In his mind she was still an infant who would drool all over his shoulder every time he’d pick her up. Her frequent throwing up that would ensue after he’d feed her would ruin every sweater and shirt he had on, ensuring that the smell of baby vomit was deeply embedded in all of his clothes that ever came in contact with her. Still, despite all that, his memory of her was a fond one, and deep down he had regrets about not watching her grow up from the infant he remembered into the child she has grown into today, a child full of life and passion, who had plenty of energy to play and argue with friends both young and old. That, at least, is what he’s been told by her father, his older brother.
On this cold February morning, as he drove to his brother’s suburban home from the west side of the city, a light snow was falling, and this made driving a chore it did not need to be by making the roads extra slick, and slowing down traffic on the expressway to a near stand still. The skies were gray, and from a certain direction they looked downright ominous, as the dark gray clouds from up above the city dissolved into a dark black sky in the direction of the horizon. I just hope I can make it there before the heavy snow starts, Dan thought to himself. Blizzard or not, I’d rather not be on the road an hour from now.
As his windshield wipers moved rapidly from side to side, they could hardly keep up with the frequency of new snowflakes that landed on his car, making visibility difficult, if not impossible. Other cars would constantly cut in front of him without signaling, in an attempt to ride the “fast” lane free of gridlock, and this would only increase his blood pressure and fuel his temper, which was already rising. As a young man, Dan was quite a temperamental fellow. He would often get involved in heavy arguments with strangers over petty things, and on more than one occasion he’d even fought people over such trivial matters as parking, cutting in line in front of him, and even over cigarette smoke being blown in his direction in public places. Of course, now that he’s celebrated his 34th birthday a few months earlier, he has made it his resolution to look the other way should another provocation challenge his inner demons. No longer being a twenty-something, he realized that angry, easily provoked men are only hurting themselves in such petty confrontations, and as a result, he’d sworn to practice his new-found zen persona and not give in to arguments. Of course, this is easier said than done, and those who’ve spent most of their lives with short fuses in lieu of patience knew that such a transition would not come without its challenges. As a wise man once said, things will only get worse before they get better.
The exit ramp was coming up, and knowing he was now close to it, Dan decided to take it, as the slow moving traffic was making very little progress on the snowy and slippery road. He turned his signal, and slowly began to inch his way to his right. The snow was still falling heavily, but the visibility was slightly better than it was earlier. He could see that there were no cars behind him in the right lane, so he made the move to switch lanes. As he was approaching the exit ramp, another car came up in front of him, and without hesitation, cut him off completely, nearly swerving his vehicle into the shoulder. Dan could not believe it. How could a person be so irresponsible as to drive this wildly, and in this weather, of all things? Surely they must be drunk, or on drugs, or just otherwise entirely inconsiderate of all other drivers. Try as he might, he just could not suppress his rage, so he decided to speed up and follow the car that had cut him off. “That son of a bitch won’t get away with this!”, he thought to himself.
The exit had taken both cars to a street that was perpendicular to the expressway, and which crossed it as it went east and westbound above it. The car Dan was following went into the right lane, which suggested it was going to turn. Yet it made no signal and therefore no indication that it was otherwise turning right.
“Oh, awesome! Don’t even signal… I mean, why would you!”, muttered Dan, as he drove up side by side with the other car. Rolling his passenger window down, he honked his horn in an attempt to get the other driver’s attention. The woman in the driver’s seat rolled her window down, as the large snowflakes quickly fell on her face and hair. In the back seat of her car, two children could be heard yelling and crying. Hearing this, Dan’s demeanor quickly changed. In an instant, his desire to chew this person out was quickly extinguished, and it was now replaced by regret, and even pity.
“Are you the one I cut off earlier?”, the woman asked Dan.
“I … uhm …”, responded Dan, unsure of what to say.
“I’m sorry about that. My children have been screaming for the last hour. We’ve been stuck in traffic forever, and they get very cranky when they’re hungry. I was trying to quiet them down, and I must’ve turned the wheel to the right a bit too far when I bent down to pick up my son’s toy from the floor as I passed your vehicle. He goes nuts when he’s not holding it.”
