“Peter’s Denial” by Mark Bryk

TWA 83 CARD Bryk

Two hours before Peter Jacobsen disappeared, he sat by his window shivering in a cape, praying that the sun’s rays would beat away the cold from the ceiling vents. He gripped the empty glass jar on the window sill, waited, and when the sun was close enough to the horizon, he aligned the sun and jar so that through the jar’s dried wax it was like a scented candle.

As night falls, Superman withstands the darkness by capturing the sun—his primary source of strength!

But too quickly, the false candle dripped through the magic-trick bottom of the jar, under the window sill, behind the distant mountains—just like that, it was gone until morning. Mr. Jacobsen had told him, a few days earlier, that the sun rested miles and miles away, beyond the Fort Sole lookout. “Don’t we all need breaks?” Mr. Jacobsen reasoned, drifting off to the eight o’clock news. Peter had made sure to confirm, “Is that to the west?”

Now, a sedate whisper of “Dinner” invaded his room and Peter could smell the baked beans. He leapt downstairs in just three jumps and joined Mr. Jacobsen at the kitchen table. “Take the cape off,” he was told immediately. “You’re going to get it dirty. ”

They ate the beans over noodles. Mom would’ve called it travel food—two cans for a dollar, stacked in the pantry as if they were bracing for an earthquake. Mr. Jacobsen stared at the wall as he ate, and the silence mixed with the strong smell of barbecue sauce made Peter lose his appetite, though he hadn’t eaten since breakfast.

Mr. Jacobsen asked, “How was school?”

“I don’t feel good,” Peter answered, unintentionally avoiding the question. If his stomach had been cooperating, he would have confidently said, Fine. We learned the multiplication tables.

Then again, had Peter felt any inclination to be honest, he would have admitted, I skipped school today and I won’t go back tomorrow. Mrs. Hubert always hugs me and everybody stares, and I’m scared that for my birthday, she’ll even try to kiss me.

And, he thought, this food is disgusting… What else should I bring? When Mr. Jacobsen went to his room to watch the news, Peter packed his book bag with beans and lots of chocolate, grabbed the empty candle jar, filled his Man of Steel canteen from the tap in the fridge, tied his sneakers tight, and shut the front door softly. He waited at the outer gates for the night guard’s bathroom break, and, as if he were some bizarro thief, he squeezed through the narrow gap and out of the town.

Like a silent gust of wind, our hero creeps west. The town’s lights blur behind him, and the star lights guide his way. When he spots a clearing down a dark dirt road, he curls up in his cape and tries to fall.

Meanwhile, no more than a mile away…

—–

Lying in bed, Mr. Jacobsen asked himself, What would Maddie do?

Maddie would have fixed this, of course. After nightly prayers, in the flickering red glow of Peter’s votive candle, she would have said, Let’s go to school tomorrow and wipe out all the evil. Mr. Jacobsen tried to imagine himself in her place—wiping Peter’s tears as if life had an orchestral soundtrack—but he knew he couldn’t fake it. In his deep, dull voice, battles sounded silly and drama too excessive.

And, in this case, evil wasn’t the issue; Mr. Jacobsen had seen enough death to know there were no villains to fight. You can only wait—for your memories to fade, for your mind to adjust to an emptier world, for the sun to rise and set and rise again and leave the past behind.

Peter’s teacher had called him hours earlier, saying, “Where was your son? Listen, I know it’s been hard without her, but honestly—what I’ve planned tomorrow will fix it. What I need from you, just tell him to be here, okay?”

“Fix it?” Mr. Jacobsen had answered, and, ha, there it was again—the news anchor discussing crime, homelessness, helplessness. He’d once told Maddie, “Who are we to empty the foster home when we can hardly make rent? Trust the world to right itself.”

“There’s nothing I can do,” he told the empty bed, thoughtlessly. “Nowhere we can go.”

—–

When Peter woke up on the morning of his birthday, his neck was stiff from his rocky pillow, his eyes heavy from the late morning sun. Though he couldn’t see the grazing cows, he could smell them nearby—was he on Eddie’s farm?—and, between the crashes of a distant waterfall, he could make out the shouts from his way-too-close schoolyard. It was time to go!

He walked on the track beside the highway, charging himself with sunlight and Hershey’s. Faster than a speeding bullet, the young explorer covers cars and trucks in kicked-up dust. Despite his late start, can he make it to the horizon by nightfall?

He didn’t notice how fast his skin reddened. It was like walking straight into the heart of a star, as if there were a flashlight inches from his face. The white light filled the sky; the heat rose from the pavement; he could almost smell the sun’s smoke.

