The Last Summer, by Kelly Ford

My friends would head to the pool that day. They’d show off their new boobs in their new biki­nis. Point out which boys they want­ed to date. Make plans with­out me for our upcom­ing sopho­more year.

Angela paused and spun her car keys around and around a fin­ger. She didn’t much like hang­ing out­side the porch in all that heat, but on account of the sit­u­a­tion, she was kind enough to pre­tend oth­er­wise. “You’ll be fine.”

Do you have to go?” I asked. Dad had nev­er both­ered to babysit me, so I didn’t under­stand why every­body was so intent on me return­ing a favor I’d nev­er received. When was the last time we’d even been alone togeth­er? Nev­er. That’s when. “What if he chokes on some­thing?” We were in the mid­dle of nowhere, Arkansas. Accord­ing to my eighth grade gym teacher, CPR Annie would die on my watch.

“Hon­ey.” She knelt in front of me like I was a child in need of con­so­la­tion. “Your dad can’t get much food down any­way. It’s only for a few hours. I’ll be home after the lunch rush.” A crease appeared between her eyes. “I need this job,” she said. “I’m lucky they keep me on at all.” She pulled a pen and crum­pled din­er nap­kin from her purse. “My work number’s on the fridge. But if any­thing hap­pens, you call the Creekkillers, you hear? They live next door.”

Next door? There were no doors. Just trees and dirt and noth­ing much for miles and miles. I looked down at the name on the nap­kin she gave me. I’d rather take my chances with emer­gency resus­ci­ta­tion.

Angela held me by the shoul­ders with out­stretched arms. Last time I’d seen her, she’d worn make­up and had blonde high­lights. She could’ve been mis­tak­en for my old­er sis­ter. Now, she looked like what she was, a step-mom.

I’m glad you changed your mind,” she whis­pered and pulled me in for a hug.

When Mom dropped me off the night before, I’d asked her if I had to stay the whole sum­mer. Your father’s a sono­fabitch, she’d said, but he’s dying.

So yeah, the whole sum­mer.

When Angela drove away, dust kicked up from her tires and set­tled on the fuzzy cedars that lined the dirt road.

Through the screen door, I could see into the liv­ing room. The plas­tic win­dow blinds were closed and the lamps were off. Dad wore thin cot­ton paja­mas. A pile of blan­kets twist­ed at his feet. Light from the TV flick­ered on his face.

I returned to my spot in the liv­ing room where I was charged with watch­ing my Dad. Watch him do what, I didn’t know. Nobody said. Just that I should be there. I should be there. The phrase had been repeat­ed so often, it felt like a din­ner prayer. Dad slept on the couch, his breath a steady stream of phlegm-caked air that set off my gag reflex. Once Good Morn­ing Amer­i­ca end­ed, he asked me to pop a war movie into the VCR. Which one? Didn’t mat­ter. I flipped through the video box­es and found one with a man on his knees. Heavy green veg­e­ta­tion sur­round­ed him. Pla­toon. I’d seen pho­tos of Dad in fatigues, before he’d shipped off. Mom told me how he’d held on to her while she washed the dish­es and whis­tled Motown tunes in her ear. How he’d bring home choco­late coins and pas­ture-picked dan­de­lions.

“Weren’t you in Viet­nam?” I asked. He mum­bled some­thing and rolled over on to his side, away from me.

I watched him there on the couch, drift­ing off from painkillers, think­ing Mom must’ve got­ten him con­fused with some old boyfriend.

Angela came home from the din­er and made us a lunch of tuna sand­wich­es and pota­to chips. Dad got a can of Ensure. After lunch, Angela cleaned up and encour­aged me to go out­side in that after-school-spe­cial way: Get out! Get some sun! You’re fif­teen! (Like fif­teen was some mag­i­cal age that I would look back on some day when my knees failed and my elbows turned ashy like Grandma’s.) The Creekkillers had a daugh­ter. Nice girl, Angela said. Just beyond them trees out past the dri­ve. A bit younger than me. But maybe we would find some­thing in com­mon. (Doubt­ful.) And there was an old­er broth­er, a senior next year, always shoot­ing off guns and scar­ing the birds, but nice. I inter­pret­ed her descrip­tion to mean: He ain’t much to look at.

