The lights are out in the cabin where the boys and I sleep, but I’m not there. I’m awake in the backseat of a truck with a sleeping Mason whose face is smushed against the window.
“No favorites,” my boss commanded us during orientation, but Mason crafts ketchup art on his dinner plate, writes his own murder-mystery book series, and likes Schitt’s Creek as much as I do.
The driver flies down the two-lane road. I swallow a shout whenever a deer appears by the shoulder, not wanting to wake Mason without cause. I tell myself that if we hit a deer, he’ll wake up anyway. I remember the story my dad told me, how he totaled his Jeep before I was born.
“The deer came out of nowhere, and I couldn’t turn fast enough. I tried.”
At the hospital, a man asks the woman behind the desk to let him in the back to see a patient. “It was my fault,” he says. “I need to tell him.” She sends him away. Our turn.
“My stomach hurts,” Mason tells her. He tells her that it hurts less than it did an hour or so before. Our driver, an actual adult with copies of Mason’s insurance and a credit card, explains that the doctor at camp thought it might be appendicitis. I am the twenty-year-old counselor who was told to go with his camper to the hospital. I stand behind them both, useless.
In the waiting area, I’m on my phone. Mason asks if I’m texting my girlfriend. I laugh and don’t answer him, too embarrassed to tell a middle schooler that I’ve never even been on a date. Not counting prom when I took my sister’s friend. Mom was fussing with my tux while Dad instructed me, “Be sure to give her all your attention tonight. It’s her only prom.”
We get called into an exam room. A woman in scrubs sits at a desk littered with empty yogurt containers and blank forms. She asks Mason questions. “It doesn’t really hurt anymore,” Mason says. The driver huffs and rolls his eyes. The nurse says we should still run a test to be safe. Mason pees in a cup. Back to the waiting room.
At the vending machine, Mason makes fun of how many snacks I buy. I get him a Musketeers Bar, one of my dad’s favorites. We avoid the driver, he’s kind of weird. I look up “Would You Rather…” questions on my phone.
“Would you rather be in jail for five years or a coma for a decade?”
“But you lose ten years of your life!”
They call us back to a different room. There’s a bed for Mason and one chair. The driver is kind enough to sit on the floor. It’s three in the morning. “We need a blood sample,” the nurse says and Mason starts to shake. He’s never given blood. I put my hand on his shoulder as the needle slips into his skin.
I remember when my dad drove me to the hospital to have blood work done.
“You don’t have to look at the needle. You can if you want, but you don’t have to.” We stopped at Hardee’s for biscuits after.
The nurse pulls the needle out of Mason’s arm. His body calms. More waiting.
A doctor enters. They need a CT scan. If he has appendicitis, he will need surgery. Mason’s never had surgery. He lies back on his hospital bed and starts to shake again.
I pull out my phone and tell him he can watch Netflix. He takes it and sees my lock screen. A man is sitting on a couch wearing an LSU baseball cap, wrapping paper at his side, but the gift is out of frame. The man is grinning.
“Who is that?” Mason asks.
I don’t know how to tell him it’s a picture of my father. My father who I am named after. My father who drove me to swim meets and bought me ice cream whether I won or lost, who taught me to drive, who watched Seinfeld with me, who came to all my school plays and pretended to like even the bad ones, who said “I love you” every morning before school. My forty-six-year-old father who was in good health when he lay down on an operating table and bled out within an hour only a year ago.
I know I can’t tell Mason that. There is no reason to tell Mason that. The doctor will wake us up around six the next morning to say that the CT shows it is indeed appendicitis and that the surgery has to be today, and Mason will go in for the operation and come out just fine.
Mason’s parents will come down for his three-day recovery before he returns to camp. I’ll shake his father’s hand and tell him that his son is my favorite in the cabin. Mason will return to camp and see his friends and go swimming and walk on the beach and play basketball and read with a flashlight and leave camp and go back to school and grow up and go to college and get married and have children and see them grow up and he won’t die before they have a chance to say goodbye.
Mason is not my father. Mason is different because Mason is just like everyone else.
I stare at the screen, unable to return my father’s smile. “It’s my dad,” I say.
Mason nods. He turns on Schitt’s Creek, and without looking at me, tilts the phone so I can watch too.
Ray Lantrip is a student at Covenant College working toward his degree in English. He writes creative nonfiction, poetry, and drama. When he’s not wasting time on his phone, Ray enjoys performing on stage, going for runs, and trying out different energy drinks.
Header photograph and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson