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?”
“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.”
“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 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.