Sure, I’d head over for a vis­it. Instead, while Angela tend­ed to Dad’s dai­ly pill rou­tine, I slipped back to my room to read the Sweet Val­ley High books my friends had loaned me – not that I want­ed to read them.

Around din­ner­time, Angela set the table for two and pre­tend­ed like we were nor­mal. How was your day? Fine. Yours? Good. After the two of us ate, she pulled out a TV tray and sat next to him. She cut his meat­loaf small, whipped the pota­toes thin and poured salty brown gravy over them to con­vince him to eat. She leaned down to kiss him, and the food went cold.

 

***

 

After a cou­ple of weeks, I’d fin­ished all the books I’d brought from home. With no let­ters to read from the friends who swore they’d write every day, I decid­ed to go in search of more mate­r­i­al. From my expe­ri­ence, all grownups had books they kept out of sight. They tried to fool you with the Ency­clo­pe­dia Britannica’s and the Wood­land Flow­ers of the South­ern Unit­ed States doorstops they kept on cof­fee tables. With Dad knocked out on the couch, high on meds and war movies, I made my way through the house to their bed­room. Most of the books on the shelf in their room were these worn Har­le­quin paper­backs with “GET SOME AT THE BOOK NOOK!” stamped on the side. I flipped and skimmed the pages until I got to words like “heav­ing” and “rod,” gid­dy-scared with the idea of get­ting caught even though I’d have heard Dad com­ing a mile away with that clomp­ing thud of his when he head­ed to the bath­room. I pulled out a cou­ple of Har­le­quins, a cap­tive-woman-falls-in-love-with-her-cap­tor Wild West sto­ry and a Stephen King book Mom for­bade me to read, think­ing it might seduce me into dark arts. Arms loaded, hap­py with my haul, I stepped around the bed and made my way toward the door.

On my way out, I noticed a fad­ed pic­ture of Dad lodged in the cor­ner of the dress­er mir­ror. He sat in his red pick­up truck with the door open, a straw cow­boy hat on his head, his bat­tal­ion pin front and cen­ter. Dark hair. Thick mus­tache to match. Tat­tooed mus­cles jut­ting out of an Army green t-shirt. Sun­glass­es mir­rored back the pho­tog­ra­ph­er and a cig­a­rette hung from his mouth. The date stamp on the back read: July 1978. I had just turned five. The year he left Mom. The year she stopped ask­ing his friends to car­ry him into the house because he was too drunk to make it on his own. When she stopped spack­ling all the holes in the wall. The year she quit nurs­ing school and went back to work at the fur­ni­ture plant because he’d emp­tied the sav­ings account on a week­end ben­der with some Army bud­dies up in Tahle­quah. Good rid­dance, she’d said. Good rid­dance.

At least for her.

Five Fourth of Julys after that, Dad had arrived our house for his annu­al vis­it. He tossed my worn bag of shorts and t-shirts into the back of that red pick­up truck, and we drove two hours to Grand­ma and Grandpa’s house, most­ly in silence. Once we arrived, I shot out the pas­sen­ger side to catch up with all my cousins before they start­ed hav­ing fun with­out me. I only saw Dad again when it was time to eat. Over cat­fish, fried pota­toes and hush pup­pies scent­ed with jalapenos, we’d catch each other’s eyes and flinch, like nei­ther of us expect­ed to see the oth­er one sit­ting there across the room.

Grand­ma died and the dri­ves and vis­its stopped. He didn’t call. He’d send a birth­day card. They were always too young for me, with col­ored bal­loons and pup­py dogs with big, sad eyes. I’d grab the $20 from the spine of the card, shove the bill in my pock­et and toss the card in the trash like the oth­ers that came before.

Just like those dri­ves to Grand­ma and Grandpa’s house, I dread­ed our time alone, with him on the couch and me so qui­et. I couldn’t make a sound with­out him rustling and grum­bling. I felt like I’d been dumped in a new school in the mid­dle of the semes­ter. Not sure where to go, what to say, what to do. He nev­er need­ed me and nev­er did ask ques­tions or even talk. Not when I was sit­ting right next to him in the truck. Not when I was sit­ting right next to him on the love seat watch­ing him die.

