Martin is taking Taryn's advice and is on his way to visit his dad. He woke up early and worked out again. He dialed the intensity down and managed a solid thirty minutes of work without throwing up. He made his usual smoothie, showered, and shaved for the first time in two weeks before heading out.
Martin clicks the radio on and flips through his usual channels. The classic rock station is on a commercial break. Same for the alternative rock station. He passes country, pop, and a few Spanish stations before settling on one of the oldies stations. It's a band and a song he knows well, Creedence Clearwater Revival's “Proud Mary.” Martin first heard the song on 8-track, in his father's garage. His father played the album every morning while he was working out. Martin settles his right hand back on the steering wheel and smiles. He remembers the song, humming the tune and singing an occasional lyric. The song brings his memory back to the clanking sound of iron weight plates, the smell of chalk and dampness and dust. He can hear his father grunting against the weight of the barbells and dumbbells, his breaths huffing and chugging violently. Martin remembers the power, remembers wondering about why his father was so mad. He didn't understand where that kind of power and rage would come from. His father's white knuckles and bared teeth and rumbling grunts made it seem that the weights were somehow responsible for some great loss in his life. They seemed to be his father's prisoners and they needed to be punished.
Martin turns up the volume. The song plays loudly through the last few minutes of the twenty minute drive to the facility. After the song finishes, a quick news jingle interrupts the music, Power Nintey-seven's ninety-seven-second news:
“The search continues today for Becky Saunders, a tenth-grader from Faulkner High School. Jennifer was first reported missing four days ago and authorities are asking friends and family and anyone who might have information on Jennifer's whereabouts to contact local police or simply dial nine one one for access to the proper authorities.”
“Jesus. Becky?” Martin whispers to himself, listening for anymore information. This is the first Martin has heard of the girl's disappearance, even though Faulkner High is Juliette's school. Becky is the daughter of Allen Sanders, a local police officer, who went to junior high and high school with Martin.
As the news continues, Martin turns the volume down. He isn't interested in the local political race, or in the weather report that closes out the news break. He wonders what he should do about it. He considers how he would start the conversation with an old school acquaintance whose daughter has gone missing?
“Hey Allen, been a long time. How's it going?”
He shakes his head at the absurdity. He tries another way:
“Hey, Allen, I heard about Becky. I'm so sorry. Anything you need, you let me know.”
Martin decides there is no way he will simply call Allen Saunders out of the blue. He considers what kinds of phone calls he would want to get if Juliette suddenly disappeared.
He wouldn't want to hear from anyone. He wouldn't want well wishes, condolences, anything but news from police or FBI agents.
Martin pulls his truck into a parking lot. The sign is aged wood, three feet off the ground and at least fifteen feet long with ornate shrubs at each end. Elk Hollow Assisted Living. The ads online also say “Memory Care.” It is one of the newer full care retirement facilities in the city, but the fresh paint and more modern design doesn't ease his mind about the place. It is a nightmare. It is the worst place to end up, in Martin's mind. He'd rather go down from a heart attack, or get hit by a bus, or be electrocuted or shot or attacked by a shark or nearly anything else. Anything besides dying slowly, painfully, expensively, and mostly alone.
There is a man inching along the sidewalk in front of the truck, leaning heavily on his walker. The man stops, staring at the ground. He stands there, motionless, for moments. Martin is treating the man like a wild animal, waiting for him to move on before getting out of the truck. He doesn't want to startle the man, or interrupt his walk in any way. He doesn't want to interfere with the natural environment here.
Suddenly the man coughs and stands a little more upright. He is back in the present, and he turns slowly around and shuffles back up the sidewalk, disappearing around a false waterfall and stone fountain.
Martin takes a breath.
“Good morning, welcome to Elk Hollow.”
The receptionist isn't smiling, not outright. Martin can't see her teeth, but there is the sense, the essence, of a smile. The essence is in her eyes, as well, a practiced show of gentle empathy.
“Good morning,” Martin says.
“How can I help you?”
Martin twists, turns to look behind himself, back toward the door. When he turns back toward reception, he can't look at her. His eyes follow the outline of the welcome desk, up the wall to the ceiling. He feels his phone in his pocket, considers pretending he has a call he has to answer to he can walk back outside without seeming weird. But he looks down and his eyes meet hers. Her smile widens.
“Are you here to see a resident?” the woman asks.
The door calls to him.
“I'm... not sure, yet,” he says.
“You're not sure if you're here to see a resident?” the woman asks, her considerate smile finally cracking slightly. Martin knows he could be out and in his truck and back on the road listening to music or his anger CDs in under thirty seconds. The woman's questions are making him think, making him consider the pain he is stepping back into. He could go fishing instead, or go see a movie, or go do anything else in the world.
But then he would have to take the call from Taryn and admit that he didn't do what he promised. He breathes out through his nose, resigned.
“Sorry, I am. I am here to see a resident. I'm... I'm Martin. I'm Martin Bell.”
Martin didn't prepare for this. As he introduces himself, he realizes he shouldn't have to. The staff here should all know who he is. He should be making regular trips to see his father. He should be checking in with the staff regularly enough that when he walks in, they all say hi to him, they all know him by name and he knows them. This realization hits him mid sentence and he stammers through the rest of his awkward request.
“Okay, and what is the resident's name?” the woman asks. She isn't shaken by his flustered stuttering. She has seen this many times.
“Sorry, yeah, of course. Bell. It's Tyson Bell.”
“Oh yes, Mr. Bell. Quite a football fan, that one,” she says, her smile now showing two neat rows of bright white teeth. Martin tries to return the smile but it twists into more of a wince. His father was a football fan. Now, his attachment to football is something else.
She hands Martin a clipboard, pen attached.
“Can I have you sign in here on the sign-in sheet?”
Martin looks at the requested information: name; date; time; relationship to the resident.
“How do you know Mr. Bell?” she asks.
Martin fills in the blank squares.
“He was my...” Martin starts before shaking his head in apology. “Sorry, he is... my father.”
The smile fades as she rolls her lips inward. She goes back to looking at her screen, only glancing up at Martin for one quick, nervous smile. The information goes into the computer. She has to check on Tyson Bell's status, what room he is in, and whether or when he is allowed to have visitors.
“And this is the first time you've come to Elk Hollow?” she asks.
Another wincing smile.
“Yes,” Martin says.
She doesn't look up from her screen, but nods her head. She punches the keys for a few more seconds and stares, reading something.
“Okay. Well thank you, Martin, it looks like your father has been cleared to have visitors today, so if you take a seat over there, a nurse will be out shortly to show you to his room.”
