Tina sat down on the wooden bench in the middle of Benningson Park.
The sun hung low in the sky. It gave off a radiant, bright light that complemented the green hues scattered all around the park. It’ll be dark in a couple of hours.
She took out her phone from her simple jeans and listened to the voice mail that brought her here again: “Hey Sis, it’s me. Listen, I know we haven’t talked for a long time but I really need to see you. I wouldn’t have asked if it wasn’t important. I don’t know if you’re busy, but please meet me tomorrow at sunset in Benningson Park. Ok. Bye.”
Tina put her phone down.
She could tell this was important. She could tell just by hearing his voice. Charlie needed her. After everything they’ve been through together, he was still her little brother. She had to come. At least that’s what she told herself.
She shifted her attention back to the park. Anything that will distract her was welcome. She scanned the tall trees and thick brushes all around, the people, going about their days, minding their own business. She loved that about the city. She loved the fact that not one person in this park gave a shit about her. She thought it was magical, in a way. Just do your thing and I’ll do mine, that’s the way Tina liked to live her life.
She noticed Charlie approaching, a couple of feet away.
“Hey T”, said Charlie and sat down on the bench.
“Hi Charlie”, Tina answered.
“You look good”, Charlie told her.
“Yeah, well, you look tired as fuck”, she said and scanned him up and down. He was wearing dark blue jeans, a powder blue golf shirt and a brown jacket on top of that. His hair was shaggy and he had heavy-looking bags under his eyes.
Charlie laughed. “I forgot how much I missed your honesty”, he admitted, “Yeah well, life does that to you eventually”.
“How long has it been, Tina?”, he asked his older sister.
“4 and a half years”, she said without hesitating.
“Wow”, Charlie exclaimed then added, “What’s up then? You got a boyfriend yet?”
Well…. Tina thought to herself.
“No”, she said simply.
“What about you? How have you been?”, she quickly asked him.
“Um, not so great, as of late. You were right about me looking tired; I haven’t been sleeping so well lately. Plus, I quit my job two weeks ago, so I need to find a new one, and soon”, he told her, “I don’t know, I guess I’ll manage.”
He gave her a weak smile. They didn’t know how to share a proper conversation with each other, so they turned to something they do know how to share — silence.
They sat quietly next to each other and watched the sun dipping lower and lower in the sky. They sat on the bench and watched the comings and goings of all kinds of people.
Charlie pulled out a small, metal flask from his jacket pocket and took a big swig from it.
“Check you out, Charles!”, Tina exclaimed.
“Never took you for the kind of guy who carries a flask in his pocket”, she said teasingly.
“A lot has changed, T”, Charlie said without looking at her.
They returned to comfortable silence. After a few moments, Charlie reached out and offered her the flask. Tina nodded and took the flask with both of her hands. She sipped quietly.
Charlie’s eyes brightened all of a sudden, just like when they were kids, and he broke the heavy silence, “Have you ever played the turtle-mouse game?”
“Charlie…”, Tina started.
“Come on, Sis”, he cut her off, “Just indulge me, will you? I promise you’ll like it.”
Tina gave him an unpleasant look.
“Fine. What’s the turtle-mouse game?”
“Ok. So the world is divided into 2 types of people, turtles and mice. The goal of the game is to pick a random person and identify him as a mouse or as a turtle. Understood?”
Tina laughed. It was the kind of laugh that Charlie waited to hear for a long time.
“T-That’s the game?”, she asked, still suppressing weak chuckles.
“Yeah”, her brother told her with a silly smile.
“Ok then, smart-ass. So how do I know which one is who?”
“A-ha”, Charlie said, “That’s the beauty of the game. You simply look at a person and you know. Then you call it.”
“But that’s so illogical. I don’t get it”, Tina told her brother mockingly.
Charlie smiled broadly.
“It’s a good thing that I’m here to show you, then”, he said and started to scan the pedestrians in the park.
“See the guy over there with that gray coat?”, Charlie asked and motioned towards the man.
“That’s a classic mouse right there”, Charlie informed Tina.
