The boy’s mother brushed for too long, the dirt and seed husks from his shoulders and back. Her vision for the photo, her son smiling more charming than other people’s children in a sea of Texas bluebonnets, would live in the limbo of dozens of staged, postcard worthy pictures. Perhaps this one would be the one that could be blown up and featured on the fireplace mantle or on a Christmas card.
The wind and clouds made for less than perfect photo conditions, but the warm, spring air had the boy, his mother, and his father all in a spirit of tolerance toward one another. The family had taken a long drive to the tiny, country burgs halfway between Austin and Houston. Spring and fall were ripe with Czech and German heritage festivals, farmers markets, and antique sales. It was the threshold between April and May, and Indian paintbrush, bluebonnets, and buttercups dotted the hills and fields along the country highways after recent spring showers.
“Are you sure you don’t want to get a hotel for the night?”
The husband looked over his sunglasses at his phone and swiped his thumb over the screen with increasing agitation. “No. Tomorrow’s Sunday, and I already told you I want to play golf and do a little work before Monday. I don’t feel like paying for a bed and breakfast on a whim or staying in a shitty hotel with some high school baseball team.”
His wife ignored his explanation. “Fine. Let’s finish and see some little towns around here. We can eat dinner, then head home.”
The boy fidgeted and scratched a red, pustulated ant bite on his wrist. He squinted and looked up at the swifts that darted in aerobatic dips and turns catching invisible gnats. His mother snapped a few more photos and packed up the blanket and tote half full of water, sodas, and snacks. Despite the company of the family in the car, the ride was mostly silent except for the low hum of tires on rough pavement and an occasional search for a radio station with recognizable songs.
The single stretch of lonely, farm-to-market road ran through a barely inhabited cluster of tiny houses with muddy driveways. An alert on the boy’s mother’s phone showed a wreck that would have delayed their drive home, so she found them a detour as the reception on both phones began to wink in and out. The sun was ducking into the earth in the dusky horizon, and some roadside lights could be seen down the long, lonely stretch ahead.
“I’m hungry.” The boy spoke a rare feeling in the day’s travels.
The boy’s mother kept the phone close to her face. “I don’t have signal out here. I think I saw a diner or something around here when I looked earlier. Let’s stop and eat.”
The low headlights reflected off of something moving on the shoulder up ahead. As the car approached, three figures came into view. In the right lane rode a trio of children. A boy, maybe seven or eight, pedaled a food cart like one that an ice cream vendor might use to hawk popsicles. A girl of ten or eleven rode standing behind the boy, and a third, smaller boy rode a bicycle behind the other two children, and was throwing fruit onto the street behind him.
“What the hell are those kids doing?” the husband groused behind the steering wheel. “What the heck are they wearing?” The wife noted their strange dress. The girl wore a black cape that billowed behind her as they rode. The boy pedaling the wheeled cart wore a grey jacket and a newsie-style cap, and the boy on the bicycle wore brown, high trousers and a long sleeve button up shirt.
“If one of those little bastards hits the car, they’re in deep shit.” The husband squinted in the dying light and slowed behind the children who were making exceptionally good time down the street for the antiquated vehicles they rode.
The boy on the bicycle looked back and threw what looked to be a plum on the road in front of the car. The girl reached into the box on the cart in front of her, handed something to the boy on the bicycle, and he threw an apple directly at the car approaching them.
“Little sons of bitches.” The boy’s father’s knuckles whitened in his grip on the steering wheel as he drove nearer the three children.
The headlights shone on one side of the three ragamuffins, and the expiring light of the sun shone on the other. All three children began to throw fruit onto the road, and pulped husks spattered the hot asphalt.
As the car steered closer to the children, the girl reached in front of her and handed a large, pale object to the boy on the bicycle.
“He’d better fucking not,” spat the boy’s father. The boy sat, uncomfortable and itchy in his car seat, waiting for his mother to talk sense into his rash father.
The boy on the bicycle glared and made baleful eye contact with the husband. He drew back his arm, aimed steady, and sent a perfect spiral onto the hood of the approaching car. The three children did not laugh or smile at any splatter of pulp or bullseye target. They only rode and threw, purpose in each pedal and salvo.
“Little bastard!” The boy’s father was hot with self-righteous rage. The cantaloupe had dented the hood, and the boy on the bicycle was readying another volley of vandalism toward the oncoming vehicle. He steadied his hateful stare at the riders behind the car’s windshield. Hate and anger locked the man’s and boy’s eyes, two oppositional forces of goad and gall, into a fixed position of intention that disregarded all other loved ones. As far as the man was concerned, only scorched, decimated earth could result from their locked horns.
“Honey, just leave them be,” came the calming but nervous voice from the passenger seat. As soon as the boy’s mother said the words, a loud and violent crack spiderwebbed the car’s windshield, orange and green flesh spattering the tinted glass.
The boy’s father honked, flashed the headlights’ high beams, revved the engine, and raced next to the three children. The boy on the bicycle sneered and readied a ripe plum for a volley when the boy’s father steered the front of the car into the side of the fruit cart and straightened back onto the road. The sound of the impact was louder than should reasonably be expected from a midsize sedan hitting a small wooden box, and the man, in his heightened furor, raced past the angry, urchin trio.
“Are you out of your mind? What the hell are you doing” The boy’s mother shook in the passenger seat of the car and railed at the boy’s father. The boy, frightened and disoriented, stared in hopes that his mother’s appeals would win over his father’s wrath.
The man looked in his rearview mirror and saw the children pedalling down the street, unaffected by the collision. The boy pedalling the cart fixed his blank, glazed eyes down the street; the girl and the boy gunnar glared into the man’s eyes in the small mirror.
The boy and his parents gasped as the bumper shook itself loose and dragged the country road.
“Goddamnit!” The boy’s father hissed and slowed the car to minimize further damage. A glowing restaurant sign of “Burgers & Beer,” came into view, and the man pulled the car into the parking lot, leaving ample space between the family’s car and the handful of motorcycles and pickup trucks.
Without checking on his wife or son, the man got out of the car and paced deliberately to the end of the driveway to look for the children. He waited, but no children came.
The man’s wife called from the open car door. “Honey, c’mon. Let’s just get some dinner.” The man strained to adjust his eyes in the glow of the restaurant lights against the growing, country blackness of the unlit road. There was no giggling, no triumphant laughter, no thudding of fruit on hardtop, no steady squeak of ancient pedals and gears. The man cursed the crickets, frogs, and night birds that seemed to chirp their loudest to mask any chance of hearing the three vandal children. The children did not come, and the man retreated to the the parking lot.