate. Do you know how hard I've worked for you? For Greg? For your father? You are acting immature and unreasonable." Linda, Maven-of-the-Last-Word, concluded, "And I refuse to speak with you right now." Knowing there was nothing left to say and seething in anger, Josh rolled up his window and to Charlie, ordered, "Drive."

Josh looked to his best friend and saw a morose impassivity. Charlie was concentrated on the road and clunked through the gears as expeditiously as Josh racked his mind about what had happened only a few minutes prior. His mother had once again found a way to disappoint him and kick him in the groin, only serving to stir his pot of animosity. Every time he saw her since Max died, he tried to view it as a horrible accident on both of their parts, but her actions and her words antagonized him.

Josh's temples pained him and he rubbed them with a vengeance. Charlie turned to look at him. Josh was suffering, he knew that, but he was also over-reacting. "I know you don't want to hear this," Charlie broke the silence. "But there was some merit to what your mother said about treating her so badly. I mean, she's your mom."

Josh's neck tightened as he looked toward the driver's seat. "What did you say?"

"I'm just...concerned for you. We all are...and your mother just tried to make amends."

Josh couldn't breathe in the constricting space. He lowly groaned with sadness in his throat. Still, he tried to overlook the discrepancy of opinion in the car because he was sure Charlie would jump on board once he knew Josh's grand plan, soon to be announced at Maddy's house.

In the massive country-styled kitchen of blond-wood, waxed marble, and streaking stainless steel, Josh revealed his idea. Charlie and Maddy were both silent, looking at both Josh, across the table, and each other, as if they'd missed something. Maddy's mouth was unhinged in shock, as Josh just revealed he wanted the two of them to leave with him. Where? 'Anywhere, everywhere,' he replied. Sherwood had rubbed him the wrong way his entire life and with the death of Max, he realized he hated every perfectly-painted lamp post in the place. He also believed he had no one to live for there, except his two friends. He wanted to finally live for himself and with his true family. He couldn't do that in Sherwood ¾ not with his biological family and a beautiful atmosphere.

While it was flattering Josh considered her his true family, Maddy had to think of herself. It was all so shotgun. She looked at her handsome friend, Josh, and out the window at the lightning bolts striking trees across the lake. She felt like the powerful ray of energy, stunting the life of Josh's spruce.

Maddy stated she cared for Josh, but explained she couldn't leave with him. Unlike him, she did not consider her mother disdainful, and her father useless, as they bought her a candy-apple red Mini Cooper and were going to pay for her upcoming college career, all of which were important to her. Maddy suggested that Josh may have been handling the situation badly and should've thought properly before making such an impulsive life-decision, which increased the boiling tension in the cold kitchen. Josh looked to Charlie, who concurred, even adding that Josh could perhaps get a new pet. Josh tried to hate these two people who misunderstood him, but couldn't reverse years of coalition. His eyes welled as he looked up at them.

"I will be at Water's Edge...four o'clock this afternoon. If you love me...if you are truly my friends and my family, then you will be there, with your things, and your cars." Josh breathed as the room flashed from the lightning. "We'll be okay without kitchens rarely used. Trust me. Believe in us."

The rain had ceased, but gloom carried on in the hours since Josh left Maddy's house; Josh stood just before the blue lake and studied its grandeur, waiting for the arrivals of Charlie and Maddy. He didn't like how he'd left things at Maddy's house ¾ they seemed to be on different pages, even after Josh's reasoning for his plan. Nevertheless, he hoped they'd show up, if only to give him closure by assuring him there was no way they could leave. It was the least they could do after all he'd done for them; he remembered helping Charlie cope with the concept of having a stepmother years before, and couldn't forget being cajoled into playing Maddy's rebound-guy after her dramatic break-up, a few months prior. He stood perched on the husky hood of his gray Land Rover LR2, purchased by his parents that very month, thinking about his road to this current location.

Josh heard the graveled ground being traveled on by an approaching car and turned to see a black Lincoln Navigator. He knew the two companions he loved so much had ratted on him. The Virginian license plate read EXEC-1. Papa-dearest was attempting to save the day. The SUV came to a halt and Josh was faced with two parents he felt little warm sentiments for. Sliding down to the ground in front of his front tire, he looked at the expansive lake and felt defeat, wishing he had never woken up.

Though he was chagrined, Josh went with Jack and Linda. He had no dog and no friends, so he didn't put forward grand resistance, even if he was tempted. The feeling of hopelessness came to him, mixed with resentment and tiredness. He was in physical pain, but wasn't sure why. He accepted the aching as part of the day's stresses. Josh fell into a slumber in the middle of his father's reprimand. The last words he heard were, "We're taking you to someone to talk to."

They drove into the capital, and pulled up to the Reflecting Pool in front of the Washington Monument. They quietly exited the car and Jack led them over to the water; Josh knew he was viewing a body of water that instilled prospect instead of illusion. He sighed; he also knew what was next. He knew he would have to go with it. The talk therapist would either be one more person to misunderstand him or someone to finally be on his side.

On their way to the doctor's office, Linda offered: "Josh, I apologize for your loss. For all our losses. Max was a special dog, but we must live in the present. And in the present, I would like to focus on us instead of a pet." Josh was sure she'd just finished a phone conversation with the good doctor, and wondered if she repeated her speech verbatim from him. He wanted to cry. He felt he didn't have anyone left, and yet, he still loved everyone, even the intolerable mother before him. Within her, he knew there was something to love, but he couldn't put his finger on what. At least not yet.

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