We had a flat on the way, the first of the mini-disasters waiting for us along Route 1.
As my dad knelt beside our station wagon’s squished back tire, on the shoulder of the bustling rural highway, the once clear-blue sky started clouding over with stretches of gray.
“Looks like rain,” said my mom. She leaned on the barricade with arms folded, bunching her cashmere cardigan like her frowning brow.
“Don’t say that,” said my dad as he winched the jack, “you’ll jinx the picnic.”
“Leaving two hours late because of the office, didn’t help.”
“I took care of it as fast as I could, Wanda.”
My mom rolled her eyes and swiveled from us, murmuring under her breath. Raising one hand to shade her gaze, I suspected she was looking for my twin older brothers, who had vanished in the roadside woods nearly as soon as the car had stopped.
Leaving her quietly griping, I squatted, like a toad, beside my dad and the spare, spindly arms wrapped around my bare chicken legs.
The car lifted off the asphalt in hiccupped jumps. My dad then went to work on the bolts with a smooth-mouthed crescent wrench.
“Stick out your hand, Bec.”
I grinned as he used my pet name, somehow making the girlish Rebecca tolerable. Tugging back the cuff of my hand-me-down flannel, I exposed my cupped palm as he asked. He plopped one nugget after the next, each falling into my hand like a grimy jewel. He swapped out the tire with an extra grunt and slipped the hubcap over the bolts
“Your turn,” he said, dusting his hands and giving me room before the wheel. “Spin them on as tight as you can.”
“Yeah, go on.”
I skittered forward and bit my lower lip as I threaded the first nut into place.
I felt my mom’s glare behind my back, as hot as a noonday sun. Hunching closer to the tire, I sped up my fingers.
“What?” asked my dad.
“She’s a girl.”
“So, she should still know how to do this,” said my dad, countering her defense of my femininity with prudent logic.
“I’m all done.” I glanced between them, hoping my completion might simmer down their feud.
Silence won out, marred by the cars swooshing by us. My dad set about tightened the bolts with the wrench while my mom spun to the woods after giving the sky a squint. Once my dad started lowering the car back down, she began wrangling my brothers.
The granite slope dotted with birch and pine stretched up from the road like a fortress wall. Shadows leapt as the wind picked up, shaking the trees like cereal in a box.
“Where are they,” my mom muttered. She cupped one hand to her mouth, amplifying her bellow. “BOYS!?”
We heard the howling before my two adventuring brothers came into view. They clamored through the trees, one in navy flannel, the other in evergreen, but otherwise alike down to their yelps and the rips in their jeans.
“What’ve you done now?” asked my dad, straightening with one hand on the roof, while he rubbed the small of his back.
“Harry got stung,” said Harold.
“Harold fell in a stream,” said Harry.
A damp, musky scent along with Harold’s squishy stride confirmed the watery tumble while my brother, Harry, clutched one hand to his chest and grimaced.
“It’s a wonder you two didn’t burn the place down,” said my mom. Although her tone scalded, she waved Harry over and inspected his hand.
“Come on,” said my dad. He walked to the back with Harold, my brother leaving a damp trail on the asphalt.
More curious about the sting’s effect, I crept to Harry’s side and lifted up onto my tiptoes. A swollen bump, as red as an apple, grew on his hand.
“Get back,” muttered Harry, elbowing me in the chin.
“Rebecca,” said my mom, “give him a break.” I cringed and dropped my eyes to my scuffed sneakers. “Go get me a soda from the cooler?”
“Yeah, go,” said Harry.
“Okay.” Brightening with a task, I dashed for the back of the car. I opened the hatch while my Dad threw a new tee-shirt and jeans at Harold, now hunched behind a rock.
“This is Harry’s,” said Harold.
“Just put it on,” said my dad.
From the refrigerator-sized cooler, I snagged a coke, one near the bags of ice lining the base, and skipped back victorious. My mom snagged the drink, pressed the can against Harry’s sting and then thumped his hand over it, keeping the makeshift ice-pack in place.
“Now stay in the car,” she said. He hung his head and fumbled into the back seat. “You too, Rebecca.”
“But….” I pouted, but my mom’s stiff finger, thrust at car, quieted me.
Harry stuck out his tongue and he slammed the door as I neared. Rolling my eyes, I started around to the other side.
“Come on, boys,” said my mom, placing herself like a fallen leaf into the passenger seat.
Harold rounded his private granite shield, pale cheeks flushed as he lumbered toward the car, shoes in hand. My dad gave Harold’s shoulders a squeeze while he deposited his soiled clothes into a waiting plastic grocery bag.
“Inside,” said my dad, shoving Harold at the back door I had just used. As he took the driver’s seat, my dad tossed the soggy bundle onto Harold’s lap.
The three doors slammed closed. I scrunched between my pained and sodden brothers and peered out the front windshield, intent on spying our next destination and the stings, streams or flat tires in between.
As my dad turned the ignition, the sky opened up with a blinding downpour.
“I told you,” said my mom.
The steering wheel groaned under my dad’s fingers.
“What are we going to do now?” asked Harold. My brothers looked at one another, easily meeting each other’s gazes over my head. After some silent signal, they started tickling me.
“BOYS!” said my mom, halting the nudging.
“We left to go on a picnic,” said my dad as he veered onto the road, “we’re going to go on a goddamn picnic.”
“At least we’ve got drinks,” said Harold.
I watched with wide-eyes as he snagged the coke from Harry’s sting and popped the tab. The deluge inside matched the torrent smacking against the roof.