Martin nods his thanks. He finds a chair with a side table of magazines. He grabs the top one and opens it, knowing he won't be doing much reading. Looking around the lobby and nearby hallway, he can see three residents. One, a very old man with a walker, is being escorted by a nurse. He is talking, she is nodding, but nothing of value is being said. A woman is being wheeled through the lobby by her own nurse. Another woman is walking slowly along the far wall of the hallway, stopping to view the watercolor paintings hanging there; a seascape with seagulls; a farmhouse; a street scene, probably in Paris. While the woman is staring into this painting, an aid approaches her. The aid is not happy. The woman is not supposed to be out walking by herself, apparently. But when she is scolded, she doesn't respond. She simply turns in the direction the aid pulls her and begins walking that way. It seems any direction would be fine.
The magazine Martin blindly chose is US Weekly. On the cover stands some celebrity, eyes wide at the sight of the paparazzi, the word "Scandal" in red across the bottom of the page. The headline suggests that the reader will never guess what so and so said to so and so when they met at the MTV movie awards. The actor and actress are decked out in black tie formal wear. The man is squinting his eyes into the cameras. The woman has one leg bent and pressed across the other leg, a hand on her hip while the other holds a large, silver clutch. They've both done this a lot, Martin thinks.
The woman who was scolded by the nurse comes back. She is still walking at a slow amble. Now, closer, Martin sees that she is wearing a dress. It isn't the sequinned ball gown in his magazine. It is an old sun dress, now off white from the years of dirt and wear, its blue floral patterns faded from what Martin imagines was a dazzling Cerulean blue, originally.
A nurse approaches.
Martin stands and throws down the magazine like he wasn't supposed to be reading it
“I'm Janine,” she says, offering her hand. Martin shakes it and manages a normal smile. “It is great to meet you,” she says, “ready?”
Martin nods. They make their way down the hallway and turn right into another. After a short walk they are at room 132.
“He does talk about you quite a bit, just so you know. He asks about your girls, too, though he
doesn't usually remember their names.”
She knocks on the door. A gruff "come in" warbles from the other side.
The door opens into a nice, well-kept living room. There is a couch and a lazy-boy, a small dining table, a book shelf and a table for the TV. A man is sitting in the lazy-boy. The TV is playing a football game.
“Hi, Mr. Bell!” she is nearly yelling. “How are you feeling today?”
“Feeling good, feeling good,” he says, his eyes never leaving the television.
“How are the Bills doing?”
“Givin em hell!” he says, pumping his fist. Martin notices the fist. It is smaller than he remembers, smaller than at any other point in the man's adult life. The knuckles are like walnuts below pallid skin, rounded mounds at the end of wrinkled, twisted hands. The white skin looks thin, like the veins might break the surface and bleed. As Tyson pumps his fist, Martin watches the skin under his triceps sag and sway back and forth. Martin imagines someone deflating his father, and the man is reaching the end of the air pressure. His voice sounds the same, like someone is stealing the air in his lungs. There is a slur to his speech, a wavy timbre, like he is tired or drunk.
“Those Bills, they always do give 'em hell, don't they?” Janine says. Tyson rocks weakly back and forth, a shadow of the impassioned game day movements of his youth and middle age. Cataracts have dulled the shine in his eyes a little, but there is still a fire burning in there, somewhere deep and nearly forgotten.
Janine continues: “Well, as you may have noticed, I have a visitor here to see you.”
Tyson, never taking his eyes off of the game, “Yeah, that's good, that's good. Thank you, Wendy.”
Janine turns toward Martin.
“One of our nurses is named Wendy, and now he calls all of us Wendy. It's a compliment, really, Wendy is awesome.” She turns back to Tyson, “Mr. Bell, it's someone really special, someone you haven't seen in awhile.”
“Yes, good, good, thank you,” he says.
“Tyson, can I pause the game for a minute so you can talk to your visitor?”
Tyson doesn't respond, but it is obvious he doesn't like when they stop him from watching his football. When Janine moves in to pause the game, Tyson doesn't protest. His trembling hands grip the arms of his chair and the finger tips dig into the fabric. His feet begin to bounce up and down on the ground. He stares down into his lap, annoyed.
“Thank you, Tyson, that's very nice of you. Someone who you've been telling the nurses about is here.”
Tyson finally looks up from the TV. When he catches Martin's eyes there is a glimmer of recognition. Tyson knows the man standing in his entryway looks familiar, but he can't place exactly who Martin is.
“Yes... yes, I know you. Good, good, I know him, Wendy. Thank you.”
“That's great, Tyson. I'm going to leave you two to talk and I'll be outside if you need me. Just click your clicker.”
“Yes, yes I remember you, young man. You like football, don't you? You like football. Come sit, the Bills are playing. Can you believe coach Levy? He is coaching circles around Schottenheimer.”
Martin sits on the couch, a few feet from Tyson's chair.
“You believe Copeland fumbled that kick off in the first quarter? I could have held onto that ball. Guys just can't take hits like they used to.”
Martin sits, listening, the way he listened five years ago when he first noticed his father's speech patterns shift, when he first noticed the missed appointments and the calls from friends and neighbors about increasingly odd behavior. Three years ago, they watched the Super Bowl together and Tyson was still lightning quick with his football stats and Super Bowl history. But he also went to the bathroom at halftime and forgot why he was there and where he was in general and screamed and banged his fists against the door for someone to help him. When Martin couldn't convince him to unlock the door, Martin broke it. Tyson had peed himself and didn't know what to do about it. So he'd taken all of his clothes off and stuffed them in the toilet. Martin had to stop him from pressing the flushing lever. The water was already overflowing onto the floor.
“Thurman Thomas is really getting after it today, he came to play,” Tyson says. “I think he is going to end up rushing for one hundred and eighty six yards, three touchdowns.”
Martin knows this is accurate. He knows because he watched this game with his father when it happened. The AFC championship game, January 23rd, 1994. He watched it again, years later, on NFL's Greatest Games on ESPN. He would watch it again on VHS and again, and again, with his obsessed father. To hear his dad ramble on about football as a kid was fun. It was cool, the other dads didn't know nearly as much about football. Martin felt his dad was smarter, tougher than the other kids' dads.
But now, in this dark room with its calm green walls and its light lavender bed spreads and pillow cases and its off-white carpet, Martin doesn't want to hear about the '93 season's AFC championship. He doesn't want to hear the same lines about solid running and Marv Levy's strategic genius.
“When they got Marcus Allen, I thought coach Levy was crazy. A Raider, an LA Raider? I just
didn't see the potential. I didn't see what coach saw. But I guess that's why he's the coach.”
Martin notices the inflection, and the use of present tense, “That's why he's the coach.” Martin realizes he doesn't have to be here, that it doesn't matter that he is Tyson's son. He could be his brother, or his doctor, or some stranger off the street. Tyson would talk this way to anyone who would listen, and probably talks this way even when no one is listening. The thought takes hold of him, that he doesn't matter, that he can't do anything to help, that this is just the way things are now.
It doesn't stop him from trying to engage.
