We Should Eat Ice Cream Too
A Short Story by Nick Thomson
“They're all eating ice cream. We should eat ice cream too,” I say while reminding myself to squint in the early afternoon summer sun.
Floral dresses flowing and mirrored things gleaming.
Chocolate Chip, Raspberry Swirl, Mint Crush, and Vanilla Sprinkle Surprise for us as they all meander and mingle, weave and waver. They all move their hands across their foreheads, damp and glistening in the sunlight. Mine is dry, but I do what they all do, and so does Father. The youngest cling to their parents' arms and legs, eyes wide and thumbs sucked. The eldest drag their feet, blindly navigating the streams of sweat-stained shirts and sunburnt shoulders, as they gaze at their entwined hands – their jittery, dancing thumbs.
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Red, white, and blue bobbing on strings, and hanged googly-eyed things.
Youngest, wobbling on the balls of his feet between Mother and I, sees a little girl clumsily handle a Lemon Kapow in her sticky fingers. Inevitably she drops it. Then Youngest watches as his Vanilla Sprinkle Surprise topples and splats heavy side down on the concrete.
“My ice cream is on the floor,” says the little girl matter-of-factly. When she realises it cannot be undone the crying starts. Without thinking, the girl's adoring father dips down and hands her his own Lemon Kapow, and the tears instantly cease.
“You should learn to cry,” says Mother, addressing either of us. Youngest doesn't hear her, too busy examining the pale, melted rivulets tracing through the cracks between his feet. Confounded by the lack of event in the melting mound between his feet, Youngest looks to Mother – who tracks a particular family through the crowds and is otherwise oblivious – and then to Father, who gives him his Mint Crush.
Painted faces, dogs and cats; shrouded faces, glasses and hats.
All of them moving and animated, except for Us … and Them … Mother's eyes directed at no-one else but Them. Youngest and Father and Me watch Mother, and Mother watches Them – Father, Mother, Eldest, Youngest – observing, calculating, organising, taking note. It's like looking into a Funhouse mirror, but this is no reflection.
Identical, untouched ice creams melt in all of Their left hands.
Clattering carriages filled with screams, and proclamations of fulfilled dreams.
Now all of Us watch Them, but Their Mother turns her gaze and momentarily finds Our Mother, who extracts a camera and affixes a bright, wide smile that leaves the corners of her eyes uncreased. Raspberry Swirl stains her teeth. She swoops out in front, between Us and Them, and we all smile like Mother as she takes our picture – just like all the other families – but her eyes aren't on the picture preview, they're aimed at the reflective glass behind Us.
A glance goes between Mother and Father, Father and Me, and we merge into the stream of sated fun-seekers heading for the exit.
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Youngest stares at the clouds, deciphering hidden images in their ever-shifting shapes, while Mother and Father and Me keep Them in our view.
White stripes and slate walls, rustling green and Doppler bird calls.
“Where are we going? What are we doing?” mumbles Youngest.
“Something very important,” assures Mother.
“How many did you see?” asks Father plainly.
“Seven,” beams Youngest, unaware.
Mother glances at the mirrors. “Four,” she says.
Their heads remain locked dead ahead, or scan back and forth one-hundred-and-eighty degrees, as the shadows of our cars stretch further and further – our distorted facsimiles rippling on the tarmacadam.
Towns and villages come and go, giving way to a dense forest of towering trees that encloses us all and turns dusk into night. Father dips the lights and we allow Them to gain some distance.
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Youngest looks right and left, right and left, right and left, and I assume he's looking for similarities – maybe differences – between the two sides of the long, straight road that cuts through like an incision, or the vein in my forearm from elbow to wrist.
Suddenly the forest ends at a cliff edge, ragged with dead stumps and exposed roots that catch the spray of a thundering waterfall. Spanning the rushing depths of the river, which sinks lower into the gorge the further your eyes travel from right to left until it disappears altogether, is an iron bridge.
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Ragged and undulating, rigid and unforgiving.
We mustn't draw attention. They slow and so do we, but the distance between Us and Them begins to lessen, as if at an increasing rate, and yet Father's foot remains in place. If anything he's easing back incrementally. Eventually They turn left and stop.