After lunch, lack­ing any­where else to go and an aching feel­ing to get out of that house, I head­ed out­side and through the vacant acre of land that stood between the girl-I-might-like’s house and my Dad’s. A thick­et of tow­er­ing pines shad­ed the lot from the sun. The small­er trees reached out at odd angles to grab what­ev­er light they could find stream­ing through. The air was sticky and the mos­qui­toes thick. The sweet, lemo­ny scent of cedar trick­led in and out of my nose. I could almost smell the heat of the soil, fil­tered through blan­kets of dead leaves that had fall­en for years and escaped the rake. Noth­ing but dirt under­neath them when I crunched across the lot in my flip-flops. Out here under the trees, every­thing was qui­et save for the sound of squir­rels or some oth­er crit­ter drop­ping twigs and acorns on the ground. Inside the trail­er, the sound of Dad’s wheez­ing lungs echoed off the walls. The noise grew loud­er each day. Out here in Noth­ing Much To Do, Arkansas, I final­ly felt like I could catch my breath, sus­pend my thoughts.

Up ahead, light trick­led through the over­growth. I pushed the branch­es away and crawled between two strings of barbed wire, care­ful not to snag my shirt. When I looked up, a boy had a shot­gun trained on my head.

Who are you?” he asked.

My brain couldn’t think of any­thing to say, so I held my hands up like I’d seen on TV. The boy was dark-skinned, like the men on the Wild West paper­back I’d tak­en. Only, he wore a shirt and didn’t have a big-boob com­pan­ion hang­ing limp and lusty off his arm. Small patch­es of acne sprin­kled each cheek, but I didn’t mind. Some Asian and Mex­i­can boys were in my class, but no hon­est to God Indi­ans. Star­ing at him, I couldn’t help but look down at myself and won­der what he might see: All skin­ny legs and big hair made even big­ger by the humid­i­ty. At least I had clear skin. But, this boy wasn’t any­one I would have talked to at school. Those boys were out with my friends. The ones who promised to pick up the phone when I called.

I live across the woods,” I said and point­ed behind me.

He low­ered his gun. “Sor­ry about your dad.”

Seemed strange to me that any­one would know about my Dad – not that my Dad would know about them.

The boy’s name was Cody. He had come over every now and then before Dad got sick. His mom sent over casseroles and con­do­lences. His sis­ter wasn’t at home, she wouldn’t be for a while and I asked too many ques­tions. That last part he punc­tu­at­ed with the sound of him load­ing anoth­er round.

You used to come over?” I asked.

Haven’t had time.” He low­ered his head, ashamed of the lie.

Dad was in Viet­nam,” I said, blurt­ing out the first thing that came to mind about the last thing I’d been think­ing.

I know,” he said. He dropped the gun at his side. “He told me.”

What’d you talk about?”

He looked at me like I was an idiot. “Vee-et-nam.”

No, I mean, what exact­ly did you talk about?”

He aimed at a line of gener­ic brand soda cans he had lined up along a bunch of tree stumps down the pas­ture. “Guns. Fight­ing. Girls.”

Cans like that used to line the fence posts in Grandma’s back yard. Dad ran tar­get prac­tice with my boy cousins while us girls helped with sup­per. The oth­er girls took to mak­ing home­made rolls and col­lard greens like some genet­ic mem­o­ry had been trig­gered at the appear­ance of met­al mix­ing bowls and but­ter. Me, I stared at them boys, but most­ly Dad. Spite­ful, I scaled the cat­fish with my spoon and spit at the ground.

I’m just sur­prised he told you about the war.”

Cody blew a hard line of air out of his nose and arched an eye­brow. The rapid fir­ing of his gun scared a flock of birds fly­ing by. I dis­ap­peared back into the shad­ow of the woods.