“It's been...” Martin starts. Tyson doesn't move and Martin wonders about his hearing. He knows he should be aware of any hearing problems his dad has, but he isn't sure. He raises his volume
“It's been awhile since I was here last.”
“Good, good, now look at this kid, look at that speed off the line. Already over one hundred yards rushing. They are destroying the defensive line, destroying them, just running through them like they're playing some pee-wee team.”
“I like your new room,” Martin yells.
“The way the game should be played,” Tyson says.
“Mr. Bell?” Martin yells. He wants his father's attention, just for a moment. He wants him to look away and break out of this football fan autopilot.
“Tyson,” he yells, and he places his hand on his father's shoulder. Tyson jerks his head sideways to look, as if he didn't know anyone else was in the room.
“Whoa, you scared me, young man,” Tyson says.
“I'm sorry if I scared you.”
“You here to watch the game?”
“Yes, sir, here to watch the game.”
“You better not be one of those Kansas City fans. You from Kansas City?”
Martin shakes his head.
“No, sir. Bills all the way.”
Tyson smiles and nods.
“Yes... yes, that's damn right.”
“How is the food in a place like this, pretty good?” Martin asks.
“You hungry, young man?” Tyson asks. His voice wavers again. There is a deep rasp to the words, like he needs to clear his throat, but the source of the falter is deeper. The words dribble out of his mouth like they are being pulled back down the throat, like there are forces tugging at the sounds from both sides. Each word takes an extra second or two to finish. Martin can hear a certain familiarity in the cadence, in the word choices and the inflection at certain points, but overall the man speaking to him in this warm, pastel room is not the man who raised him.
“I guess, now you mention it, I'm pretty hungry myself. Could go for one of those footlongs they peddle around here. A good hot footlong and a cold beer would be mighty fine on a day like today, mighty fine.”
Martin sees that he will have to speak through the football prism if he is going to learn anything about his father's living conditions. Tyson immediately disengages when the conversation pulls away from football.
“You're hungry? Are they giving you enough to eat around here?”' Martin asks. “Are they feeding you enough?”
“He has three receptions for over twenty yards, too, incredible!”
Martin has lost him again.
“And you know what else? His blocking isn't have bad, either. He threw a block on the middle linebacker in the last quarter that would make any offensive line coach proud. And that was giving away, what? Forty pounds? Fifty? No, they're too good, the Bills are going to the Super Bowl this year for sure, absolutely. There's nothing that could stop them, absolutely nothing, absolutely.”
Martin realizes he is still holding Tyson's shoulder, realizes he's been squeezing a little too hard. As he takes his hand away, he feels the sharp edge of the clavicle poking up into the skin. He feels the edge of the scapula, feels the thin, weakened skin shift over it. The shoulder has lost nearly all of its muscle tone. What used to be round, ridged mountains of muscle from a lifetime of construction is fading away. The mountains are collapsing in on themselves, smoothing to foothills, to gentle mounds. Soon, they will retreat fully, to a graveyard of jagged bones.
“You're right, dad. They are going to the Super Bowl this year.”
Martin waits for a response that he knows he isn't going to get.
“Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. They are going to the Super Bowl and they are going to win. Bills win, Bills win.”
“Going to be a great year,” Martin says.
Tyson looks to Martin and squints. There is a flash of some new recognition. Tyson is straining to place this man in his life's memories.
“What's your name?”
“Martin, Mr. Bell,” Martin says, offering his hand, “my name is Martin.”
Tyson's eyes widen with a revelation. He takes Martin's hand and shakes it. He doesn't shake as hard as he used to, but Martin feels a familiarity in the squeeze and smiles.
“Yes, good, good, Martin. I knew a Martin, once. I used to work with a Martin. Good worker, tough.”
Tyson drops out of his recognition and goes back to staring into the TV and talking mostly to himself. Martin sits quietly with him for awhile, watching a game he has seen many times, clapping when Tyson claps, agreeing when Tyson says something about coach Levy or a Chiefs' misstep. Martin wants some recognition, just a few seconds of a father talking to a son, and the son answering his father. He wants a few simple words that suggest his father isn't gone forever, a living corpse in this green and lavender tomb.
He doesn't get a few seconds. He doesn't get a few words. In the end, the Bills beat the Chiefs and celebrate their advancement to the Super Bowl, and Martin stands and claps and cheers alongside Tyson Bell. He gets a hand shake and a slap on the back, and he gets to watch his father stop the tape, hit rewind, and press play to start the process all over again.
Martin makes it through eight minutes of the first quarter before he gets up to leave. Tyson doesn't notice Martin's red face. He doesn't notice when Martin uses his sleeve to wipe his eyes. Tyson doesn't respond when Martin offers his thanks for the game or when he says, “I'll see you later, dad.”
Martin is through the lobby and out the door before the receptionist can finish her goodbye. When he pushes the unlock button the truck is quiet. He pulls on the handle. The door is still locked. He pushes unlock again. He presses harder, points it toward the front hood, holds it up higher in the air.
“Piece of shit,” his hisses. He presses it again, and again, harder and harder before hitting the key fob with his other hand. He curls his hand into a fist and slams it into the keys. He smashes them into the palm of his hand. He feels the aching sting of the stitches on his knuckles but doesn't stop. He doesn't stop until he notices one of the residents staring at him from behind a walker. The frail old man is hunched over, his mouth open and his eyes wide. The two men stare at each other, the old man on his walker and Martin against the truck's driver side door.
Martin looks down at the key fob. He lays his finger on the unlock button and presses, gently. The truck beeps and the door clicks. He gets in the truck and grips the wheel. He doesn't leave until the little old man is gone and his eyes are dry.
Martin walks into his apartment and throws the poles and gear onto the floor. It's a move that says, “I'll take care of this stuff later.” He moves into the living room and plops down in his lazyboy, exhausted. He picks up the remote and mindlessly clicks the power button. Nothing happens. Of course, the TV is still a shattered mess on the floor.
He looks into the kitchen. There is another bottle of jack on top of the fridge. On most other nights he would run to it, dive into it, get lost in it. It would help him find the morning. He would drink that calming hum into his head, that tingle in the fingertips, the weightlessness behind the eyes.
Instead, he walks into the kitchen, up to the fridge, but reaches up past the bottle to the cupboards beyond. He pulls out a dust pan and brush. Then he goes to a closet and brings out a vacuum cleaner. He gets a garbage bag. Tonight he won't drink himself to sleep. Tonight is about starting to put the pieces back together.