“Is something not right?” asks Youngest, discovering the tension in the air.
“We can't allow Them to be here,” comes Father's flat response.
They finally move, turning onto the gravel track of a lodging house, briefly illuminated by the iridescent headlights that wash over its façade. They halt in a space for parking and extinguish their lights, but as we pass the entrance I see that none of Them are exiting the vehicle.
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We pull over onto a patch of scrub land littered with roadside picnic crumbs and torn wrappers, at which sleepless birds peck. On this side of the rumbling ravine, which is almost invisible in the gloom, the lodging house lies behind us with the iron bridge beyond that. Ahead of us, just before the night takes it, I see the road vanish on the other side of a blind hump, only for it to reappear as a sharp bend, gliding beneath a smaller, stone bridge.
Mother and Father share a look that speaks more words than I can count. The temperature rises and the car windows begin to fog up. She tells Me to give her the thick travel blanket, and for Youngest to join her. She reaches back between the seats and takes my hand – so cold by comparison – and shares a little of her warmth with me.
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All too soon she lets go and takes the blanket from me, saying “We shall be together again.”
A cold snap of wind, thrust up from the ravine, whips Mother's hair across her blank expression and with the gentle click of the car door being pressed shut, I let it sink in that I know she was lying. With Youngest in her arms, the two of them wrapped in the blanket, Mother disappears into the darkness as Father and I watch. Eventually his eyes shift back to the side mirror angled towards the lights of the lodging house and they go rigid, drying in the cold air. Glowing like candles, one by one the lights go out, and Father tells me to sleep while he keeps watch.
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“Why are They here?” I venture, watching Father closely.
“They've come to exploit this place.”
“What about us?”
“They've come for nothing more.”
“How do you know? Can't we leave Them alone? What about Mother and Youngest?”
“This is a choice we have to make. We must assume the worst in others like us.”
“Is that how They think about us?”
He hums affirmatively.
“Will we go back?”
Father drifts into what would normally pass as a silent reverie until, finally, he says “I can't make sense of this place … not like you. That is a valuable gift.”
“Why can't we go home?”
“You could never make sense of it. You could never understand what Mother and I know.” His eyes never look away from the mirror, but he gently reaches over and places a firm, warm hand against the thrum in my chest for a moment, and says no more.
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The motion of Father shifting in his seat wakes me. I follow his eyes and I see a car with tinted windows wallow down the lodging house's access path. It turns left onto the main road and heads away from us.
Mingling shades of grey and the clatter of a distant train, a chill in the air and intermittent drops of rain.
A merchant's van crosses the iron bridge and swoops past us down the road, the tyres slick with rainfall, the arches spattered with fresh mud. It slows towards the stone bridge and stops altogether beside Mother and Youngest, obscuring my view of them. Long moments pass before the van pulls back onto the road and leaves – Mother and Youngest now no longer huddled under the bridge.
“We must always blend in, even if it seems strange to us. Caution is vital. Fear and irrationality come easy to these people. Mother knows this better than us.”
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I hold on tight to the last I saw of them, and I think I catch a glimmer, a glimpse, a fleeting tail end of something on Father's face that I've never seen before, but the strained roar of an engine cuts in behind us and regains our attention.
They're in a hurry, tyres slithering on dead, greasy leaves, and They charge away across the iron bridge.
By the time we're rolling onto the iron, slick with spray and mist – the hum of rubber on metal reverberating through Us – They have already vanished into the dense forest. Father presses his foot down hard and I feel the power surge through my fingertips as I brace myself on the dashboard.
Them. Blocking the road part-way down its murky length. We slither one-eighty. Between the trees, right and left, I see figures – vaguely formed in the undergrowth – and They come roaring up behind Us.
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“They know who we are,” says Father, the steering wheel gripped tightly in his hands, swerving us right at the end of the bridge, our weight shifting queasily as we lunge down the road – away from the stone bridge, away from wherever Mother and Youngest may be.
“What if they catch us?”