Wow. I’m such an ass, thought Dan. Was I really gonna yell at this woman? She obviously has her own problems, in many ways worse than my own, and just because she failed to properly signal doesn’t make her the Anti-Christ. I’ve got to get my anger under control, or one of these days it’ll be the end of me. These things, and many other regrets about his temperamental behavior, went through Dan’s head as he processed the woman’s words.
“It’s all right. Just be safe out there. Good night”. He then rolled his window up, and when the light turned green, drove straight past the woman’s car and onto Old Creek Road, which was adjacent to the expressway exit. His GPS indicated that he was not far from his brother’s house, and that, along with the calmness he handled this last incident, brought a sigh of relief to his psyche. It’ll be all right, thought Dan. I’ve got to ignore the little things and focus on the bigger things. Being angry will just add to my current stress levels, and it might even give me an ulcer. Surely there’s more to life than letting my blood boil over spilt milk.
The house in Willow Grove where his brother lived was fairly big, and the property it stood on was so large that it practically took the space that three or four city buildings would take. Dan’s car pulled up right in front, and after examining the number of the house from his car, he turned it off and approached the front door. Before he could even knock, his brother Rick answered it, as if he knew the moment his sibling would arrive. He then tapped his watch, as if to say, “Do you know what time it is?”.
“Yeah, sorry… the traffic… and the weather… I mean, this snow… it’s a parking lot on the highway, man”, said Dan.
“I was just kidding, bro. It’s good to see you.” His brother smiled and gave Dan a warm and affectionate hug. “Come on inside.”
The front door immediately led into the living room, which was adjacent to the dining room, and also the kitchen. The ceilings were high, and although it was bitterly cold outside, the large rooms were very warm and comfortable. Dan was impressed.
“Very nice”, he told his brother. “You’ve done well for yourself.”
“I can’t complain”. Rick sat down on the chair in dining room, and motioned for Dan to do the same, which the ladder did.
“So… how’ve you been?”
“Good”, said Dan. “Got back a few weeks ago. Still experiencing some reverse culture shock, but it’ll wear off soon, I’m sure.”
“How did you like it out there? I mean, two years is no small feat in that… in that place. Right?”
“Yeah, it’s got its pros and cons, like everywhere else. There are great things about living there, but there are also some terrible ones. Kinda like living here”. This line was delivered with a sly wink at his brother, who took it in stride, and even chuckled at it.
Rick threw his arms up. “She won’t come out of her room. Expected to see you here about an hour ago, and when I told her you’d be running late, she got kind of cranky and went upstairs. I tried talking to her, but she wasn’t having any of it.”
“Sounds like a firecracker”, responded Dan.
“Yes, sounds like her uncle.”
“She’s got some of your qualities. Anyway, you’ll see. Her room is upstairs, second one on the right. Go up there and give it a shot. Maybe she’s in a better mood now.”
Dan proceeded to do just that, and when he arrived in front of the said door, he knocked twice. A little girl’s voice responded to the knocking. “Who is it?”
“It’s Dan”. No response. “Your uncle.”
The door opened, and a pair of blue eyes peeked from inside the room, looking up at Dan. She recognized him at once, and with a big smile and an even happier expression in eyes, opened the door. He, on the other hand, could not believe how much she’d grown in the last eight years since he last saw her.
“Come in and sit down”, said Summer, as she let him in her room, which was not covered in pink or purple walls or any of those traditional colors that girls her age would be surrounded with. No, Summer’s room was very simple: a bed where she slept, a small desk and chair where her computer sat and where she did homework, and a two-seat couch in the corner where her guests could rest. A four-foot tall dresser and a closet were the only other things of notice. On her walls hung a few posters of the current female pop stars, and since to Dan they all resembled one another, without having any differences of note, he didn’t even bother reading the names written on them. Instead, he sat down on the two seat couch, much to Summer’s delight.
“You look older”, she told him, as if to test what kind of reaction she’d get out of him.
“As do you”, replied Dan. “You were this big when I last saw you”. He made a gesture while holding his two hands about eighteen inches apart, indicating Summer’s size as a baby.
“So where have you been all this time? My dad told me you were living in a different country”.
“Yes, I’ve been away. But I’m back now, and… I hope that we can catch up on all the lost time.”