“What?”, Tina said, clearly confused.
“Come on, look at his face! Look at him closely”, he said and turned his head to face Tina’s for the first time in 4 and a half years, “Are you looking?”.
“Okay, okay, I’m looking!”, she said testily.
“Now, focus on his face. It doesn’t matter why; just say the first thing that pops into your mind. Is he a turtle or a mouse?”
“He’s a mouse!”, she exclaimed, “Oh my god, I see it.”
“No doubt about it”, her brother agreed.
Tina giggled. Just like she used to when they were kids.
Charlie turned his attention back to the park.
“That girl”, he said and pointed to a short, skinny, red-haired girl.
“mmm..”, Tina thought for a second, “Mouse.”
“Correct”, said Charlie, “The guy with the pony-tail next to the bushes?”
“That, young Charlie, is a turtle. Big time.”
“Indeed it is, Tina”, Charlie answered evenly.
They burst out laughing after a few seconds. It felt like they were in their own little, private world, just then. As if that old, wooden bench was all they ever needed to get them talking again.
Everything was silent again, a few moments after. It was a different kind of silence, a deep, familiar kind of quiet. The sun disappeared below the city’s skyline, forcing a warm, orange light through the gaps and light shadows around Benningson Park.
Tina realized something and started giggling to herself.
“What about Mom?”, she said, “She was a mouse, wasn’t she? With that tiny nose and…”
Tina stopped talking when she saw her brother’s face. His eyes were closed and his hands were clutching the edges of their bench.
“I-I’m sorry, Charlie”, Tina started. She couldn’t come up with a good way to continue that sentence, so she fell back to silence.
Charlie broke the silence before Tina could feel bad.
“You know, I was 8 when she died”, Charlie said, “I remember that day so clearly, Tina. I remember us, sitting in the front porch, waiting for dad to come home. He came back and told us about that horrible accident and I was devastated. I’ll never forget that night.”
His eyes turned in the direction of the tree line, but it was clear that his mind was elsewhere.
“The one thing I can’t remember is her face”, Charlie continued, suppressing a soft sob, “I can’t remember what she used to look like, Tina. my own Mother. The worst part is that I have these dreams. They come and go, sometimes it gets better but right now it’s not so good. I can see her face clearly in my dreams; I keep imagining what happened on that fucking road that night. How frightened she was. But, every time I wake up I lose that image. I forget her face, again and again. It’s like my mind is playing this sick joke on me.”
Tina needed time to absorb everything that her brother said.
“Is that why you’ve been losing sleep, Charlie?”
Charlie grimaced weakly.
“What do you think?”, he said.
“I’m sorry, Charlie”, Tina offered, not sure if anything she’d say would provide any comfort.
“It’s fine. Everyone has their demons”, he told her and quickly changed the subject, “You know, if you say Mom was a mouse, then I think we can both agree that Dad is a total turtle, am I right?”
Tina didn’t say anything. She sat still, jaw clenched and eyes shut.
Charlie looked over and noticed how nervous his sister was.
“Still?”, he asked his sister incredulously.
“What do you mean ‘still’?”, Tina barked at him.
“It’s been 10 years, Tina!”, Charlie shot back at her.
“Fuck you, Charlie”, she spat at him, “Don’t tell me it’s been 10 years. You think I don’t know how long it’s been? What, you just assumed that everything is fine now? Uh?”, Tina paused for a second, “Well, it’s not. Dad is poisonous, Charlie. He tried to control me, my life. He is manipulative and harsh and an asshole. I know you had it easy when we were growing up, but I didn’t. So don’t talk to me about dad.”
“I didn’t have it easy”, Charlie said quietly, as if to himself. But Tina heard him.
“Oh, you didn’t? I’m sorry, I guess I wasn’t home when Dad looked through yourstuff, checked your phone and disapproved all of your friends”, Tina said to her brother, “Considering all that, I’m surprised you didn’t leave either”, she said sarcastically.
“We both know that that’s not why you left”, Charlie said.
