On the River in the Sun
Story and Art by Kristy Gherlone
**This story originally appeared in the January 2020 issue of “Scarlet Leaf Review.”
“Charlie? Time to get up, son.”
Pulled from sleep, Charlie stretched and kicked the covers aside. He’d been in the middle of a dream. He’d been digging through the ice cream chest at the corner store up the road from his grandpa’s cottage, trying to decide between a Klondike or a Snickers bar.‘Take ‘em both if you’d like. A little ice cream on a hot day never killed anyone,’ his grandfather had chuckled. ‘You’re gonna need some fuel to catch those trout’. Charlie was still smiling when he opened his eyes and looked up.
“Did you hear me?” his father asked, switching on the light. He was wearing his suit and tie.
“I heard,” Charlie answered back. He sat up and yawned. Fully roused, the events of the day before came rushing back. It made his chest feel heavy, as if someone was squeezing it. His grandfather wasn’t at the cottage. He was laying as still as a sunning turtle in a wood box under the ground.
“I have to go into the office,” his father said. “Your mother’s getting your breakfast ready. She’s going to drop you off at school and then go and sit with your Aunt June.”
Charlie flopped back down, grabbed the covers, and pulled them up over his head. “You said you had the whole day off ‘cause of what happened,” he whined. “You said I didn’t have to go to school.”
“I know and I’m sorry. Things didn’t work out like I planned. Besides, I think it’s best if everyone just gets back to normal. There’s no sense in sitting around moping. You’ll feel better once you see your friends. You’ll see,” he said before breezing out.
Charlie threw the covers back off. “Dad,” he called.
“Yeah?” his father answered.
“How long is Grandpa planning on being dead for?”
Charlie’s father sighed. He came back into the room and sat on the edge of the bed. “I thought we talked about this. You’re eight now. You’re old enough to understand about death.”
Charlie understood about death. He didn’t know why he’d asked such a dumb question. He figured it was because he wanted his father to say something; something that would make everything alright.
“Dead is forever,” his father said. He brushed the hair out of Charlie’s eyes. “Remember when Copper died? Do you remember what we told you?”
“Well, it’s the same thing with grandpa. He’s in a better place now.”
“With Copper?” Charlie asked.
“Maybe,” his father shrugged.
Charlie pulled the blanket back up over his head. It wasn’t possible there was a place better for his grandpa than the cottage. There might be somewhere better for a dog, but people were different.
“Listen, I have to get going,” his father said, getting up. “If you have any more questions, I’m sure your mom can help you out. I’m late.”
“But what if Grandpa gets to that place, wherever it is, and doesn’t like it?”
“He can’t come back, Charlie,” his father said, his voice firm. “It’s not possible. I know it’s hard, but that’s just the way it is.”
“But summer’s starting in a couple of weeks. Who’s going to watch me? Who’s going to take me to the cottage?”
“Let’s not worry about that right now. We’ll figure something out. Now hurry up, okay? Your mom’s waiting.”
Charlie got up and plodded towards the bathroom. His parents were talking down in the kitchen.
“I can’t believe you’re going in to work so soon after your father’s funeral,” Charlie’s mother said. “I know you two didn’t see eye to eye, but it just doesn’t seem right. I mean, what about Charlie? Your father may have been a thorn in your side, but Charlie loved him very much. He needs you right now.”
“Shhh,” his father said. “He’ll hear you.”
Charlie crept over to the top of the stairs to listen, even though he wasn’t supposed to eavesdrop.
“Well, I just can’t believe it,” his mother said, lowering her voice.
“Why?” his father asked. “He would have done the same thing. The man didn’t take a day off from work in forty years.”
“But it’s your father,” she said. “And now I’m the one who has to go and comfort your sister all day.”
“Then don’t go! I don’t know why she’s so bent out of shape anyway. He treated her the same way he treated me. He was barely even around when we were growing up and when he was, he ignored us. The only thing that man ever cared about was work.”
“That’s not true,” Charlie’s mother said. “He cared about Charlie.”
“Well it was true for me!” Charlie’s father boomed, then lowered his voice again. “I’m glad he cared about Charlie. I’m glad he took an interest. I just wish…,” he started, but didn’t finish.
“Wish what?” his mother prodded.
“I just wish he’d shown me the same affection when I was Charlie’s age.”
“I wish he had too, Ben, for your sake, but don’t you think he made up for it a little with Charlie? He did us a pretty big favor by watching him, so we didn’t have to pay for a sitter. Charlie learned a lot from him. Don’t you think we owe him a little something for that at least?”