A hero, they would call him, when he eventually returned with his jarful of fire. No one to hug anymore?—take a bit of warmth! No one lets you smile?—well here’s a drop of sunshine, be careful not to touch it! And his old friends, they need it more than he does, could he split it? A quarter jar for you and a quarter jar for you, but don’t forget to share with friends, pets, and guardians. And then—what if everyone had a bit by their bedside, imagine that! No more dark rooms, cold rooms, empty rooms.

A coyote dashed past at the speed of light waking Peter from his daydream. The sun had dropped into his line of sight, and his tired shadow lagged a few steps behind him. In the glare, he could just make out a rest stop.

—–

“What did you say?” Mrs. Hubert asked, without even saying “Hello”. “Because I’ll tell you, Mr. Jacobsen, it certainly didn’t work.”

Mr. Jacobsen began, “I didn’t—”

“You know that your son is sensitive, don’t you?”

“I didn’t—”

“Not today, please. Now he lets no one in and you know he needs us most right now—and honestly, I don’t have the energy to chase him, I mean—twenty kids, twenty, and they’re no cake, trust me.” Mrs. Hubert inhaled loudly, indicating that she hadn’t finished. “Might as well start though, let’s think about this—what did you say?”

Mr. Jacobsen began, “I didn’t—”

“Trust me,” she explained. “You did.”

“He left too early.”

“He what?” she said, before pausing to think, before, in the imperious tone of a kindergarten teacher—four grades too low—she articulated: “Where did he go?”

Mr. Jacobsen hung up the phone and called the cops. “Wait until nightfall,” Chief Reinhart advised. “It’s healthier if you, um, give him space.”

And while we’re at it, the chief thought, I’ll give you some damn space. Two weeks ago, when the Jacobsen kid went missing right around dinnertime, Chief Reinhart put out an APB Amber Alert plus volunteers, and they had combed the town like miners in a gold rush. In less than an hour, they found the little altar boy digging in the churchyard, covered in fresh dirt and blood as if he were rising from the grave, and then—here’s the kicker—when Mr. Jacobsen came to pick him up, Chief Reinhart got no thanks, no smiles. No appreciation—that’s the problem.

On the other side of the call, Mr. Jacobsen was nodding too firmly. Yes, he agreed with the advice, but it sounded strange coming from the chief. When had everyone in town become a child expert? He fell onto his recliner, stared at the blank TV and out the window. For over an hour, in ten minute intervals, he walked from the chair to the pantry and back to the chair, vaguely wondering where all his chocolate had gone.

—–

In the shade of the rest stop gazebo, Peter ate more Easter eggs and watched a single crow flutter into a crow-filled tree; it was cawed at and shoved down one branch at a time, until it found an unchallenged roosting spot just a few yards from the ground. When a spray-painted van pulled up and the driver asked, “Want company?” Peter didn’t lose sight of the bird. He was thinking, Every night a new branch, a new home.

The two people who came out—Jesse and Lena—put a portable stove, a wok, and a food bin on Peter’s table. Lena cut pumpkins and onions and garlic, and as she cooked, the smell of the curry almost masked that they hadn’t showered in days. Jesse handed Peter a bowl and asked, “So where you headed?”

“To the sun,” Peter replied.

Jesse laughed. Lena stopped rolling her cigarette and said, with a wink, “We should take him.”

When two strangers appear and offer help without reason, a hero’s super-senses should shout danger! But, of course, this brave traveler was worn out from the road.

“Yeah, the sun!” Jesse said, grabbing Peter’s arm. “We know the feeling, thought we were heading home, all enlightened, you know?”

Peter didn’t know how to respond. He said, “Are you going too?”

Lena passed her cigarette to Jesse, who took a long puff of strange-smelling smoke. With his fork between two fingers and the rolled paper between two others, Jesse said, “Heading to the sun, I love that, tropical climate, not too touristy.”

Peter was silent. He used the one arm not clutched by Jesse to take a bite of curry, and wow was it good. Sure, he hadn’t eaten a real meal in a day and a half, but the food filled his stomach as if Lena had cooked it specifically for him, like a comfy winter coat exactly his size. He ate and ate and, when the wok was empty, laid on the grass with his head nestled in Lena’s lap to watch the stars emerge. Peter felt warm and safe, wrapped inside his cape. Lena found his hand, pointed it at the sky, and, tracing an egg-shaped constellation, she said, “Who needs one sun when you can live with millions?”

He liked the way her stomach rose and dropped as she spoke. He whispered, “Millions of suns?”

“Yeah,” Lena said, before Jesse interrupted. “It’s the way to live, isn’t it? We’ll be like a little family, the sun chasers, and Lena will paint it, won’t you?”