After twenty minutes of boxing up cracked plastic and glass, vacuuming slivers and shards and then cleaning the carpet, Martin pulls two garbage bags full of scraps and trash into his garage. He drops them into his garbage can. Done. Before he heads back in he looks around the small garage. Boxes, bags, weights, tools, the garage is a dusty spread of randomness, most of which has been here, unopened and untouched, since Martin moved in. There is a tall stack of boxes next to the garbage can. He opens the top box, and as the lid opens outward, golden light dances over Martin's arm and the wall beyond. The box has trophies in it, dozens of trophies and medals, most with wrestlers poised for action. This stack of boxes is sitting next to the garbage can for a reason. Martin was done with them.
He picks up the top two boxes and carries them to another pile against the far wall, toward some other boxes that seem more permanent, more important. This pile is safe from the garbage man. His trophies are safe, for now.
He starts sizing the rest of it up, starting with the weights. They've been laid out for craigslist photos. They have prices written on sticky notes attached to them. Not anymore. He pulls the notes. He heads back into the apartment and returns with a bucket and some rags.
He lays them out by sizes, a small grouping, medium grouping, and heavy grouping. They are old, dusty, rusty, forgotten and neglected. Not anymore. He begins to clean and scrub and dry. He breaks down the size allotments even more, all 5 lbs and smaller weights together, 10's and 15's together, 25's, 35's and 45's together. He cleans his barbells, his dumb bells, then he loads some weights onto his dumb bell handles. He takes them through a lifting series, a series he did countless times many years ago. The movements are tired and stiff, but there is a memory there. Curls, presses, lateral raises, these are movements his arms endured, even enjoyed, long ago.
The weights aren't the only things coated in rust.
Against one of the walls, lying on the floor, is a large punching bag. Martin walks to it and surveys the chains and hooks that hang it. He looks at the exposed two-by-fours in the ceiling. He wonders if they will hold the bag's weight?
He throws some chain over the beams and hooks up the bag. He gives it a light one-two. The ceiling creaks gently. He hits it harder, a solid jab-cross-hook. Louder creaks. He lets loose with a hard right hand. There is a crack somewhere in the wood, loud and ominous. Okay, now he knows.
“Reinforcement,” he whispers.
Back to the weights. He goes through the lifting series again, this time faster and with more reps. Harder, faster, then he drops the weights, breathing heavily. After a few breaths he grabs them again, goes again, drops them again, now breathing harder, sweating. Each set pulls more sweat from his forehead, sends his heart booming and deepens the growing burn in his lungs. Breathing heavily becomes gasping, the sweat on his brow spreads to his neck and back, down his chest, until he is soaked head to toe. His grip holds up, crushing the weights as his back pulls and his shoulders drive and his quads fire. Each set gets more violent, more vicious, until in the end he drops the weights and collapses onto his hands and knees. The humble prayer of the athlete, praying to the gods of strength. He looks blasted, destroyed, ready to pass out.
But there is something else, under the pain and nausea and discomfort, something he hasn't felt in awhile. He smiles. He laughs, the laugh from the roadside the other night, the laugh of a madman.
He stops laughing. He looks up.
The bathroom door blasts open, slamming into the towel rack behind it and ricocheting back against Martin's shoulder as he dives for the toilet. He drops to his knees and just manages to lift the toilet seat lid before he lets go. He throws up, hard. It had been a little while since he hit a hard workout. He'd worked hard on work sites. He pushed himself there for years. But that is a different pace. Tonight was a reminder. He pushed hard enough and fast enough to remember what he is capable of, what he has been missing out on all of these years. He pushed a little too hard too fast and he deserved it. He felt like he deserved to suffer.
He washes his mouth out and wets his face. In the mirror he notices his hand has opened up again and the bandage is soaked with blood. He hadn't considered that, hadn't really felt it during the workout. As he removes the bandage the gash looks awful, red and swollen, looking like it is getting infected. It is big enough that some ointment and a simple bandage isn't going to cut it.
He gets in the shower. When the water hits his hand he winces. He shuts his eyes and pulls it from the water. He opens his eyes. He places his hand back in the water. He needs to wash it out. He wants to feel it. He needs to be able to take it if he is headed where he thinks he is headed. Confronting Nate, using the weights, dealing with his hand, it is training. He is going to find more ways to test himself in the days and weeks to come. He knows he has to.
Once showered and dressed he goes to his phone.
“Hey, what are you up to?” a cheery voice asks.
“Oh you know, just calling my favorite sister.”
“Well you were always my favorite brother, so we're a perfect match. How are the girls? I feel like I haven't seen them in months.”
“They're great, way too old and way too smart. Last week, Hillary asked me what a blow job is. I'm very scared.”
Taryn laughs. Martin thinks about her veterinary clinic, about how she gets up before 5:00am to take care of her own dogs before opening the clinic at 6:00am to care of other people's dogs, and cats, and dozens of other animals. Now, nearing 11:00pm, she is still awake and as peppy as usual.
“It's a really good question,” she says, still laughing. “What is a blow job, really? I mean, at it's core. What is its nature?”
“Of course you would take a question like that and use it to explore the nature of reality.”
“People think some things are more reality than other things. It's all reality. Even blow jobs.”
“I'll be sure to send Hillary your way the next time she asks me about sexual acts.”
“I'm happy to help,” Taryn says.
Martin looks at where the TV used to be.
“I took them fishing today. We went to one of dad's old spots.”
Martin is surprised he said it that way. It doesn't matter where they went, it doesn't matter whether or not it was or wasn't one of dad's old spots, but he said it anyway. His father is on his mind, and he wonders if that isn't the actual reason he called his sister.
Taryn stops laughing.
“How are your girls doing?” he says, trying to pull out of the conversation that was about to happen. As Taryn looks behind her, three dogs look up from their positions on the floor. Their ears go up and they wag their tails at the attention.
“They're great. They know all about blow jobs, we had that talk years ago.”
“Why do you have to be so awesome?” Martin asks.
“I don't have to be. I just... am. I feel like if you're good at something, you have to do it, you know? So what else is up? Not that I don't like talking to you, but it seems like...” She pauses, looking at her phone for the time. “Sweet Jesus is it really 11:00?”
“It is,” Martin says.
“11:00 on a Saturday night seems like a weird time for a loving brother call.”
Martin looks down at his hand and squeezes it closed, slowly.
“You're good, you saw right through me. I could use a professional opinion about something.”
“Oh my God, I knew it. You're getting a dog, aren't you? Finally, oh yes finally, I knew it I knew it I knew it you are getting a dog. Are you getting a dog?” She begins singing and jumping around her living room. “Martin Bell is getting a dog! Martin Bell is getting a dog!”
Martin tries to stop her before she flies away with the idea but he can't. She is gone, twirling around her living room, spinning into the kitchen, smacking her dogs on their rumps and squealing about how they are going to have a cousin soon.
“Taryn? Taryn, hey, listen... I'm not getting a dog.”
“Martin Bell is getting a dog!”
“Yeah? Sorry, I just got excited, I'm sorry. Okay, I'm calm.”
“Are you calm?”