“I don’t owe him anything.”
There was a long silence before his mother spoke again.
“Well, I still think you should be the one to go to your sister’s,” she said. “You two need to discuss what’s going to happen to his estate.”
“There’s nothing to discuss. Everything will be sold, and the proceeds will be split in half.”
“What about the cottage?” she asked.
Charlie stopped breathing. His heart thudded inside of his chest as he waited to hear his father’s answer.
“Well?” his mother asked again.
“I guess it will be sold.”
“No!” Charlie cried.
“Charlie?” his mom called. “Is that you?”
Charlie dashed into the bathroom. Hot tears stung his eyes. His father couldn’t sell the cottage! He just couldn’t!
“Your breakfast is getting cold,” she said.
Charlie didn’t care about stupid breakfast. “I’m not hungry,” he answered grumpily.
“Your mother cooked you a nice breakfast, so you get down here. Now!” his father said.
Charlie pouted. He blew his nose and went down to the kitchen, where he sat with a slump at the table.
“Morning, sweetheart,” his mother said brightly. She smiled, kissed him on the cheek, and set a plate of pancakes in front of him.
“I’ve got to go,” Charlie’s father said, checking his watch. “Try to have a good day.” He reached down to ruffle Charlie’s hair, but Charlie pulled away. His father frowned. “Maybe we can throw the ball around when I get home. Wouldn’t that be fun?”
Charlie didn’t answer. He wasn’t talking to his father.
“Well, see you later, Champ,” his father said. “I’ll try to come home early,” he added before rushing out. Charlie scowled. His father wouldn’t come home early. He never did.
Charlie waited for his father’s car to pull out of the driveway before asking, “Why didn’t Daddy like Grandpa?”
Charlie’s mother stopped washing dishes. “Oh honey, he loved your grandpa. What would make you ask such a thing?” she asked. She wiped her hands on a dish towel and went over to sit with him.
“I don’t know,” Charlie answered, pushing the food around on his plate. “It’s just that he never came up to the cottage. All the time we were up there, he never came. Not for fishing, not for a barbecue, not for anything.”
“Your dad’s a busy man, Charlie,” she said, coming to his defense. “He has an important job.”
“But Grandpa told me that Daddy had a lot of fun at the cottage when he was little. He said he never wanted to leave. If he loved the cottage so much, then he must have stayed away because of Grandpa,” Charlie surmised. “Or maybe he didn’t come because he didn’t want to spend time with me,” he added, though it pained him.
“That’s just not true!” his mother cried. “Daddy loves you very much. He just has a lot of responsibilities. I’m sure he would have gone if he’d found the time.”
“Well, I’m never going to be too busy to go the cottage,” Charlie said, fixing his jaw.
“Charlie…” his mother started softly, reaching for his hand.
Charlie snatched it away. “Well, I won’t! And I’m not going to change either! I’ll always want to go. And if you let Daddy sell it, I’m never speaking to you guys again! You just wait and see if it’s true!” he said. He jumped up and ran to his room.
Charlie’s parents didn’t talk about selling the cottage again for a while. He hoped it meant that his father had changed his mind, but when school let out, instead of spending the first week of summer vacation swimming and fishing at the cottage, Charlie went to his Aunt June’s. The city was hot in the summertime, and her backyard was an oven in the afternoon heat. She didn’t like to go to the town pool, or to the park, or much of anything that had to do with the outside.
Charlie kept thinking about Grandpa and the cottage. He worried about the fish and the chipmunks. He and his grandpa always brought food to feed the creatures. What would happen when there was no one there to feed them? Would they starve?
Charlie’s Aunt June drove him home on Friday afternoon. When they got to the house, Charlie’s father was hooking a trailer to their van and his mother was loading suitcases into the back seat. Charlie hopped out of the car. “Are we going somewhere?” he asked.
“Yes,” his mother answered. “We’re going up to the cottage this weekend.”
“Yippee!” Charlie screeched, leaping into the air.
“Don’t get too excited,” his father cautioned. “We’re only going to gather some of your grandpa’s personal things and to clean the place up a bit so we can list it with a realtor.”
Charlie’s heart sank. His father had made his decision. The cottage would be sold. Soon, it would be gone forever, just like his grandpa.
“If you’d rather stay here, with Aunt June,” Charlie’s father offered, “no one will blame you. There’s a lot of work to do up there. I won’t have much time to spend with you.”