Those words hit Tina’s nerves like a sharp pick-axe.
“He had no right coming into my room whenever he felt like it. I was 17, Charlie. After… “, she continued carefully, “After that happened, he.. he went mad. I was so scared. I’ll never forget that, I just can’t. I was so sure he was going to hit me”, Tina said through the tears, in a quick rush of emotions, “I knew I couldn’t stay after that. I had to leave.”
The silence in Benningson Park was thick after Tina finished. It was as if they were all alone in the world.
“Listen, I know it was hard for you. I was there”, he told his sister, “You know, for years I used to blame myself, for everything. You and Dad, Mom. I couldn’t shake that blame away”, Charlie confessed, while his sister sniffled and tried to wipe her tears away. She hated crying.
“So guess what, Tina? It was hard for me too. You left and I was left with the shell of a broken man. I took care of him more than he took care of me.”
Tina didn’t know that. She probably did, deep inside, if she ever bothered to think back on her father, but she didn’t let herself do that ever since she left.
“Dad’s dying, Tina”, Charlie said, quite suddenly, “He’s dying as we speak. That’s actually the reason I called you here.”
Tina tensed. She readied herself for a big rush of anger, but instead she just felt empty and hurt. What Charlie said was like a swift punch to the stomach.
“What happened?”, Tina said, unable to look her brother in the eyes.
“Cancer”, Charlie said glumly, “Pancreatic cancer, actually. His organs are failing as we speak. I wanted to give you one last chance to talk to him. The doctors say he’s got maybe a couple of days, maybe a few hours.
It’s up to you, Sis.”
The battle Tina had inside of her was raging on. She thought about her family, how happy they were once, before that car accident. She thought of quiet afternoons, when she and Charlie used to play in the backyard while Mom and Dad made dinner together. She used to watch them from the backyard, every now and then. They seemed so happy.
Then she thought of all the pain and anguish she went through, all thanks to her Dad. She thought of that fateful night he caught her and Amy together. She saw his face again, in her mind’s eye. A face full of pure anger, devoid of every other emotion.
Tina knew that if she refused to see him, the opportunity won’t come back. The opportunity to make things right, to finally talk about what happened and clear the air. Her last chance to have a family again. Maybe she was ready for it or maybe she wasn’t. That didn’t matter now.
“Where?”, Tina said all of a sudden.
Charlie watched her face carefully.
“Hospital, a couple of blocks south from here.”
“Okay”, Tina told him, “Let’s go”.
The plain, white walls of the hospital made Tina uneasy.
They were inside, passing room after room, getting closer. Tina walked along the long corridors feeling hollow, small and unimportant.
She wasn’t sure what would happen when she saw him. She wasn’t sure if anything inside her will awaken or if even words would come out.
They arrived at the door.
Charlie hugged his sister for support. He gave her one final look and then stepped through.
Tina waited for a moment.
There are certain moments in life when you can’t just dive right in. Some things are delicate and have to be treated with care.
She took one final steadying breath and went inside.
The room inside was even whiter than she expected.
In the far corner of the room stood a bed and a couple of dark blue chairs beside it, up against the far wall.
Charlie took a seat and looked at Tina.
Tina focused on the bed. On the bed lay an old man, completely bald besides a couple of white stray hairs on the top of his head. He seemed worn out and in pain. She allowed herself to step closer, slowly.
The old man finally noticed someone else was inside the room with them and made a weak attempt to try and look. Tina stepped even closer but the old man needed time until his eyes were able to focus on her.
Something in his face changed, and seemed softer all of a sudden.
“Turbo Tina”, he said, smiling weakly.
Tina started crying, that exact moment.at first, it was a few thin drops sliding down her face, then it developed into quiet sobs and gentle shivers. That was all it took.
That’s what her Dad used to call her. After her Mom died, Tina started going through her teen years. Her Dad always thought she was growing up too fast and becoming a woman. Plus, Tina loved running and used to run track in high school. she still did it on occasion, when she had time. Her Dad has been calling her Turbo Tina since she was 14.