After din­ner, I watched the blan­kets rise and fall as Dad drift­ed in and out of sleep. I’d nev­er thought about it before that sum­mer. Where Dad had gone, what it’d been like for him. What it meant to him. From the com­fort of the liv­ing room, every­thing on TV seemed like fic­tion. In that pho­to tucked into the mir­ror frame, Dad’s face mir­rored the men in the movies we watched. Not the hand­some lead actor, but the guy gone wrong. The one with the scar across his cheek and an itchy right hook wait­ing for a fleshy face to sink it into. But on the couch, with the light from the TV height­en­ing the shad­ows under his sharp cheeks and sunken eyes, his hands were up, ready to die.

 

***

 

Every day after lunch, I’d tip­toe through the woods towards Cody’s house to watch him shoot. Usu­al­ly, I was able to pre­vent detec­tion. Usu­al­ly. One day, I’d got­ten a mighty case of chig­ger bites on my ankles from wear­ing flip-flops. Dur­ing one par­tic­u­lar­ly exhaust­ing itch­ing fit, I lost my bal­ance and near­ly fell into the barbed wire.

You’re the worst spy ever,” Cody called out.

I con­sid­ered whether or not I should sneak back through the woods to my house, but then I’d be alone with Dad. “I wasn’t spy­ing.”

You’re there every day.”

There was no point in dis­put­ing the mat­ter, so I came out of hid­ing. “Where’d you learn to shoot guns?” The blue rings of his t-shirt pulled at the mus­cles on his arms. I’d nev­er seen a boy’s arms this close, or paid much atten­tion to the ridges that sep­a­rat­ed one smooth curve from the oth­er. He kept load­ing and made no indi­ca­tion that he was inter­est­ed in con­ver­sa­tion. I was used to that in school. The boys there wouldn’t talk to me either. (Not that I tried.) But I didn’t want to go home, so it was either talk or leave.

Are you Indi­an?”

Indi­ans are from India. Don’t you know any­thing?” He turned his back to me.

Well, what am I sup­posed to call you? That’s what they’re called in the books.” I knew bet­ter, but that didn’t stop me.

Only in stu­pid romance nov­els.” He kept on with his guns, bare­ly stop­ping to look up or reveal any emo­tion on his face.

Is your sis­ter home?”

No.”

Maybe we could hang out.”

Same expres­sion, no change. “No, go home.”

You don’t have to be mean about it.” Noth­ing. He con­tin­ued mess­ing with his gun. Some­thing about him made me want to poke and prod and see how far I could go. “Come on. Aren’t you sup­posed to kid­nap me? Scalp me? That’s what Indi­ans do, right?”

He rushed towards me, fast. Up close, I could see the hair in his nos­trils push out with each breath. He clenched his jaw. The faint trace of his body odor leaked through his deodor­ant and clutched my gut. Warmth rever­ber­at­ed down my body.

Are you in Spe­cial Ed?” His eyes burned. He didn’t smile. But he no longer looked like he want­ed to scalp me. “Alright,” he said. “What’s in it for me if I kid­nap you?” He looked me up and down. I felt an elec­tric charge race through my limbs. My mind fixed on all those dirty words in the Har­le­quins. “You don’t look like you could pull in a ran­som.”

I can cook. I’ll clean.” Some odd feel­ing rushed through me that lacked any descrip­tion oth­er than a com­plete and utter loss of wits. “Any­thing you want.”

He snort­ed. “You don’t look old enough to be a wife. You don’t even look old enough to have your peri­od.”

That hurt. I pre­tend­ed I didn’t notice and kicked the dirt with my toes.

I tell you what, I’ll give you an authen­tic Native Amer­i­can name. You are here­by known as…” He took his shot­gun and placed it on one of my shoul­ders and then the oth­er. (I was pret­ty sure that Indi­ans didn’t knight their war­riors, but I decid­ed not to edu­cate him just then.) “Flirts With Boys.”

With­out any warn­ing, he turned me around and popped me on the butt with his gun. “Now, get on home, Flirts.”

I didn’t want to leave. But I’d recov­ered enough to know that I’d worn out my wel­come for one day.

I’ll see you tomor­row,” I said. It wasn’t a ques­tion.


***

 

Every day, it seemed like Angela took a slow­er route home, no more want­i­ng to babysit my dad than I did. When she did arrive, her smile seemed more strained. She wasn’t mean or any­thing. I don’t know. Sad? One time, Dad yelled out for some water. He couldn’t see her stand­ing in the kitchen from the liv­ing room. She stared out the win­dow while he called and called. Final­ly, she pulled a glass out of the cup­board and dragged a smile on her face before hand­ing it to him.