“Are you married?”, asked Summer, smiling, as if she knew what the answer would be. Dan, meanwhile, continued to observe her features. She was a rather thin girl, and not very tall. Her face had freckles right underneath her eyes and across her cheeks, extending even over the bridge of her nose. She had blonde hair, and it ran past her shoulder, which on this day she had tied up in a pony tail. The clothes she wore were very casual, but not in a girlish way; in fact, the pants and shirt she was wearing resembled something a boy would wear instead, and this only confirmed to Dan that his niece was somewhat of a tomboy. This was not a bad thing in his opinion. No, nothing of the sort; it was merely a small part of Summer’s character which he failed to recognize in the various photos of her that his brother had sent him over the last few years. He realized that you can photograph people, but their idiosyncrasies, nuances and other small details that glow from within can only be captured by the human eye.
“I’m not married. What about you? Do you have a boyfriend?”
“Boyfriend? Ugh! That’s gross! Why would I want a boyfriend? I’m only eight.”
Dan smiled. Fair point, he thought. “So what do you like to do, then? I mean, when you’re not listening to Britney Spears or Shakira or any of these other pop stars.”
“Shakira? Britney? Uncle… you’re so old. Those women are so yesterday that it’s not even funny.” Summer pointed to the poster that was on the wall, adjacent to the door.
“That is Mandy, and that over there is Ice. They’re awesome right now!”
“Mandy Moore?”, asked Dan curiously.
“Uhm, never mind. They look … nice.”
Even though they were an entire generation apart, Dan and Summer already shared a similar sense of humor, and each knew when the one was unto the other. He was well aware that even though she was not his daughter, she shared many of his own qualities. They both had a sense of humor that was unique in its affinity for sarcasm. Summer was also an exceptionally good student, just as young Dan was many years ago. His brother, on the other hand, was never much of a scholar, and often struggled academically through elementary, junior and high school. In addition, Summer was a person who preferred to be alone, just like her uncle. It’s not that she was unpopular, mind you, or socially awkward. She simply had the uncanny ability to see the phoniness in a lot of people right off, and as a result, decided not to waste her time with anyone she deemed to be less than genuine. Unfortunately, there were simply too many such people in Summer’s world, and Dan knew this all too well.
“I feel like having some ice cream. What do you think? Do you want some ice cream?”, an excited Summer asked her uncle Dan. The latter was caught off guard.
“Ice cream? Well… it’s kinda cold out there. I mean…. really, ice cream?”
“Well, I want ice cream. I think you should take me to an ice cream store so we can both have some.”
Dan knew there was no point in arguing with her. For one, even if he was opposed to the idea of ice cream in the middle of winter, he surely could not deny her that simple request, especially after being absent from her life all these years. It was the least he could do for her, even if the idea of eating anything cold at the moment only decreased his body temperature even more.
“Ice cream it is. Where is the nearest store?”
Willow Grove was not a large suburb. A person could walk it up and down in less than a few hours, and an excited child looking to satisfy her sweet tooth could do it in even less time. Dan and Summer decided to walk from the house to the ice cream store – per Summer’s suggestion – and trek it all the way there the entire two miles, as a very light snow continued to fall. It was still cold, but Dan didn’t feel it as much anymore, as he was overwhelmed by nostalgia of spending time with his friends out in the snow. Those friends, of course, were now long gone, and to him, they’ve been replaced by an eight year old girl, full of same energy and passion for life that he once had. As they walked on the sidewalk that was partially covered with a thin layer of very mushy snow, Summer turned to Dan.
“Uncle, what do you plan to do now that you’re back?”
Dan, unsure, just shrugged his shoulders: “I don’t know”.
“Do you have a job?”, Summer followed up.
Dan shook his head: “No”.
“Hmm. Ok. I hope I can do that someday, too. Just be cool like you, and not have to work. My mom works all the time, and I hate it when she’s gone for days. I really do.”
They soon found themselves in front of Willow Grove’s ice cream store, What’s the scoop?. Summer just shook her head, as she often does when passing by it.
“That name is so stupid”, she said, opening the door. There wasn’t anyone in there except one employee, who was sitting behind the counter, playing with his phone. As the door closed and made a ding-dong sound, he looked up and saw Dan and Summer examining all the flavors in front of them.
“Good evening, folks. What can I get you tonight?”
“So many choices”, said Dan. “I think I’ll need a minute or two.”