Tina didn’t even remember that name before he said it.
Her dad motioned her to come closer, shakily. Tina nodded, her face moist from the still coming tears, and moved to the side of his bed.
He took her hand in his.
“I’m glad you came, dear”, he said honestly. He looked so frail and old. For some reason, seeing him like this broke Tina’s heart.
“Hey Dad”, Tina said and sniffled.
“Tina, we need to talk be-before I’m gone”, he said through heavy breathing, “I want to tell you something. I have done awful things to you. Things I will always regret.”
Tina’s heart was full of sorrow. She hated this situation, hated life itself, at that moment.
“We were a happy family, once”, her Dad continued, “Before your Mother died. After she passed, I felt so empty. The only thing that kept me going was you two”, the old man looked at both of his children, “But, I wasn’t the same man. I changed and it got harder and harder to look after you by myself. You were changing and growing up so fast. I felt like I was losing you”, he squeezed Tina’s hand, “So instead of talking to you and making you feel safe, I tried to control you. I am so sorry for that, Tina.
I want you to know that I don’t blame you for running away. And about that night, with Amy, I don’t care. There’s something about dying that grants you a lot of perspective. I just want you to be happy, Turbo. That’s all that matters.”
Her Dad was crying too. Tina waited so long for this moment. She waited to get her childhood back, but not like this.
She couldn’t bring herself to get angry. She always thought of her childhood home as a prison. And her Dad was the warden.
But looking at him now, she didn’t see a warden anymore. What she saw was a remnant of her Dad. An aging man, broken by loss. She felt like she finally saw her Dad for the first time. She knew that what he did was wrong, but at least now she understood him.
“I want you to know”, her Dad told her, “That I loved you with all of my heart, from the moment you were born and I will love you even when I’m gone.”
Tina held her Dad’s hand real tight, she didn’t want to let go.
“I know, Dad”, she admitted, “I just wish we talked sooner. It could’ve been much better.”
Her Dad smiled warmly and touched her face softly. They looked at each other.
“I know, dear. But this is enough.”
The three of them enjoyed each other’s company for a few more hours, talking about small things and reminiscing. A few sweet hours before the inevitable moment.
Tina and Charlie’s Dad died quietly and peacefully. He passed in the blink of an eye and the world didn’t stop turning. The lights didn’t go off. Everything stayed the same, as if nothing changed. But for Charlie and Tina everything changed.
Tina got home late the next day. She and Charlie spent the day talking trying to figure out how to be a family, now that it’s just the two of them. They caught up and shared things they never dared to share with each other before. Charlie said that maybe he’ll move closer to Tina. An apartment just opened up, just across the road from Tina’s place.
She went inside and closed the wooden door behind her.
“Tina?”, a woman’s voice called for her.
“Hey”, Tina said back and dropped her purse on the armchair next to the door.
Michelle made her way to the door, kitchen towel on her shoulder and a wooden spoon in hand.
“Hey baby”, Michelle said and kissed Tina warmly. She had flowing brown hair and dark, clever eyes. She wore simple jeans and a bright, yellow T-shirt.
“Hi, Em”, Tina greeted her with a relieved smile. She was glad to be home finally.
“Mommy!”, a little girl in a green dress ran towards Tina, “You’re back!”
Tina picked her beautiful daughter up, while Michelle smiled at her wife and went back to prepare dinner.
“That’s right, Thea, mommy’s back”, Tina said and kissed her Daughter’s head.
Tina carried Thea to the living room and sat her down.
“Would you like to hear a story, Thea? We have some time before dinner.”
“Okay”, Tina said and brushed her Daughter’s straight, blond hair with her fingers.
“You know, Thea, before you were born, I had a family of my own. I had a little brother, and a mom, a-and a dad.”
“A dad?”, Thea asked her mother.
“Yes, dear. You don’t have one, but I had a dad. Would you like me to tell you about my dad?”
Thea nodded quickly.
Tina thought for a minute. She steadied herself before the task ahead.
“Well, my dad’s name was Donald and the best thing about him was that he used to….”