Dad slept less and less. His cough came on and kept him awake more than any com­mo­tion from me. Instead of avert­ing his eyes when I caught him star­ing at me, he kept look­ing. I couldn’t tell if he was mad at me or want­ed me to get some­thing for him. I just sat there wait­ing for words that nev­er came out of his mouth.

After about a week, I final­ly met Cody’s sis­ter. His mom was always gone because she worked. His dad, nowhere to be found but on the walls. His sis­ter want­ed to braid my hair and put on make­up. That was some­thing I always did with my friends, but I was old­er now. I could either braid my hair or wrap my legs around Cody’s and go for a ride on his four-wheel­er down the dirt roads and through the woods.

Out on the bluff one day, like always, Cody turned off the engine. My innards hummed from the buzzing motor. We rubbed the dirt and bugs out of our eyes. Some­times, we’d talk about our friends or what our schools were like and what we hat­ed the most about our class­es. Most­ly, we sat there with­out talk­ing. I didn’t mind. Every now and then, we acci­den­tal­ly touched each other’s fin­gers when we read­just­ed from sit­ting on the hard ground for so long. I thought about what it might be like if it weren’t an acci­dent.

We watched the hors­es beat their hooves across a field below us until the sky turned to rust. Sun­set always came too soon, much like the end of sum­mer. In two short weeks, I would pack up and return home to Fort Smith. I didn’t want to head back yet, not before I got to hold Cody’s hand or kiss his lips or ensure that he wouldn’t go back to his school and fall in love with some­one who wasn’t me.

He took his knife out of the leather case on his belt and plunged it into the ground. “How’s your dad?” he asked.

I shrugged. “He has can­cer.” Every time I brought up my friends or my life, he asked about Dad. If he cared so much, he should have gone over to vis­it.

The gouges in the ground grew deep­er as he talked. “If that were my dad…” He shook his head.

“You said your dad was a drunk.” And had a mean tem­per. Based on some of the scars I’d seen on Cody that resem­bled cig­a­rette marks, I couldn’t fig­ure why he’d want to talk to him.

Cody stabbed the ground one more time. “He’s still my dad. We’re blood.”

Yeah, but you bare­ly know him.”

Cody sighed. “It’s dif­fer­ent for men,” he said.

Like you know any­thing about being a man,” I said. “Have you even been with a girl?” As soon as I said it, I knew I shouldn’t have because he jumped up. He was liable to leave me out there in the dark. I stood up in case I need­ed to run and jump on the four-wheel­er before he took off with­out me.

Instead of leav­ing, he hooked his thumbs in the front belt loops of my jean shorts and pulled me in. “You want to know?”

I did. And I didn’t.

I have,” he said. He looked me over, and I held my breath.

What on earth did I know about kiss­ing or mak­ing out or any­thing else? Noth­ing. I knew noth­ing at all, and I didn’t want him to find out. I braced myself for what I thought might come next and prayed that I wouldn’t screw it up by mov­ing my tongue the wrong way or bust­ing my teeth up against his or being alto­geth­er lousy at the thing.

You’re too young to have sex,” he said and nudged him­self away.

My heart dropped into my shoes. I hat­ed to cry. I hat­ed how I cried when any­thing bad or sad hap­pened. Or if I got angry.

Cody looked at me a bit soft­er then, which only made me more mad.

I don’t want to have sex with you!” I shoved him in the arm. I hoped what­ev­er girl­friend he found next year gave him V.D.

He low­ered his head and kicked the dirt with his already mud­dy sneak­ers. I tried not to snif­fle and give myself away. But the snot near dripped out of my nose, so I swiped at it with my hand like my nose itched, hop­ing he wouldn’t notice.

He spit at the ground, and then hopped onto the four-wheel­er. “You act like you’re from New York,” he said. “I’ve been to Fort Smith. A pub­lic pool and a dri­ve-through liquor store don’t make it a city.”

We rode home, qui­et but for the engine beneath us.