“I'm cool, I'm calm, I'm collected. Okay, deep breath, sorry.”
“I'm not getting a dog.”
Taryn is silent for a few seconds. Martin can hear her breathing.
“Say yet,” she says.
“Say yet, Martin. Say yet.”
“Sorry. I'm not getting a dog... yet.”
“You're damn right, yet. Okay, well, you ruined my night but go ahead, what sort of professional opinion from your sister do you absolutely need this late on a Saturday night?”
“Well, it's not your opinion so much as your skills.”
“I don't understand.”
“Well, I may have... cut my hand.”
“What? How? Did you work today? I thought you went fishing with the girls?”
“Yeah, I did. I cut my hand at work a few days ago.”
Another silence. This is the part Martin knew was coming. Disappointed silence. Flustered breathing.
“So first you tell me you're not getting a dog, and then you tell me you cut yourself, probably badly by the sound of it, and let it go for a few days before seeking help? Is that right?”
“I think you just about covered it, yeah,” he says.
“Martin,” she starts, breathing deeply in and deeply out again, “okay. You know what, okay. I'm not even going to lecture you about it. If you're coming to me for help days later then we probably have about an hour before your hand rots off or you die from sepsis. Meet me at my office in ten minutes.”
“No, it's not that bad...”
Martin squeezes his hand one more time. He watches the skin around the wound bleach white as the scabs break open and ooze fluids down to his wrist. A single trickle of blood runs across the knuckles.
“See you in ten,” he says.
“How the hell did you do this? Did your jack hammer break down so you just used your fist?”
Under the hot light over the exam table, the wound looks even worse. Martin's mind flashes to Nate's face, bouncing up and down under the onslaught of punches. Thinking about it again now, he did kind of use his fist like a jack hammer.
“Pretty much,” Martin says.
“I can't believe you didn't get this looked at. Well, I can believe it, I can totally believe it, but seriously?”
“Don't you have insurance?
“I do. Money is just a little tight right now.”
“For what, a forty dollar co-pay?”
Martin shrugs. He messed up his hand beating the shit out of a man for less than that. When Taryn realizes he is that broke, she can't believe it.
“Martin? Are you serious? What happened, what is going on?”
“Just a brief thin spell,” he says.
“A thin spell?”
“Construction is tough right now. I've been through it before, it'll turn around.”
“Screw that, why didn't you tell me? I'll pay your co-pay. I'll pay your deductible. I'll give you money, whatever you need.”
“Hey, just stitch up my hand. I don't need you trying to stitch up my life.”
“Of course not, I'm just your little sister. I'm just your family, why would you want help from me?”
“I don't need help, but thank you. If I did ever ask anyone for help, it would definitely be you.”
“Yeah, it better be. Can you feel this?”
She injected a local anesthetic and is poking the tissue surrounding the wounds.
“Nope,” he lies.
She digs the first suture needle into his skin. She is focused on his hand so doesn't see his face, doesn't see the muscles in his neck jerk to full tension, doesn't see him clench his jaw. He can obviously feel the needle. When she looks up he looks away, plays it off, but it hurts.
He wants it to hurt.
“So other than punching the ground, how is the rest of life?”
“That's pretty much taking up all my time these days.”
“I think about you whenever they air another story about all the housing stuff. The way they talk about it, you'd think all construction jobs are going to be gone by next year. Are you nervous about it all?”
Martin thinks about the meeting with management, about his remaining three weeks of employment.
“Nah. I'll be fine. Ups and downs have always been a part of the business. I am glad we are working commercial jobs right now. Those jobs haven't totally dried up just yet.”
Taryn pulls the needle through another patch of skin and Martin's teeth grind.
“Ups and downs are one thing. This doesn't seem to be a normal down.”
“Eh, you know how the news is. They like to blow things out of proportion. It sells more papers.
It gets more air time. You grew up with dad, you know how it goes. Some Christmases were great, some weren't so great, that's the way it is.”
Martin flinches. Taryn dug a little deep on that one and he wasn't prepared. She looks up at him when he jumps.
“That felt... weird.”
“You felt that? How did you feel that? Do I need to give you more lidocaine?”
“No, it's fine. Just keep going, it just felt weird for a second.”
“Well if you're feeling it at all right now then you're really going to feel it later.”
“It's fine, really.”
Taryn watches Martin's other fist slowly unclench. The color rushes back into the white knuckles and fingers. She knows he's been feeling the pain, and repeated suture needle plunges through inflamed and mildly infected wounds is a lot of pain. She slides back in her rolling chair and fishes another vial out of a drawer.
“It's not fine, more pain means more inflammation and more swelling and a longer recovery.”
“Just finish it up, you're almost done, right?”
“Martin, you really should...”
“Just finish it!”
Taryn stops, pulling her hands away as if from a biting dog. She pulls the vial in close to her chest. She looks at him. She waits for him to say something. Martin looks away. Angry outbursts aren't the norm for Martin, not with her. She has never seen his drunken outbursts in his apartment, never seen his rage-filled screaming or his TV destruction, nothing even really close. Not in many years. Martin is the guy you bring to a tense meeting. He is the level headed one, the one you can count on to keep his cool. He was the one getting in between mom and dad when they fought. He was the defuser when they were growing up.
She puts the stitching implements down on the gauze pad next to Martin.
“I'm sorry,” he says, shaking his head, “I'm just... I don't need... please keep going.”
Taryn stares back at him, into his eyes. He can't look back at her. He looks down to his hand and breathes out through his nose. Taryn resumes stitching, just more carefully. She realizes how ragged Martin is here, how close he is to some edge. She puts her head down, focusing on her work.
“My life is just... strange right now, and I know I don't get to take it out on you. It's not your fault. You're great, you're doing great, thank you.”
Taryn pays no attention to his words. They are meaningless now. She has decided to help her brother and then let him be on his way before he says something else insulting or abusive.
“I'm sorry. Hey, I'm sorry.”
Taryn makes a final knot, pulls, and cuts a loose strand before finally looking up from his arm.
She rises and starts to collect the instruments and items for cleanup. Martin realizes he crossed a line and there is no coming back tonight. He rises from the chair and stretches out his hand.
“You're going to need to keep that clean and dry. I'm going to give you something to put on it.”
“These will rip if you aren't careful, and if you rip them I'm not sewing them in again.”
“No YOU stop! If you're going to ask for my help and then treat me like shit then you can go find someone else to help you. I've had enough of that, thanks! I'm going to go home now, you should go home, too.”
Taryn walks out of the exam room. Martin grabs his coat and follows her. Once out in the hallway, he hears her rummaging through a drawer somewhere. The drawer slams and she makes her way to the front door. She blazes through setting the alarm system and locking the door. She doesn't look at Martin, but is holding the door open and waiting for him to leave. He walks past her without a word.
Once the door is closed and locked, he is ready with his one last attempt.
