Automatic Stop by J.M. Landon

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His reflection in the passenger side mirror revealed a profound impatience with the slow trickle of the gas pump. I imagine he was itching for it to finish so that he could feel alright about lighting up. He probably would’ve already been about halfway through his L&M if I wasn’t here. 

The easy thing is to ascribe his rapid aging solely to the chunk of missed time rather than ponder more sinister culprits, but even so, he really aged so much faster than any of my friends’ parents. The creases around his mouth were darker each time I saw him, like there was something behind his jaw, tugging at the seams to hold them in place. I noticed his hair had begun to thin too – just a little. At first, the last time I saw him, I thought it was my imagination, but this mirror view settled it. He was getting old. 

The pitch of coursing gasoline against the inside of the tank rose steadily into its uppermost register, putting a fast timer on my staring session. As soon as the automatic stop clicked “full,” I yanked my eyes from the mirror and stared off at some nothing elsewhere. I didn’t want him to know I was watching when he looked up from the pump. 

His shifting appearance aside, there was a completely different air about him that day. Just a few days prior to this, he had been hellbent on heaven, desperate for my forgiveness. He was trying so hard to wipe the slate clean, and like always, I caved after a point. It was always easier to love. Still is, I think. 

Looking back, I think I loved him more with each piece of forgiveness I granted. Part of it was probably the way he outdid himself each time, holding his arms out so wide you could practically hear his bones creaking with each breath. The physical counterpart to an “I love you this much” gets harder for human hands to depict when surmounting such a sizeless mass of evidence to the contrary. Past a point, I guess, it’s just unsustainable. Maggie always warned me against buying into it, but I could never help myself. She doesn’t get to see the joy of relief that streaks across his face at the moment I let it go. Maybe it’s because he knows he missed out on those chances with her. 

Maybe I could have held out on him if I tried, like Maggie always told me to, and gotten something bigger, better out of it all, but that’s not what I wanted. I don’t know if I believe that’s what Maggie ever really wanted either. I guess I just don’t see how anyone could find themselves cradling a moment like this between their caged fingers and make the decision to squeeze. I know I couldn’t do that. 

Anyways, this time his apology came in the form of a car – his old car, obviously. He didn’t have the money for a new one, at least not a new one for me. But I guess you could say that his new car was supposed to be part of his apology too, a new one that was warm in the winter and cool in the summer and years newer than anything we’d ever had. 

That’s right – It was ‘we’ again, at least for the time being, and that’s what was important in the moment. 

That day was one of those perfectly warm previews of a spring where winter was never real. March is a flighty month, and I could never help swinging back and forth on the back of its whims, fluttering each day from hope to despair and back again. My dad is the same way, I think. At least, that would explain the way he comes and goes. In a way, he may as well be the month itself, leapt off of the calendar and bounding down the street. 

I sat there in the passenger seat, trying to keep my eyes from defaulting back to the mirror. A text flashed across the top of my screen and my sister’s words intruded on my idle scrolling. I held my thumb over it for a moment and finally decided to swipe it away as my lagging memory caught up to recall what she’d said a couple hours earlier. Listen. I know this hurts to hear, but it’s just an act. He wasn’t going to stay last time, and he isn’t going to stick around this time. I can’t keep watching him let you down. I know it sucks, but you have to stop buying into it. You just can’t let yourself get too excited is all. Only Maggie. And on my birthday, of all days. Maybe she means well, but more often than not I think she’s jealous. He never makes it for her birthdays. But then again, it’s never snowed on mine. That’s kind of just how it goes. 

I thought about opening her message for a second more, but decided to click the lock button and began searching languidly for a new object to hold my attention while the driver’s seat remained unoccupied. Inadvertently, my eyes crept back into that rearview mirror and landed on the worried little nozzle burrowing into its home on the pump. At first I didn’t think much of it, but motion in the background illuminated the empty space at the fore. As my eyes adjusted to the new depth of field within that rear-view mirror, I took in the motion occurring off in the distance. 

I’d never seen my dad run before, not like that. I had to crane my neck back around the passenger seat to see it for myself. Three of them were chasing him, coming close. His legs were moving so fast, it looked like the rest of him wouldn’t keep up with them much longer as he began to round a corner, leaving my line of sight. 

I tore off the seatbelt, still fastened in an exhibition of patience and trust in his return, squandered now, and flung the door open. But before I could really even start in his direction, an enormous crack drew an invisible fissure in the ground between us. It rang out eternally in the air, isolating itself over any other sound in the area. Hearing a gunshot for the first time stopped me dead in my tracks. Every day that winter I wondered whether it did the same to him. Maggie said the answer didn’t really matter.



J.M. Landon is a fiction writer from New Haven, Connecticut. While he is currently at work on a debut novel, that path gives way to frequent experimentation in shorter forms. More on James’ work can be found at JMLandonWriting.com and @JMLandon_ on Twitter.

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