***

 

Gun­shots rang out over lunch, like they had in the week since I’d last seen Cody out on the bluff. Instead of rac­ing over to meet him, I went back to eat­ing lunch with Angela and read­ing and try­ing to ignore the clock and Cody’s ran­dom, rapid suc­ces­sion of shots. All sum­mer long, Dad hadn’t com­plained. But with his cough keep­ing him awake, Cody quick­ly became a men­ace to my dad.

Dad threw the remote on the side table next to him. The sound of hard plas­tic hit­ting the wood only added to the noise. “What in the hell is that boy doing out there?”

If Dad hadn’t had can­cer, he would have been right out there with Cody. He wouldn’t care if he dis­turbed any­one. I bet his lit­tle skin­ny arms couldn’t even lift a gun at this point. Besides that, here I was, one week away from going back home and I had not kissed a boy, lost my vir­gin­i­ty or got­ten to know my dad at all. Wasn’t that the whole point? He’s dying, every­one said. Bet­ter get to know him! Bet­ter take advan­tage of the oppor­tu­ni­ty while you have it! Fat good that did. With Cody and with Dad, all I ever did was make the effort. Dad espe­cial­ly should have tak­en the time to talk to me. He was the one dying.

I glared at him. “Cody’s gonna teach me how to shoot.”

Dad raised a fin­ger, point­ed it at me. “I don’t want you shoot­ing guns.” He retch-coughed into the sleeve of his paja­ma top.

Of course. Of course, he had to pull out a death-cough to make his point. “Why?”

Our eyes locked. A cloud went across his brow. If I’d been sit­ting clos­er, he might have reached out to smack me. “Jack­ie.”

“You used to shoot guns with the boys – all my cousins. Stephen and Ricky and Tom. I remem­ber.”

That’s dif­fer­ent.”

Because they’re boys?”

Because they’re old­er.”

Two years. Two years old­er, was all. “Old enough to hear sto­ries about the war? I heard you tell them. And Cody? He told me you told him sto­ries, too. Guess if I want to know any­thing about you, I bet­ter go ask one of them.”

Phlegm caught in Dad’s throat and rat­tled. The clock in the hall­way stopped, the TV stopped, the gun­shots stopped – every­thing seemed to get real qui­et, except for that awful sound of him retch­ing. He clutched his chest and tried to sit up but the effort only forced more coughs to rack his body. I jumped on the sofa bed, tip­ping him on his side. He thrust a hand out to catch him­self but his face crashed into the pil­low. I right­ed him best I could and held his body while he heaved and gasped. He felt small in my arms, so small. When his body shook, it shook me, too. I remem­bered a time he held me like that. I couldn’t recall when or where we were. But I remem­bered.

When he relaxed, I grabbed the water from the side table and put it to his mouth, care­ful not to bang the glass against his teeth.

You’re spilling it,” he rasped.

His fin­gers clutched the glass out of my hands, but shook under the weight. Water streamed down his paja­ma top. I ran to his bed­room and grabbed a tow­el. I opened draw­er after draw­er of Angela’s things, until I found his lone draw­er at the bot­tom. I grabbed an Army green t-shirt much like the one in the pho­to nudged into the dress­er mir­ror and ran back to the liv­ing room. Final­ly, I’d done more than just warm a spot on the couch.

He swat­ted my hands when I tried to take the wet shirt off of him and replace it with the dry one.

I can do it!” His eyes burned like they always had. All those feel­ings inside me froze. All this time, I had want­ed some­thing from him. Some indi­ca­tion that he even cared that I was there. But he didn’t. He didn’t care about any­one but him­self. Nev­er did and dying wouldn’t change that, so he could go on and do it him­self for all I cared.

Fine!” I yelled and ran out of the house.

Those damn gun­shots pierced the air. I put my hands up over my ears and screamed.

Over and over and over the gun fired. What I want­ed was to run all the way across to where Cody shot, only maybe be the tar­get, run right through his aim. Maybe if I did, Dad would notice. Instead, I decid­ed to take that gun and shoot, and keep shoot­ing, keep Dad awake. Let him know it’s me mak­ing all that noise.

I was out of breath by the time I ran across the vacant lot to where Cody stood.