“Thank you... for doing this,” he says, holding up his hand. “It will really help me out.”
She walks toward him, quickly. Threateningly. He backs away slightly as she approaches. His hands go up slightly. When she gets to him, rather than hit him, she holds out her hand. He takes the contents: his antibacterial gel.
“Go see dad. I don't care whether you want to or not, whether you feel like it or not, just do it.”
She walks to her car. Martin has no response. It is a demand he will have to obey. He watches her back out of her parking space. He is waiting for her to stop torturing him, to get out of her car and apologize so he can apologize and they can apologize together and move on. They can talk about the stress of their lives, of the state their father is in, of broken marriages and broken homes and broken hearts.
But her car doesn't stop. Her tires crunch along the asphalt as she backs up, then slide slightly when she brakes. Once in drive, the car lurches forward and the tires squeak and he watches her roll through the lot and pull out onto the street. The car roars off into the night.
Martin guides the truck along the winding road, the sunlight blinking in and out from behind the thick Oregon forest. Hillary sings to them, a Pandora station of Disney movie soundtracks. As she starts each new song, Juliette sighs and moans again.
“Can we listen to the radio?” she asks.
“Jules, don't crush your sister's young, innocent spirit,” Martin says. He smiles, and Hillary smiles back and turns her volume up. Martin stares through his eyebrows at her. “But hey, don't push it, young innocent spirit.”
A hawk swoops out over the front of the truck. The sun catches the golden brown of its feathers and Hillary stops singing to stare in awe.
“Dad, look!” she yells, leaning forward into her seat belt.
“We're getting close,” Martin says.
After a few more long, winding turns, the truck rounds a tighter grouping of pines as the road meets up with the deep blue and churning rapids of a river. Fishermen stand every few hundred feet, flicking fly rods back and forth in the sunlight. Martin rolls the windows down a few inches and they listen to the river's roar.
“It's a great day to be on the river,” Hillary says. She says it with duty, like this is a phrase she has heard from adults, like this is a phrase people are supposed to say when heading to the river.
“A great day, indeed,” Martin says.
The three park and head downstream, away from the fisherman they passed on the drive in. Hillary takes the lead, but she loses the lead every time she finds a flower she likes, or a slug or snail on the trail. She stops to enjoy the little secrets while Juliette and Martin continue past her. As they hike ahead, Hillary stays as long as she can at the newest object of her curiosity. But her fear of being left behind takes hold and she runs back to the front until the next beautiful thing grabs her attention.
After a few series of going ahead and falling behind, the river widens and calms and the three lay down their bags and prepare their gear. The shore is clearer here, free from the thick tree branches overhead and the brambles and brush on the ground. The water is wider, deeper, calmer, and easier to fish. They know this because they have been here many times.
“First one with a fish gets out of gutting them,” Martin announces.
Hillary doubles her gear assembly speed. For her scattered mind, trying to go faster doesn't result in actually going faster. Trying to go faster makes her put her satchel on before her waders, so that once her waders are on she has to untangle her satchel strap from her wader suspenders. Juliette sees the struggle and laughs. She is pretending she doesn't care about the stupid competitions her dad sets up. She pretends she doesn't want to get the first fish. But once Hillary sorts out her gear setup and is laying into her first cast, Juliette reconsiders the prize. Not having to gut and clean the fish is a hefty prize.
She doubles her pace.
Hillary finds an eddy. A ten-foot boulder is breaking the river surface, forcing the water to run around it. The forced change of direction creates a small strip of boiling rapids, which calms itself around the backside of the rock. This clearing is at the end of a riffle, and the calm pool, a hole sheltered by the boulder, is a pinch point for current-carried food. It is a perfect place for a fish. Hillary casts and pulls out more line and casts again. She is fifteen feet from the riffle lie, and a feeding fourteen-inch rainbow trout.
Martin sees her choice and nods. She is getting good at this. He knows there is a fish in there waiting for her, and he can't wait to watch her scream as her dry fly disappears into the blue and pulls her line down with it.
Juliette secures her satchel and quick-steps down the trail. She also sees the spot Hillary has chosen and knows there isn't much time. There is a fish in that hole, she is sure of it, the only question is whether Hillary will be able to land the fish. After considering her little sister's growing skill, Juliette breaks into a jog.
Martin's dry fly hisses through the air and lands in an upstream torrent. The water soaks the fly and pulls it under. The current moves it between two rocks and into a calm stretch. The ants are out in force in the forest right now, so Martin hopes the drifting, seemingly drowned ant he is fishing with draws the attention of a hungry trout.
Juliette stops, spotting her target. The current is running around a rock, and the rolling water rising up from the river bottom is creating a clear bubble, about six feet by six feet. Those clearings make spotting bugs on the surface easy for the fish. She knows the prize, and her key to avoiding the feel of fish guts, is slithering slowly back and forth in the water a few feet beneath that clear surface. She wades slowly out a few steps into the water, braces herself against the current, and begins to arc the line back and forth in the mid-morning air. She lets the fly drop onto the surface. She is a few feet short. She pulls more line and flicks the fly rod again, back and forth overhead, before driving the pole forward. The fly, a few threads and feathers and hairs tied together to look like a caddisfly, floats over the river, carried by a sudden gust of cool forest breeze, and lands at the head of the clear pool. The hairs on the fly shine white in the sun, and Juliette watches and prepares to see it disappear beneath the surface.
Hillary has her third flick into the eddy above her riffle lie. The current takes the fly through a familiar winding path, and it pops up in the clearing and casts a shadow down through the darkness of the churning water to a pair of eager eyes below.
Martin flicks a perfect cast, high and soft over the pool. He knows, as the fly hits the water, that he will have his first strike. He waits, and he is right. A fish surges at the fly and breaks the surface. Martin pulls on the rod to set the hook, but the fish missed the fly. His jerking motion brings the fly whipping back to him.
Juliette lays out a similar cast and her caddisfly is spotted. A healthy twelve inch trout sees the fly alter the surface of the river and he slithers through the water, mouth open. He snatches up the bait, and before he realizes it is fake and spits it out, Juliette jerks at the line. The hook is set, tearing through the side of the fish's mouth. Her reel clicks and whizzes at the new pressure, and she shrieks as she begins to real him in.
“Got one, I got one!” she yells, turning her head upstream. Her words are lost in the crashing sound of the rapids. She cranks on the reel and the line goes tight, pulling on the pole and arcing the end of it downward toward the water. Her heart slams the walls of her chest and she can't help but cackle at her victory. She can't hide her excitement now, no amount of teenage coolness can cover the thrill of the first catch of the day. The teenage veneer comes crashing down and she screams again.
“I got one!”
This time when she looks upriver, Martin and Hillary are coming down the trail toward her. She smiles again, nodding toward the bending pole, and laughs about her victory. She is briefly surprised to see them. She thinks they must have heard her first yells and, having failed in their initial spots, decided to come watch her reel in her prize.