“I think he should go. It might be good for him,” his mother said, cutting in. “He has a lot of memories there. He might want to see it one last time.”
“I suppose,” his father shrugged.
“What do you think, Sweetheart?” his mother asked him.
“I want to go,” Charlie decided. It would be hard when it was time to say goodbye, but at least he’d have one last weekend of fun.
Charlie’s father smiled. “I think that’s a good idea,” he said. “In time, you’ll understand why we couldn’t keep it,” he added, but Charlie knew he wouldn’t understand if he lived to be a million years old.
Charlie went into the house to gather some things for the trip. He stopped by the kitchen to fill his pockets with peanuts and crackers. He hoped it was enough to satisfy the fish and chipmunks for a long time.
Outside, Charlie’s father honked the horn. “Come on you guys! Time’s wasting. We’ve got to get going if we’re going to beat traffic,” he hollered.
Charlie ran out and got into the back seat of the van. His stomach flipped and flopped. He felt all churned up inside, like his happy and sad parts were fighting with each other.
Charlie’s mother came out last, juggling a pile of boxes. “Thanks for the help,” she muttered. She tossed them into the trailer and got in next to Charlie’s father. “Do you think we’ll need more?” she asked, but he didn’t hear her. He was talking on his phone about work stuff.
“What did you say, Beth?” Charlie’s father asked finally, after he’d hung up.
“I asked if you think we’ll need more boxes.”
“If we do, I’m sure there will be places to get some. I don’t know what’s around. I haven’t been up there in years, but there’s bound to be a shopping plaza or something.”
Charlie turned his attention out the window as they started along. He liked to watch the city get smaller and smaller until it turned into forest. His grandpa used to tell him that there was an invisible fence to keep the city from spilling over and messing up the woods. Green hills lay before them. The car climbed, winding its way up the highway. Charlie watched for the familiar lakes and streams before they disappeared on the descent.
“This scenery is gorgeous,” Charlie’s mother remarked. “Isn’t it gorgeous? Just look at those valleys!”
“The glaciers left those holes when the ice melted away,” Charlie said.
“Well, isn’t that something,” Charlie’s mother said. “I bet your grandpa told you that. He was a very smart man.”
Charlie was about to say that he was; that he was the smartest man he knew, but his father’s phone rang. “Quiet! I need to take this,” he said. He answered and talked on and on about more work things that Charlie didn’t pay attention to.
When they reached their exit, Charlie’s father got off the phone. He turned off the main highway and onto the long, country road that ran through the town near the cottage. Charlie spotted the store that he and his grandpa used to go to. He wanted to ask his father to stop in for ice cream, but decided against it.
Finally, they came to the fire road that went down to the lake. Pine branches scraped against the side of their van, screeching and scratching as they went along the narrow dirt road. “Well, the road’s still the same,” Charlie’s father grumbled. “You’d think after all this time, they’d have widened it a little.”
“Oh, that’s all we need are more scratches on this car!” Charlie’s mother tsked.
“I’m not sure if I remember which driveway is ours,” Charlie’s father said, slowing. “There’s a lot more cottages than there used to be.”
“I know which one it is,” Charlie said with confidence. “It’s the next one, right up there.”
Charlie’s father turned into the driveway and stopped. Charlie threw the door open and jumped out. He bolted down to the pond, grabbed a handful of pebbles, and threw them into the water. Sunfish darted out from underneath the lily pads and pecked at them, thinking it food. “The fish are still here!” he laughed.
“You be careful, Charlie!” his mother warned, as she got out of the car.
Charlie’s father got out too, and stretched. “Smell that air!” he said, taking in a deep breath. “I’d forgotten how clean it smells up here. It’s like we’re a million miles from the city and it’s really not that far away.”
“It’s pretty,” Charlie’s mother said. “And so quiet. I can see why Charlie’s so fond of it.”
Charlie’s father joined him at the edge of the pond. Startled by the sudden movement, the sunfish scattered, but it wasn’t long before they made their way back. “Boy oh boy, are those fish still hanging around?” he chuckled. “They were here when I was kid. I used to feed them bread crusts.”
“I know. Grandpa told me,” Charlie said. “He said you used to stand in the water and let them bite your toes.”
“That’s right! I did. I’d forgotten all about that,” he said, then grew quiet as he gazed out over the water. His smile faded. “I used to spend a lot of time down here, Charlie. A lot of time,” he said finally.
“We could go fishing, if you want,” Charlie offered after a while.
His father shook his head, as if clearing his thoughts. “I wish I could, but I have too many things to do,” he said.