Peter didn’t follow what Jesse said, and under the stars all his confusing thoughts swirled, like crows circling the tree and star homes in the sky and pumpkins in his stomach, and he figured that it would make sense in the morning. “Okay,” he said, drifting off to sleep. “I’ll come with you.”

A few minutes later, Lena unrolled a sleeping bag to pad the van floor, laid Peter down with his head beside the fridge, the smell of garlic sifting through the vent, and rejoined Jesse on the grass to read a book by Zippo light.

—–

As night arrived and Peter didn’t, Mr. Jacobsen finally began to doubt his own patience. Impulsively, he called Maddie and listened to the phone ring; when it went to voicemail, he asked, “Where in hell is he?”

The words echoed behind him. He swung around half-expecting to see Peter, who’d be tapping him on the shoulders to interrupt the news, some irrelevant issue on his mind. Then, Mr. Jacobsen remembered—what was it that Peter had asked?—“To the west!”

He forgot how the rest of the conversation had gone, but, still—to the west Mr. Jacobsen drove! Out on the highway and down every turnoff, he honked his horn and waited, shined his brights into the void. In response though, he saw only the floating eyes of animals, heard only the howling coyotes, like distant screeching car brakes. Driving in circles, he kept asking himself, What did I do wrong?

Mr Jacobsen had raised the boy as his own father had raised him. He’d given Peter a steady allowance in return for his chores, let him spend it all on comic books, never punished him unfairly—yet the world would blame this scandal on him, the man who lost his son. He wondered whether he’d be able to look Maddie’s parents in the eyes, or his colleagues, or himself. He should have listened to the sign from God a decade earlier: if you can’t have children, don’t.

After almost two hours of driving, he pulled into a highway rest stop, near two joint-smoking hippies. He was too tired to wave; the moment he turned off the ignition, he fell asleep in his seat. But the answer must have occurred to him in a dream because when he woke up to the sunrise, he exclaimed, “That was the place!” and rushed off to Fort Sole. What luck!

—–

“Good morning kiddo,” Lena said. “We found you some sun.”

Peter tried to rub the brightness from his eyes, but there was nothing he could do about the noise, like a thousand bathtubs filling, or the sting that the waterfall’s mist made on his fresh sunburns. Where was the sun?—up the pillar of water, over the cliff—would he have to fly? He said, “There?”

“Come here,” Lena said. “Jesse made lunch.”

No, wait! To get his bearings, Peter stuck one hand up in the air—“like you’re taking off,” Mom had taught him—and aligned his shadow with his watch’s shorter hand. Finally alert, he turned to nine o’clock and asked, “Why aren’t we going west?”

Jesse looked at his phone. “Well, um. How about first we check you’re not a spy?”

Peter said, “What?”

“Like how old are you?”

Now, Peter understood that it was a test. He said, “Nine. Wait—ten!”

“Better keep your facts straight for this next one,” Jesse cautioned. “Why to the sun?”

Good question, Peter thought. But the waterfall was too loud for him to explain the whole trip from the start; it wasn’t that simple. He said, “Can I tell you later?”

“Seems a bit suspicious. I don’t know if we can—”

Peter said, “Wait! Give me one more chance!”

Peter saw Lena squeeze Jesse’s leg below the table. “Let him be,” she whispered.

Jesse replied, “Only because you said please. So, final question?” He motioned for Peter to come closer. “Let’s hear about the cape.”

Blow his secret identity? The answer is No! But Peter glanced at Lena, she winked, and he thought, Would Mom want me to tell her?

Slowly, he began: “Last year on my birthday, I found a clue on my cake. It sent me to the basement and then to the store and then to the church.”

The church, Peter thought, remembering how he felt when he entered the nave—as dark and hollow as home without Mom—while all his classmates ate his cake without him.

“It was lying on the altar, waiting special, just for me.”

Lit by nine votive candles, Peter remembered, as if he were there—there, behind him, Mom sitting in the pews. She cheered, “Use it, Superman! Save us!”

He nodded. The sun flickered behind a solitary leaf. After a few long seconds, Lena grabbed Peter’s hand. “I think you passed. Let’s go.”

Nothing keeps Superman from his Fortress of Solitude. No matter how tough the challenge, a hero powers through. If you can’t take the heat, Mom says, it’s not meant to be.

—–

Peter was not at Fort Sole, but, for that matter, neither was anyone else. Alone at the lookout, Mr. Jacobsen looked out: the sun rose behind him; the mountain’s shadow retreated down the gentle slope, up the bumps and down the dips like bunches in an unfurling carpet. Shades of green danced in the light. The world seemed completely empty.