Hey,” he said, sur­prised.

I reached for the gun.

What are you doing?”

I want to shoot,” I told him, my eyes still on the gun. “I want you to teach me to shoot.”

He nudged the gun and him­self away from my hands. “I thought you were mad at me.”

I changed my mind.” I clasped my hands around the bar­rel. “Come on.”

He con­sid­ered and then eased the han­dle against my shoul­der. His arm shad­owed mine, curve for curve. His mouth was near my ear, telling me to use the scope, to aim. I held the gun for a long time, long enough that my arms shook from the weight of it. Soda cans loomed in the dis­tance, all lined up in a row. Straw­ber­ry, Grape, Orange Crush. I aimed, pulled the trig­ger and felt the gun kick back so hard I thought my col­lar­bone might crack. Clouds of dirt fun­neled into the air. Cody told me it was fine, I did good, try again. His breath pushed into my ear, hot and pleas­ant. I aimed, cocked, pulled, shot, fell back. Over and over. Just like he did every day. I aimed again, but this time, all I saw through the scope was sky. Just the big, blue, stu­pid sky with clouds that held the promise of rain to shoo away the heat and the hard­ness of all those hot sum­mer days. But the clouds would only hold the rain and nev­er let it fall. Not that day. I shot the sky. I shot the clouds.

Before I real­ized what hap­pened, the gun was out of my hands. I looked around me. Cody ran with the gun toward the far end of the pas­ture, past the cans still lined up in a row. When I got clos­er to where he kneeled, I saw what he saw: A bird flapped its shat­tered wing in the dust. Blood cov­ered the feath­ers and the bird’s head twitched fran­ti­cal­ly.

What’s wrong with you?” Cody yelled up at me.

An acci­dent, I want­ed to say. I want­ed to apol­o­gize. I want­ed to reach down and hold that lit­tle bird in my arms but a hot cord of rage lit its way up my body and through my mouth. “Maybe it had can­cer. Maybe I put it out of its mis­ery.”

Cody looked from the bird and back to me. “Yeah?” His eyes grew red. “Maybe you’re just an ass­hole.”

The pres­sure of my blood beat­ing furi­ous in my veins swelled my head and my whole body shook. This was prob­a­bly some Native Amer­i­can thing. Like the bird was a spir­it ani­mal. A sym­bol of life on Earth. But life on earth sucked, and every­one died. Birds died. What did it mat­ter? “Stop being such a girl.” I pushed him hard. His knees buck­led and he dropped to the ground. “You’re the one who owns guns.”

Tears crest­ed and rolled down Cody’s brown cheeks. His shoul­ders drooped. “I shoot cans. Not birds!”

I guess part of me want­ed to see him cry. But when I did, I want­ed to take it back, make those tears go in reverse, right back into his sock­ets. I want­ed both of us to return to the top of the field so that I nev­er held the gun, nev­er shot the sky, nev­er shot the cans. But that’s not what hap­pened.

 

***

 

Dad col­lapsed into a heap on the ground. He called out, but no one could hear him with the chop­per hov­er­ing over­head. Dad plead­ed with his stick arms. Move it! he hollered at them. Instead, the tat­tooed skin melt­ed around his wast­ed mus­cles. The chop­per sounds grew faint. He looked up. The chop­per was leav­ing with­out him! There was no time! He dragged him­self by his fin­ger­nails to a piece of paper that had fall­en from the chop­per and drift­ed to the ground. He used the blood that spilled from a gash on his bust­ed head to scrawl: I’m sor­ry. I love you… Then, he died writ­ing my name.

The crunch of Angela’s shoes on the dry grass end­ed my day­dream.

Her shad­ow fell at my feet, where I sat under a tree. My chest thumped when her breath sucked in like she was about to yell. My shoul­ders hunched up around my ears, and I braced myself.

“You wan­na talk?” she asked.

“No.” Yes. I had want­ed some­one to tell every­thing to, but no one want­ed to talk. Not Dad, not Cody, not my stu­pid friends who nev­er wrote me back or picked up the phone. I hat­ed them all, so no. I didn’t want to talk to any­one.

“Alright, then,” she said. “Come in when you’re ready.”