Charlie stuck out his tongue and blew a raspberry.
“I warned you it wouldn’t be much fun,” his father said and took his phone out of his pocket.
Charlie sighed and kicked at the sand. “Can we go later?”
“Shush. Not now, Charlie,” his father said, putting the phone to his ear. After a moment, he lowered it again and inspected the screen. “I don’t seem to have any service out here. Honey? Is your phone working?”
“Lord, I don’t know!” she huffed, spitting bangs out of her face as she carried an arm load of boxes. “I’m a little busy at the moment.”
“Hmmm…” Charlie’s father frowned. He zig-zagged around the yard, holding the phone over his head as he searched for a signal. Unable to find a connection, he scowled and shoved the phone back into his pocket. “What were you saying, Charlie?”
“I asked if we could go later?”
“Like I told you before, we came to get things in order, not to play. Besides, I don’t even have a fishing pole.”
“Yes, you do,” Charlie said. “It’s right inside. It’s the one you had when you were little.”
“What?” his father croaked in surprise. “That old thing is still here?”
“Uh huh. Grandpa said he was saving it for when you came back. He saved your tackle box too.”
“Well how about that,” Charlie’s father said.
“So, can we go?”
His father cleared his throat. “You go on ahead,” he said. “Maybe I’ll come down in a little while.”
“But there’s only junk fish out here,” Charlie persisted, motioning towards the lake. “Just a lot of suckers and yellow perch. We need to go down to the river if we want to catch any good ones.”
“Grandpa took you to the river?”
Charlie nodded. “All the time.”
“Well I’ll be,” his father uttered with a snort. “I used to beg and beg him to take me, but he was usually too busy.” Just then, his phone began to ring. He snatched it out of his pocket and answered. “Hello? Oh, hey Tom,” he said, breathing a sigh of relief. “I’ve been trying to call you. The service here is terrible.”
Charlie sighed and wandered back down to the lake. He hopped up onto the wharf, took his shoes off, and stuck his feet into the cold water, just like he and his grandpa used to do. He shivered, though the sun beat down hot on his back. He felt a pang thinking about how cold and dark it was where his grandpa’s body rested. He peered up at the sky and wondered about the place up there, where his grandpa’s spirit was supposed to be. Did it have a lake or a sun? Did it have ice cream or peanuts? He wanted to ask his father more about it, but he would be mad if Charlie interrupted him.
A fish swam up and pecked at Charlie’s toe. He dug a cracker out of his pocket, which by then was more crumbs than cracker, and threw the pieces in. He watched as the fish fought over the food. “You guys are going to have to find something else to eat now,” Charlie told them sadly.
“Charlie? Ben?” Charlie’s mother called, sticking her head out the screened door. “I made you guys some sandwiches. Are you hungry?”
“I guess,” Charlie said. He got up and scanned the yard for his father, but he was still on the phone. He picked up his shoes and went inside without him.
The cottage still smelled like his grandpa. Charlie’s chest felt heavy again as he glanced around. The newspaper his grandpa had been reading the last time they’d come was still laying in the seat of his recliner. His flannel shirt hung over the back. The puzzle they had been working on was half-finished on the coffee table. Charlie’s eyes filled with tears. It hurt down deep inside. He wished like anything that his grandpa would pop out and tell him he was only kidding about being dead.
Charlie’s mom came up behind him and laid a hand on his head. “I’m so sorry, sweetie pie. You must be missing him awful bad,” she lamented, leaning down to plant a kiss on his nose.
Charlie made a face, wiped the kiss off, and ducked out of reach. He didn’t want her to see him cry. “Dad said he might take me fishing later,” he said, changing the subject.
“That’s great! I guess you better go on and eat then,” she said.
Charlie had his sandwich alone at the table, while his mother poked around in the cupboards. He’d just finished eating when his father came in.
“It’s so nice up here,” Charlie’s mother remarked with a smile. “You never told me how lovely it was. And so peaceful. You know, this is the closest we’ve come to a vacation in years?”
“It is nice,” Charlie’s father agreed as he gazed out the window. “I’d forgotten how nice,” he added quietly.
Charlie’s mother yawned. “Well, I’m going to sit and rest for a while,” she decided. “I’m done in. I think I’ll start that book I brought to read. Why don’t you two go off and do something.” she suggested, giving Charlie’s father a wink.
“I don’t know,” he said, surveying the clutter in the kitchen. “I should start going through some of this stuff.”