“It's a good one,” she says, reeling harder. When the line is pulled in and the fish appears from the water, dangling from the line, she is right. He is a thick trout, twelve inches long, with fake caddisfly hairs jutting from his open mouth.
She stops reeling and walks to the shore, laying the pole down and working to remove the hook. It pops free easily and she looks up at Martin and Hillary in triumph.
Martin is smiling, too. And so is Hillary, who is holding a fourteen inch trout in her tiny hands.
“I got one, too,” Hillary says, “about two minutes ago.”
Juliette's smile fades. She looks to Martin. He shrugs.
“She did, it's true,” he says, looking at Juliette's fish. When he looks back at Juliette's face, he can see she isn't happy about her little sister's achievement. “Oh, but, your fish is great, too, Jules.”
“Yeah, Jules,” Hillary says, “your fish is really... cute.”
Juliette looks at Hillary's fish and then back to hers. Then back to Hillary's. She holds her fish up next to Hillary's. Hers is thinner, a few inches shorter, and not as brightly colored down its sides.
“Nice try, though,” Hillary says.
Juliette's head drops and seems to darken in the shade of the river trail. When she begins to shudder and make noise, Martin thinks she is starting to sob. With her head down and her shoulders bouncing, it looks like she is crushed by the loss of the first fish contest and she is bawling. Hillary looks up at Martin and he looks back, stunned, and then afraid. This isn't where he wants to be, on a river trail path consoling his sixteen year old daughter because her fish is small and she caught it after her ten year old sister caught one that was bigger.
When Juliette looks up, Martin laughs out his relief. She isn't crying, she is laughing. She is laughing at how excited she got about catching a fish. She is laughing at how stupid it was to really really want to beat her little sister in a fish-catching contest.
“Show us your fish, daddy!” Hillary says. Martin's mouth drops open, astonished at how heartless and cruel his daughter has become. Juliette watches him, expecting him to pull a fish from his bag. When she sees his face, she realizes what Hillary is getting at.
“Oh, sassing my fish when you haven't caught one, yet, huh?” she says.
“Some people in the Bell family are better at fishing than others,” Hillary says.
“Oh ha ha, funny girl. I'm just getting warmed up. We'll see who has caught the most fish at the end of the day. Now get back to work. I could eat those two fish for lunch myself, and it would be terrible if you two had to go hungry.”
The hours have pulled the sun across the sky and down toward a horizon hidden by the mountains. A mist is rising, further darkening the river valley. Juliette and Hillary come back from the woods with rocks in their hands. They drop them on the grassy patch they all picked out and head back into the woods. Martin arranges the rocks in a circle, a small fire pit where he will be able to lay the metal grid from his portable barbecue. When the girls return, they are each carrying small twigs and sticks, dead and dried up from the forest floor. Like the fishing, they've done this many times.
The fire starts and Martin places the grill grid on top. Each fish gets its own tin foil wrapping, seasoned with salt, pepper, and lemon, and gets placed over the flames. In the end, there were six fish caught, and once all six are wrapped and placed, Hillary brushes her hands off and lets loose a greedy cackle.
Once cooked, the three take their foiled fish and open them on paper plates. The seasoned smell of broiled trout fat mixes with the lemon and rises to their flared nostrils. Juliette closes her eyes to take it all in. Martin hums out a happy tune. Before she forks into her broiled fish, Hillary bows her head.
“Thank you, Mr. Fishes, for you are so delicious.”
Martin and Juliette smile at each other and then quickly bow their heads, as well.
“Thank you, delicious fishes,” Martin says.
“Thank you, delicious fishes,” Juliette echoes.
Martin brought a small garbage bag for cleanup. Now, as the three sit together playing cards, the garbage bag holds crumpled tinfoil, discarded lemon peels, plastic forks, and a spent bag of barbecue potato chips. In the fire pit, the last of their paper plates and napkins blacken and shift into dust.
“Dad, did mom ever like to fish?” Hillary asks.
“Not really, sweetie, no. She went with me a couple of times, but she only did it to be nice. She just wanted to hang out with me so she tried to pretend she was a cool fisherwoman like you.”
“How could she not love fishing?”
“I know, right? That is a great question, Hill. This, especially with you two, is one of the best things in the whole world.”
Hillary nods and smiles.
“With us, of course.”
“Anything with us is the best thing in the world,” Juliette says. Martin sees that she meant the statement to be sarcastic, to be cutting, but the day has softened her attitude. It almost sounds like she means it.
“Yeah,” Hillary says, “of course, of course, we bring the party wherever we go.” Martin and Juliette laugh. “But of all the things we could be doing together, I'm glad we're doing this.”
“Me too, Hill.”
“Who taught you how to fish, dad? Was it grandpa?”
Martin picks up the discarded three of hearts and then lays it down with the two and the four.
“Yes, grandpa used to take me all the time. All the time. He loved to fish even more than I did, if you can believe that.”
“Who was better at it?” Hillary asks.
Martin presses his fanned out cards together and squeezes. When he fans them out again, he isn't looking at the suits or the numbers anymore.
“Grandpa? He was way better at it than I will ever be.”
Juliette looks at Hillary out of the sides of her eyes. She stares, hard, and wants to throw a hand over Hillary's mouth. Hilary is too young to really understand what it means, but Juliette knows there are two things that drain any stored fun from Martin's face. One of them is grandpa Bell.
“When will we be able to see grandpa again, dad?”
“Hillary, just play!” Juliette hisses. She looks at her as if they've had a conversation and come to an agreement that Hillary has forgotten about.
“You know, I'm not really sure, Hill. He is still pretty sick.”
“Does he still have trouble with his brain, trouble remembering things?”
Martin sees Juliette's mortified face and waves his hand.
“It's okay, Jules, it's okay. We can talk about it.”
“Are you sure?” Juliette asks. “We can talk about something else, something a little lighter, maybe?”
“You know, Hill, grandpa is still sick. He does have trouble remembering things.”
“Can't he get better?” Hillary asks.
Martin begins to respond but stops. He thought he was ready to talk about it with Hillary, but he was wrong. Grandpa can't get better. Martin knows this, and imagines his father stumbling around an empty room, screaming at people who aren't there, and dying alone and afraid.
“You don't really get better from what grandpa has,” Juliette says, jumping in. “He will probably always have trouble remembering things.”
“Always?” Hillary asks, stunned.
“What he has is a disease and doctors don't really have a cure for it yet.”
Hillary looks to Martin.
“Is that true, dad?”
Martin comes back to the conversation. He nods his head.
“It is, honey, it is. It is a sad... a very sad disease.”
“Why did he have to get such a sad disease?”
“Well that's one of the saddest things of all. They're not sure what causes it.”
“So... he can't... get better?”
