The Family Trip

The house had been quiet since the argument on Friday night had brought out the worst in everyone. Rising anger, hurling insults and then thick, awkward silence. Steve moved quickly through the living room, making sure to not make eye contact with anyone. Of course, family is family whatever has been said and done, but it was different this time. It had gone too far and was too late to take anything back now. He made his way to the garage, got everything ready in the car and muttered to himself about his ungrateful family.

It seemed like every time they were about to go away, someone had to ruin it. Friday hadn’t been much different from most other days to be fair, it had just gotten really nasty and Steve had heard enough. His daughters were constantly bitching about how their friends’ houses were bigger, their cars were newer and basically any stuff they had was always ‘better than ours’. They took cues from their fork-tongued mother and would tell him that he was a let-down and a loser. He used to tell them not to speak to him that way, but he’d given up on trying to demand their respect a long time ago. It was impossible to show him any respect with Diana around, always criticising and contradicting him.

Things hadn’t always been this way. Diana had always taken charge, but she used to laugh and smile with Steve and they had been happy once upon a time. They must have been, although the memories were more like abstract ideas than actual moments that he pinpoint. She had been happy when they had bought their house together and she was able to decorate it how she wanted, with sleek modern bathrooms and the rustic cabin feeling in the living room. None of it was what Steve would have chosen. She would burn small logs in the faux-antique fireplace, despite their perfectly adequate central heating and regardless of the season, just for the homely effect. Steve said nothing and let her do whatever made her happy. After the kids came along and she stopped working, she had stopped being happy. His job was not good enough anymore and she eventually stopped taking joy in anything. She still burned logs as she read stacks of magazines in a comfy chair, but her smiles were gone. She became so adept at keeping the fire going that she would barely shift her eyes from the magazine in her left hand as she jabbed at the glowing embers with the poker in her right. It didn’t matter if it was cold or not in the living room, she liked the look of the fire and by now it was mostly out of habit.

The girls had been told from an early age that their father was a disappointment, so by the time they got to high school they were finding their own reasons to resent him. They wanted brand-name everything and were, quite frankly, embarrassed by his crappy job and his lack of ambition. They wouldn’t make the same mistake as their mother and marry losers. They had told him so on Friday night. It had been the first time he’d heard Diana laugh in months.

Now, here he was, still cleaning out the car to make it as nice as possible for them for their trip. It was an old car, definitely not flashy but it was easily as reliable as any other car in the road. Never a breakdown in all the years he’d had it, smooth and easy to steer and an engine that barely made a sound. They always hated this car. It had never been good enough.

It didn’t take long before everyone was in the car, still silent, his wife in the back seat with their daughters. It was probably for the best, Steve thought, he didn’t want her up front with him anyway. Obviously she couldn’t criticise his driving without speaking to him, but she would still be a distraction and he was still angry with her for what she said on Friday. No one spoke as the car eased out of the driveway, or when it left the city limits and the buildings gave way to trees and hills. Still, Steve was optimistic, as anyone would be as they set off for a much deserved holiday.

He couldn’t understand why he was the only one looking forward to the trip. It was an annual tradition, but all anyone else did was bitch and whine about it. The girls used to love playing on the beach and Diana used to look forward to staying in an actual cabin, living for a week in the real version of what she had lovingly recreated in their living room. For some reason, on Friday there was suddenly talk of Rome and Paris and Caribbean beaches, with the cabin not being good enough anymore. Of course, everything was Steve’s fault for having even less imagination than money (Diana’s words).

Having driven this route every year since just before the girls were born, every landmark and junction was a reminder of the good times they’d had as the girls were growing up. There was the service station where Steve had won the stuffed monkey for the girls from an arcade machine. They had taken that monkey everywhere for the next two years, dressing it up and treating it like a baby brother. There was the nature trail through the woods where they had stopped for picnics over the years and the small farm where they had visited to feed the newborn baby goats and piglets. The strange little restaurant where they had needed to stop that year when the girls had been travel-sick was all boarded up now. They were all memories that he cherished, even if Diana had criticised him for not getting them a stuffed toy each, for making crappy picnics, for making them walk through animal shit with half the journey still ahead of them and, obviously, for not thinking ahead and buying travel sickness medicine. Still, the girls had been so happy and beautiful when they were little. They would always be asleep within no time of getting on the road, heads flopping back and bobbing as Diana stared out of the passenger window and Steve navigated the roads to a soundtrack of classic rock ballads.

He glanced now in the rearview mirror at his daughters, still beautiful despite their increasingly evil mouths. Their heads bobbed along as they did every year and Steve wondered if they would have carried on loving him if their mother hadn’t turned them against him. He still couldn’t bring himself to look at Diana. She had hurt him too much this time.

As the evening spread across the sky, the streetlights and headlights began to dance and sparkle with the promise of the coming days. Even the creeping cold wasn’t enough to dampen his spirits and as the car approached its destination, Steve’s memory of Friday night was almost smothered by the memories of happier times and he began to think that maybe everything could be fixed again after all. He would apologise when they arrived for losing his temper, for maybe not trying hard enough and for not being able to give them all the life they wanted. He would promise to work on the things that bothered them and try to be a better father and husband.

That was when the lights flashed behind them and the siren gave an aggressive burst. Steve didn’t hesitate to do the right thing, as he always tried to do. He pulled the car over to the side of the road and unbuckled his seat belt. He turned to his family in the back seat and mumbled “I’m sorry that I failed you,” as he opened the door, stepped out and raised his hands in the air.

The flashlight in his eyes was a little unnecessary in the light of the early evening and the barking orders were more aggressive than they needed to be. Nonetheless he followed the instructions and placed his hands on the roof of the car, facing towards the windows, where the faces of his family were all turned towards him. He mouthed the words “I’m sorry,” one more time as he looked into their cloudy, glassy eyes. His daughters’ hair was matted to their heads, stuck fast in the dried blood that was turning to powder on their faces. Diana’s mouth gaped open, making a small black hole almost the size of the one he had put in the top of her skull.

The handcuffs were freezing cold as they snapped around his wrists and Steve remained as helpful as possible, showing no resistance to verbal or physical prompts, soon ending up in the back of the police car. As the door closed, he looked at the confused and sympathetic face of the police officer and decided to help things along.

“The poker is in the passenger seat,” he said.