Hours passed before I was, and that was only because hunger clutched my stom­ach. By dusk, I was soaked in sweat.

I walked around the lip of the trail­er. Dad sat on the porch steps in his paja­ma pants and the green t-shirt I’d giv­en him to wear after he’d spilled water all over him­self. He turned and watched me walk up the yard. He gripped the bot­tom part of the rail­ing with his arm. The step creaked when I sat down beside him.

Only the whip­poor­wills in some dis­tant tree decid­ed to talk. Fire­flies flick­ered in the dis­tance. He point­ed to them.

“You used to chase ‘em. Pull off the tails.” He reached over and tapped my fin­ger with his. “Make glow rings.”

I couldn’t remem­ber. Why couldn’t I remem­ber? It wasn’t fair that I had to be there to watch him die and there was noth­ing, noth­ing I could do. A stuffed-up feel­ing filled my chest.

“All I’m doing is sit­ting here.” I swal­lowed and swal­lowed, try­ing to keep all the feel­ings down. “I’m not help­ing at all.”

He reached out and pat­ted me on the leg. “I…” He coughed and turned so I couldn’t see his face. “I like look­ing over,” he said, “and see­ing you sit­ting there.”

My throat felt full of rags and my eyes went blur­ry.

 

***

 

In late Sep­tem­ber that same year, Dad died at home. Angela said he fell asleep and nev­er woke up. After the funer­al, Angela gave me the flag from Dad’s cof­fin, all fold­ed up nice from the Hon­or Guard.

At lunch, I lis­tened to the same old sto­ries my friends told every day. I won­dered if they were just try­ing hard not to for­get, afraid that if they skipped one day’s telling, those sum­mer mem­o­ries would slip away. None of them had kissed a boy or done any­thing else. Every time we dropped our lunch trays on the con­vey­or belt that led to the dish­wash­er and walked past the senior boys, they chant­ed “Cher­ry, Cher­ry” over and over until we walked out and couldn’t hear them any­more. I sat through anoth­er his­to­ry class that start­ed with the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion and end­ed with the Civ­il War, like every oth­er his­to­ry class every oth­er year. If any­one expect­ed us to know any­thing that hap­pened after that, we were – as Cody had said once out on the bluff – screwed.

After the inci­dent with the shot­gun, I didn’t go to his house at all in the last week I spent with my dad. He nev­er both­ered to come to mine. No shots rang out dur­ing the day, either. If I ever saw him again, I would nev­er admit that I missed the sound. Or him. As for Angela, she had promised to call when she head­ed over to the Book Nook. But I fig­ured that maybe read­ing wasn’t on her mind.

The bell rang and my class­mates rushed out the door. Instead of fol­low­ing them, I stayed. My teacher stared down at his shoes, lost in thought.

Mr. Mer­rill,” I asked. A dazed look crossed his face before he set­tled on mine in antic­i­pa­tion of some request that he prob­a­bly expect­ed would give him a headache. “In what grade do they talk about the Viet­nam War?”

He sat down on the edge of his desk and stroked an invis­i­ble beard. His eyes lift­ed and his brow wrin­kled in thought. Maybe no stu­dent between the start and end of the school day had ever asked him any­thing oth­er than if they could have the hall pass or if they could get an extra day for their home­work. He shook his head and frowned. “Is there some­thing in par­tic­u­lar you want to know about?”

I didn’t know where Dad had been in Viet­nam. I didn’t know the dates. I only knew that he’d been there. And once, he’d been the type of man to dance and sing Motown and give choco­late coins to my mom.

“Just start from the begin­ning,” I said. 

Kelly Ford

Kel­ly Ford hails from an Old West out­post in Arkansas, spends the major­i­ty of her free time with peo­ple who only exist in her nov­el and plans to eat her way across the world. She also com­plet­ed Grub Street writ­ing center’s Nov­el Incu­ba­tor pro­gram in Boston and received a Lit­er­a­ture Fel­low­ship Grant from the Somerville Arts Coun­cil. She's a con­trib­u­tor at Dead Dar­lings, and her fic­tion is forth­com­ing in Knee-Jerk Mag­a­zine. 

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