“No problem. Take your time.”
Dan glanced at Summer’s face, and she seemed to have her mind already made up. As a frequent visitor of this establishment, she was way past the point of uncertainty when it came to ordering. Her choice of flavor hasn’t changed in nearly three years: chocolate chip and vanilla.
“What would you like, Summer?”
She pointed to the two above mentioned flavors. “I always get those. Always!”
Dan almost admired her ability to stick to tradition, even though a small part of him would prefer her trying something new once in a while. That quality will develop with age, he thought. An eight year old isn’t supposed to know everything, and one of the most admiring qualities of all children is their stubbornness.
The front door made the ding-dong sound again, and in walked a middle aged couple. They were dressed in heavy and thick winter coats, and they immediately walked to the ice cream bar. The woman accidentally bumped into Summer, and failed to even acknowledge it. This annoyed Summer, and although she gave a quick glance at her uncle, she decided not to say anything. After all, old people have their own manners and quirks just as children have theirs, and they need to be tolerated as well. Summer was already aware of this, which was just another testament to her surprisingly acute maturity at such a young age.
Dan was still undecided, as he had a hard time keeping with the numerous flavors, a number of which was large and more than his two eyes could scan in such a short time. Summer, on the other hand, was ready to order, and just as she began to speak, the older man walked up in front of her and addressed the clerk behind the counter.
“Can we have one scoop each? That flavor right there”, he said, pointing to the strawberry shortcake right underneath his hand. “In cups, not cones.”
An irritated Summer looked at her uncle, who as a result just gave her a shrug, as if to say, “What do you want me to do?”. But the limit of her patience was already reached.
“Excuse me”, Summer said to the old couple. “We were here first. It’s rude of you to order before us.”
“What are you talking about?”, responded the man.
“First she bumps into me without so much as an ‘excuse me’, and now you’re pretending that we’re not even here by cutting in front of us. What kind of an asshole are you, anyway?”, exclaimed Summer furiously.
Dan couldn’t believe what he just heard, and noticing how angry she was, immediately tried to defuse the situation.
“Summer!” He gave her a fierce stare, which she saw, but chose to ignore. The old couple was also shocked, so the woman just shook her head, and under her breath muttered, “Why, I never!”, or something to that effect. Her husband couldn’t help but giggle.
“You got some mouth on you, little girl. I guess that’s what happens when your parents teach you no manners.”
“You’ve got some nerve talking about manners. A middle aged woman who bumps into children without apologizing, and her husband who cuts in front that same child and her uncle, l as if he was the owner of this very store.” Summer’s voice was now on the verge of screaming, and before she continued, she pointed to Dan, as to single him out to the two people she was addressing.
“See him? He was in special OPS overseas for several years. He could snap both of your necks before you could even have a chance to process that thought! So if you have any brains, you should walk out of this place this second and be lucky you’re still breathing, you inconsiderate pricks!” She now stared at the couple, with her arms folded, not looking away until they looked away first. Not wanting the situation to get any more awkward, and already feeling uncomfortable, the couple headed for the door and immediately left without taking any ice cream with them. The employee just stared at Dan, bewildered, and at a loss for words. Dan turned to him.
“I’m sorry about that.” He then walked up to Summer, and in a low voice asked, “Why did you do that?”
“They had no right to do what they did. Just because they’re older doesn’t mean they can cut in front of us”, she replied.
It was finally clear to Dan. As he looked into her eyes, he realized he might as well be looking into a mirror, for those eyes now had the same frustration and temper as his once had, and were capable of creating an even bigger outburst than he ever could at that age. He knew well enough that Summer’s reaction was inappropriate, even wrong, but alas, she was just a kid. All that angst, anxiety and innocent misunderstanding that are compressed in her frail little body could explode at any given moment. She would need someone who knew how to deal with those emotions, and how to manage such outbursts by redirecting them into something worthwhile and productive. He knew all this, and was happy to be the one to help her with that affliction.
“Special OPS, Summer? Really?”, he said, chuckling.
A much calmer Summer now smiled and shrugged her shoulders: “why not!”
They were both aware that they shared the same bloodline, at this moment perhaps more than ever before.
“So, Summer…what should I get?”
“Bite my shiny metal ass!”