A lingering silence follows.
“I won't allow that,” Father says evasively. He tugs sharply on the wheel, drawing Us and Them onto a dirt track that snakes through the great forest's other side. “Listen carefully. Improvisation is the greatest tool of survival,” the sense of urgency in his voice new to my ears. “Think as if you were one of Them. Counteract. Then think again. Fear breeds anger, anger inspires defence, defence creates fear.”
Ancient redwoods and trickling streams, scurrying hares and early morning sun beams.
White knuckles and darting eyes, dust storms and parting skies. We race for seventeen miles and I remember our first journey when we achieved so much more in the same distance.
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Father gains Us a few moments – a little distance away from Them – by the time we skid to a halt in a decaying, abandoned railway yard. Moss-and-rust-covered shells of old steam trains blend into the woodland. A woodpecker jack hammers its beak into the pock-marked frame of a crumbling office building – a blur of green and red – our presence of little concern to it.
Father pulls me out of the car, and we stumble over half-buried railway sleepers – the timber heavy and damp – toward the two distinct mouths of a disused tunnel, the darkness beyond leading in separate directions deep into the hillside.
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“We're going to split up. You go down there and hide,” he says, pointing to the left tunnel, “and I'll wait to lead them down here.” He points to the right tunnel.
“Like at Arabella Point?”
“Unlikely,” he says, expressing himself with something far more than his plain, even tone. For so long I've wanted to see this look on his face … but then comes the fear that I'll never see Father again. I catch sight of the creases on his face. There's so much more he wants to tell me, but he doesn't know where to start. There's not enough time to say it all and every second he lingers the less time there is remaining – the moment crumbles around us.
The snarling sound of Their engine breaks the heavy silence and Father shoves me firmly in the direction of the left tunnel, his eyes locked on where Their car will soon appear. I keep looking at him, but he doesn't look at me – feet planted firmly in the ground – his hand persistently waving me away. “Go now!” he says. “Be free of Them.”
Heading into the tunnel there is nothing but blackness. The air is dank and close, and I can't see anything – only feel – but when I look over my shoulder I can see Them come to a juddering halt, soil and twigs spewing out from beneath locked wheels. I see Them but They don't see Me, Father drawing Them – just the other Father and the other Elder – towards the other tunnel.
Where is the other Mother and other Youngest?
I move to the edge of the tracks, which ascend in the darkness, and I almost have to climb them like a ladder, my fingers slipping against the damp sleepers and rusted steel. I'm deep within the bowels of the hill and afraid to lose sight of the shrinking pocket of light.
Treading lightly, silently, I move into a small recess in the wall – the brickwork slimy and cold against me – and I think of the other car, the one with the tinted windows, and how every road leads to every other road within these woods.
I hear Their rumblings and roarings and the displaced earth beneath Their feet. Seething and crackling and sizzling. I think of Mother and Youngest, and the van with fresh mud spatter.
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Thinking of Us to drown out the noises sending shivers up the trees, I want to run, but I wait like Father told me. Their echoes bludgeon through the tunnel chased by a silence that lingers and I wait, and wait, and wait. Then I see a figure, sleek and lithe and astute – the other Elder – show the other Father tracks in the dirt – my tracks – and I pull back into the recess as far as possible.
Stale water drips down over my face and the smell of sodden timbers and steaming dirt swirl around me, the tendrils of the scents like probing fingers. I remember something I overheard once, as a shadow – fingertips grazing the tunnel wall for guidance – creeps away from the light and into the dark. I think of what that saying might have meant – “we'll play it by ear” – and I listen to Their gently-placed footsteps in the gravel between the rotting sleepers.
Traces of whispers and unsettled stones, rancid air and skin-crawling drones. Splits in the flesh, grease from the bones, vapour suspended around thawing eyes. I listen as the tempo of the footsteps shift – both of Them – getting closer and closer to me, Their shadows agitating the murk into which they blend.
Their rumblings and roarings get louder and louder. Exploiters. Aggressors. Ubiquitous in their consumption. The wrong kind of interlopers.
Father – where are you? I'm not ready.
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