Charlie’s mother shot him a look. It was the look she gave when she didn’t want to argue but had something to say.
“Well,” he relented. “Charlie did mention that he wanted to go fishing.”
Charlie jumped out of his chair so fast, it nearly toppled over.
“Just for a little while, though,” his father said. “What do you say, champ? Want to show me where that old pole of mine is?”
Charlie ran into the living room and pulled his father’s fishing pole out of the corner. “Here it is. See? Right where you left it,” he said, thrusting it towards his father. “And your tackle box is over by the door.”
Charlies father took the pole and checked it over. “Man, oh man. I haven’t seen this pole in years. It still looks the same! I hope it works as good as it used to.”
Charlie snatched his own pole and followed his father toward the door. He hopped around impatiently while his father inspected the contents of his tackle box.
“Some if this stuff is probably antique, by now,” his father teased as he sorted through the lures.
“Everything’s still good,” Charlie assured him. “Can we go now?”
“Well, these hooks will probably disintegrate as soon as I cast them into the water,” his father said with a frown, “but I guess they’ll have to do.”
Charlie followed his father outside and together they walked down the trail to the river. Charlie took a few of the nuts out of his pocket and dropped them on the ground for the chipmunks.
“You know, when I was your age, I caught the biggest fish of my life down at the river,” Charlie’s father said.
“I know,” Charlie said. “Grandpa told me. He even showed me a picture. He said it was one of the best days he ever had.”
Charlie’s father stopped walking and looked at him “He really said that?”
“Huh,” Charlie’s father said. “I’m surprised he even remembered that day.”
“Grandpa remembered lots of stories from when you were little. And you know what? Every time he told me one it kind of felt like you were here.”
Charlie’s father fixed his jaw. “I’m surprised grandpa had so many stories to tell,” he said, bitterly. “I know he was great with you, but it wasn’t like that for me.”
Charlie found a loose stone on the trail and kicked it.
“I’m sorry,” Charlie’s father said. “I know you loved him very much. It wasn’t right of me to say that.”
“It’s okay,” Charlie said, even though it wasn’t. He didn’t like knowing that his grandpa made his father feel as sad as Charlie did sometimes. “I loved grandpa, but I love you too. I’m glad we’re going fishing.”
Charlie’s father smiled. “I’m glad, too.”
The thundering of the river began to sound through the trees. They were close. Charlie ran ahead. He had a surprise for his father.
“Wait up, Charlie!” his father said, running after him. “That water is dangerous,” he cautioned.
Charlie got to the river first and stood in front of the bench his grandfather had placed on the bank. When his father rounded the corner, out of breath, Charlie jumped aside. “Tada!”
“What’s this?” his father asked.
“It’s a bench. Grandpa built it for us. It’s for sitting in the sun while we fish. Look at what he wrote,” he said, pointing to the carving along the back.
“‘For Benjamin,’” Charlie’s father began. “’For all the times I wish we’d come but didn’t. For all the….’” His voice cracked. His face crumpled. He turned away from Charlie, his shoulders shaking as he wept.
Charlie didn’t know what to do. He’d never seen his father cry before. He went to him and wrapped his arms around his waist. “I thought the bench would make you happy.”
“It does,” his father said, wiping at his tears. “I’m not crying because of that. I’m crying because I have been a fool. I’m so sorry I never came up here with you and grandpa. At first, it was because I was stubborn, then I just got so busy with work, I forgot how much I was missing out on. I bet you’ve been missing me, just like I missed him all those years and I’m sorry for that, too. Can you ever forgive me?”
Charlie hugged his father tighter. “I have been missing you,” he said. “But I’m happy you’re here now. Do you want meto read the bench?” he asked.
Charlie’s father nodded.
“For Benjamin,” Charlie began, proudly. “For all the times I wish we’d come but didn’t. For all the times you can make up for it with Charlie.”
Charlie’s father scooped him up and gave him a kiss. “I guess I’ve made some mistakes.”
“Grandpa told me that he made some too, but that it’s never too late to fix a mistake, until it is.”
“Your Grandpa was a very smart man,” Charlie’s father said, smiling through his tears. Just then, his phone began to ring. He took it out of his pocket. Charlie thought he’d answer it, but instead, he shut it off, and put in back into his pocket.
“Almost as smart as you,” Charlie said.
Charlie’s father laughed. “Well, let’s hook us some fish and then we’ll go back and tell your mother that we’ve decided to keep the cottage. We have a lot of catching up to do.”
**No part of this story may be copied or reproduced with consent from the author.