— Chapter Two —
PRESTON JOHNS CADELL. He sometimes wondered where he existed in that name. The first two were already worn out by his mother’s family. If he had to inherit a hand-me-down, he’d rather it had been Gabe, after his father.
Sybilla used to call him PJ, but Preston put a stop to that years ago. He hadn’t been a child anymore and never liked that nickname. The other kids taunted him, calling him PB & J for the sandwich that he always had in his lunchbox. His mother wasn’t around, and he’d wanted to show he could take care of himself.
Preston was looking more and more like his long-gone father and knew, at some level, it was hard on his mother. But he didn’t care. The part of him that longed for a male influence took a sad pleasure in twisting the knife a little. She was the one who drove his father away. At least, that’s what he always told himself. It was easier to think that his dad left for a good reason. Over time, his reasoning fixed in resentment toward Sybilla. He noticed his mother’s sadness when, on rare occasions, she spoke of the early years when they were all together. It made him wonder what had really happened. She left it a mystery.
Plenty of other kids were raised by a mother, or maybe grandparents, but their father came to see them. Preston’s never did. He just vanished. He had a faint recollection of big hands tossing him up in the air, and a deep laugh mixing with his baby one. Those memories were marred by loud voices and banging in the dark. For a while, he was afraid to sleep without a light.
Then the kids at school found out he didn’t know his dad. They trilled in singsong voices, “PJ’s a bastard! PJ’s a bastard!” They trailed him on the playground, singing it over and over until he cried. Even though he hadn’t known what they meant, it hurt. A teacher came over and broke it up. But the damage was already done. For the longest time, the meanest of them would hiss “Cry baby!” or “Bastard!” whenever he walked by. That’s when he withdrew further from others his age; he stayed to himself.
Preston remembered being a happy kid before then, before he had to go to school. Those were the days of Mama Luna. She always had good smelling things baking in the oven and was forever tickling him, making him laugh.
There were things she showed him that others couldn’t see, but he could—after she reminded him how to look. When he looked straight ahead and, at the same time, peeked to the side, Smoky was sometimes there. He couldn’t see him exactly. The air was hazy where he appeared, and a slight tobacco smell hung in the air. That’s why Preston called him Smoky.
Smoky had definitely talked to him but not like people talked. It was more that he made him aware of things, as Mama Luna had: things about the workings of nature that other people missed. Like how the wind fluttered the leaves to tell of a coming storm, or what agony the trees felt when they were cut down. One time his mother sent him to summer camp up in the mountains. He had walked by an edge of the campground where men from the power company were trimming tree branches that obstructed electrical lines. Suddenly, he was overtaken by convulsive feelings—grief and pain. Through his tears, he saw two majestic pines whacked down to the ground, their insides freshly exposed. Some inner wisdom had told him never to tell the other kids what he saw and felt. Their taunting was bad enough as it was.
Preston had come home from school that awful day and asked his mother in a small voice, “Why don’t I have a daddy?”
“Oh honey, you do have a daddy!” Even now, he remembered the pained expression on her face. That was right after the first time she returned from Australia. She had pasted a smile over her sad mouth and said brightly, “He went on a walkabout!”
“What’s that?” he asked.
“Sometimes people like your father get a calling. They need to go and find what answers the world has.”
Preston hadn’t understood what she meant, but it sounded like a grand adventure. “When’s he going to come home?”
“He’ll come home someday. One day when we’re out in the backyard looking out into the desert, we’ll see a little dot. It’ll get closer and closer and closer. Then when we blink our eyes, he’ll be there right in front of us!”
At the time, Preston hadn’t detected the false gaiety in his mother’s voice. But he remembered that Mama Luna had looked away, as though she didn’t want to meet his eyes. She wasn’t able to make out everything they said in English, but she understood enough.
From that time he began to build an image of his father in his mind. His mother said she didn’t have any photos, but Preston found a couple tucked away in a book. In one he tended a campfire. In the other, he sat on top of a big rock looking into the distance. Preston’s early mental picture consisted of an unlikely fusion: a swashbuckling warrior and gentle nature soul. He decided his father must be a very brave man. From what Preston was able to find out from his mother, he knew the aboriginal people set out on long treks without any food, water or clothing. They knew the Universe would give them what they needed along the way. Even back then, Preston liked the idea of providence. After all, where Mama Luna came from, her people didn’t have a real store to buy everything.
He had considered the idea of a walkabout for a while, then Preston began to ask more questions. “What’s my daddy like?”
His mother would usually get a faraway look in her eyes, and say, “We’ll talk about him some other time.” But sometimes, she would look warmly into his eyes and tell him how handsome his father was or how they shared the same eyes.
Those rare times thrilled him and created inspiration for the stories he wrote about his father’s journey. Since his mother wouldn’t talk about him very much, Preston was afraid he’d forget what little he knew. He had kept a notebook where he wrote down clues from his mother and musings of the lost, young boy he was, spinning tales. Those imaginative stories were a mixture of the adventure books he read, stories Mama Luna told him of her own land and the few action films he was allowed to see. Mostly, he shared them with Smoky. Never his mother. When he read them to Mama Luna, she would stop whatever work she was doing, wipe her hands on her apron, and tenderly gather him up in her arms.
Pitiful kid, Preston thought.
Over the years, he’d gleaned enough from Sybilla to piece together some of the family history. He chose to seize upon the parts of it that added to his needs, while ignoring parts that seemed a little unsettling for reasons he didn’t understand. At that young age, he was already a sensitive romantic with a vivid inner life he shared with few. His mother was increasingly absent from home. When she was there she was preoccupied, getting ready for the next photojournalism assignment.
The epic that he had chosen as truth read like a melodramatic novel, satisfying on a visceral level, with the same sense of comfort and love he had when he’d wake up long ago to find the little cat Gato, a present from his mother, curled around his head like a vibrating hat. Gato was a welcome friend, finally filling the empty times—loneliness—after Mama Luna, too, had inexplicably vanished.
As Preston thought of that little ball of spiky black fur Gato had been, he felt the sting of tears in his eyes, and came back to the present moment. He found himself sitting on the backdoor stoop, somehow dressed from his shower in a pair of worn cutoff jeans and a dingy white t-shirt. He’d again been on autopilot while his thoughts were elsewhere, a state in which he frequently dwelled. At least some part of him had taken the initiative to clothe himself.
“We don’t want to give the neighbors any more fuel for their curiosity. Do we, Gato?” He nudged her belly with a bare foot.
The slow blink of her eyes seemed to say: And why not?
When Preston was at home, Gato was never far away, a guardian. After all these years, her coat wasn’t quite as shiny, and the fur was a little sparse on her back legs. She no longer made the big leaps that she could make just a couple of years before.
He knew she’d lived much longer than most cats, but he hoped she’d always be his protector. The emerging adult felt a little foolish, but the little boy found solace. Gato had been there when no one else had, intervening when the night got too dark.
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Genre – Fiction / Coming of Age / Historical
Rating – PG