And when the cars arrived, back and forth across the switchbacks, honking at the corners despite the fisheye mirrors, Mr. Jacobsen felt even lonelier. It was Good Friday. Off-from-work parents and off-from-school children were piling out of their cars with blankets, chairs, and grocery bags. He rushed back to his car to watch them from a distance.

Within minutes, the smell of meat drifted over from the public grills. What I wouldn’t do right now to be sitting on that grass with a burger in my hand, watching my wife and son run around like hippies. Hell, I would even join them, he thought, for the first time in years. Draw mud lines on my face and leap from the car roof.

And as that thought crossed his mind, the spray-painted van pulled into the parking spot beside him—an obvious sign from God. Out came the hippies. Out came his son.

“Hi,” Peter said, when he noticed Mr. Jacobsen standing in front of him. “Are you coming?”

Mr. Jacobsen was as stiff as an action figure, and Peter felt the urge to replace his batteries. But then Mr. Jacobsen’s fingers began to curl; he said, “Let’s go” and made a thumbs up. On a mission unlikely to succeed, the relentless runaway recruits an unlikely ally: an adult with arms that reach the sky.

The sun had passed the lookout by at least a mile. With one hand, Peter traced a vertical line and found the point directly beneath it—an indentation in the earth like a head mark in a pillow. He said, “Let’s wait there.”

Lena and Jesse didn’t come along; the sign clearly stated that the fine for off-trail hiking was a hundred dollars, and besides, Jesse hated hiking in flip-flops. “Good luck catching the sun,” Jesse said. “Send us a postcard!”

But when Peter and Mr. Jacobsen, in ripped shorts and grass-stained slacks, finally stumbled into the crater that Peter had spotted, the sun had slipped even further. Peter didn’t know what to do. He grabbed the glass jar from his bag. He looked up at Mr. Jacobsen with wide eyes, in the way that another child would ask, Dad, what now? And Mr. Jacobsen took the jar, held it to the sun as Peter liked to do, and understood the issue. He suggested, “Have you tried to cause an earthquake?”

Good idea, Peter thought. He bent his knees and brought his hips down low, soared into the air so that on landing, all his energy would surge into the earth and make it spring back like a trampoline. But his feet hit the ground, he looked up, and he realized that his earthquake didn’t even shake the people from the lookout, let alone the sun from the sky.

Mr. Jacobsen found a huge rock. “Use this?”

With super strength, Peter heaved it toward heaven, as though knocking a frisbee from a tree, but right then, he heard a crow cawing—Probably returning to roost, he figured, forgetting to follow his rock through the clouds. Different branch, same tree.

Mr. Jacobsen hadn’t given up. He was digging in the dirt on his hands and knees, looking for something, anything, for Peter to use.

Peter asked, “What are you doing?”

“Ma—Mom’s candle,” Mr. Jacobsen answered, holding up the jar for Peter to see. In it, the sun was like bottled emptiness—an eraser mark in the sky’s solid blue. Shoving a stick into Peter’s hand, he said, “Here.”

Peter didn’t need the stick though. There was a simple solution: he took the jar back and filled it with dirt. In the years since his crash, a layer of Kryptonian dust has remained in Superman’s crater, buried by time and fear. Not even our hero knows the extent of its powers.

“Here, Dad,” Peter said. “Let’s use this.”

 

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headshotThis week, Mark Bryk is living in Cairns, Australia. After that, I’m not sure where he’ll be. Any suggestions are more than welcome. He studied engineering in New York City before he left to travel and write, and recently, he began developing a website called Arton Post, a fictional city that writers and artists can co-create. Check it out!

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2 Comments

  1. I’ve reread this story’s ending like five times, and I’m STILL not 100% sure what is going on. It’s entirely possible this is because I’m not very bright, or because I missed some crucial detail despite my rereadings. Either way it’s a bummer because I like most of what comes before the ending, this story of a father and son dealing with the loss of wife and mother in equally disjointed, but completely human ways. There’s a sad kind of beauty in their journeys. I just wish I understood where they ended up.

  2. I really enjoyed this. The comic book style of writing worked well as we toured around in Peter’s imagination. I was a little confused as to how Peter related to Mr. Jacobsen. There’s talk of foster kids, so I think that’s what the relationship is. But then Mrs. Jacobsen is gone, or so I thought, so I started thinking that it’s a father and son who have lost their mom/wife, but then Mrs. Jacobsen is on the phone later. I don’t know. It was confusing. I guess I’ve said that. Maybe too maybe people and too many losses for such a small frame.
    But the journey, as simple as it is, compared to the heroic quest the boy sees himself taking, really stuck with me and I felt a definite emotional connection to this lost little boy struggling to be something he isn’t to fix something he can’t. Good stuff overall.

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