Martin realizes he hasn't had to address these questions with Hillary, not in such a black and white sort of way. Juliette knows a lot more about Alzheimer's, having Googled the causes and symptoms and treatments herself. It is true, grandpa Bell will not get better. He will continue to deteriorate until he dies. It is a dark thought, a heavy, very final thought. Not the sorts of thoughts a 10-year-old should have too many of.
Juliette tries to be positive.
“Well, you never know. He could get better, he could suddenly be cured.”
Martin almost laughs out loud. He wasn't expecting that sort of optimism from Juliette. Not lately. When he looks at her, she is still looking at Hillary, and the sentiment seems to have been an honest, heartfelt one. It works, it helps ease Hillary's mind a little. For Hillary, as long as there is some amount of hope, even a faint, fractional sliver of hope, her cheery 10-year-old brain can rest easier. “Well, I hope he gets better and can come fishing with us.”
“He would be very impressed at your fishing skills,” Martin says.
They fold up their hands and stack the cards back into their original pile. Hillary scoops up the pile and stuffs it back into its box. Martin gets a bag with the items necessary for s'mores and the girls' smiles glisten in the fire light.
Martin's eyes are glistening, too.
The three ride home in relative quiet. The radio stays off, Hillary isn't singing because she is sleeping in the back, her head resting on Juliette's lap. Juliette is staring into the dark of the forest as it whips by her passenger window. Martin glances in the rear view mirror every few minutes. He feels like the day went well and that he made some real progress on getting her to stop treating him like he is the devil. But now, in the silence, he is second guessing the progress. She is staring, not frowning, but not smiling either. He knows if he asks her if she is okay, if something is wrong, that would be the worst possible thing he could say. She would definitely find that annoying, and annoyance leads to disgust, and at disgust he would be right back where the day started. He wonders if he said something or did something that made her mad. He plays the afternoon and evening back. Fishing seemed fun, the sandwiches at lunch and the fish at dinner were delicious. She even seemed to enjoy the silly card games they played. When Hillary started singing songs from the latest Disney movie, Juliette didn't roll her eyes or mock sing. She actually sang along. She sang well. Martin wasn't sure the last time he heard her sing.
When he looks into the rear view mirror again, a hand hits his forearm. He jumps and the truck swerves. Juliette bounces back and forth between the driver's seat and the front passenger seat.
“Whoa, dad, Jesus!” she says, stabilizing herself.
“Sorry, sorry,” he says, righting the truck back in the middle of the lane.
Juliette pulls herself over the center console and plops down in the passenger seat. She is laughing.
“Did I scare you?”
“What? No, no, of course not. I'm your dad, your big brave dad. Nothing scares me. I was just... testing the suspension. The tires felt a little splashy.”
Juliette laughs again, humming about scaring her dad.
“You did scare me,” Martin says, sitting up straighter. “You are my sixteen year old daughter, so yeah, you scare me. You scare me all the time.”
Juliette stops laughing and considers this idea.
“Good,” she says, finally.
“Pretty good day, right?”
“I know there are probably at least a million other things a sixteen year old girl would rather be doing than hanging out with her dad and little sister.”
Juliette looks back over her chair. Hillary is out, mouth open, snoring quietly.
“At least two million things,” she says, rolling her eyes.
“Thanks for choosing us.”
Juliette nods and smiles. Martin can tell she wants to ask him about something. She has more on her mind than fishing trips and family time.
“I'm really excited about the trip. I'm still kind of surprised you got all the money for it.” It is a harsh statement, and Juliette feels the harshness as she finishes the sentence. She tries to keep talking, to soften the harshness before Martin responds. “And... you even got it early.”
Martin lets her off the hook.
“Yeah, having a lot of money is definitely not my strong suit.”
“I'm sorry, that sounded horrible,” Juliette says. She starts to reach for Martin's arm but stops herself. The hands fold together and she presses them into her lap. “I didn't mean it like that.”
“It's okay, it's true. I'm working on it. I'm working really hard to get back on my feet. This is a tough time to be in construction.”
“Because of the economy?” Juliette asks.
“I know it's a lot of money and I... I just wanted you to know how grateful I am for it.”
Martin appreciates the sentiment, but he knows she didn't crawl into the front seat just for that.
“And...?” he starts.
She breathes in and out.
“I'm sorry, forget it. Thank you for the money, dad.”
“And...? It's okay, you can tell me. Do you need more?”
“I didn't want to tell you.”
“It's fine, I probably have the extra money. Don't worry about it.
Juliette stares at the hands folded in her lap.
“Juliette,” Martin says, low and slow. Juliette looks up at him. “How much?”
“I'm sorry, it's just that a few kids pulled out this week, last minute, like right at the very last minute, so the cost for each of us went up a little.”
“I'm so sorry, dad. I know you've already given me so much. I thought about asking mom instead, just not telling you the cost went up, but...”
“But I thought I should ask you first. I thought it would be weird if I didn't tell you and then you found out from mom or something and I didn't want you to feel bad but I also know you don't have a lot of...”
“Oh Jesus, Juliette, how much money?”
“Fifty dollars,” she says. She holds her breath.
Martin grabs his chest. He begins wheezing and coughing, swerving the truck back and forth in the lane. He yells out, about how he's done for, about how this is the end, everything is going black.
Juliette is not pleased.
“I feel bad,” she says.
“God help me it's so much money!”
“You're a terrible person.”
At that, Martin slumps in his chair and gurgles. He closes his eyes and sighs out a final death breath.
“Dad stop. Stop!”
Martin sits upright and straightens the wrinkles from his shirt. When he looks in the rear view, Hillary is still sound asleep.
“Man, what would it take to wake that girl up?” he asks. Juliette is back to staring out the passenger window, arms crossed.
“I'm sorry, I'm just messing around. You did the right thing, Jules. I'm glad you wanted to ask me first, that you were thinking about how I might feel if you didn't. That was very nice.”
“Yeah, well,” she says, furrowing her brow at him, “I'm a nice person and I do nice things sometimes.”
“We can stop by my apartment and grab it before I take you home.”
“No more, I promise,” she says.
“Hey, a measly fifty bucks for my future doctor? Sounds like a bargain. I'm just feeling dumb and weak. You are going to watch a surgery go down, with blood and bone and scalpels and everything. All that blood. I don't think I could handle that. How is it fair that you're smarter AND tougher than me?”
“Just lucky. Thank you, dad.”
Martin knows she would hug him if the center console weren't in the way. He can feel it, and it brings another broad smile to his face.
When they pull into the driveway at Martin's apartment, he jumps out of the truck and jogs to the door. As he is unlocking it, a figure appears reflected in the door-side window. It is Nate, massive hole still in his face. Martin turns, panicked. There is nothing there, no one behind him. Juliette watches, confused, from the truck. He shakes it off and runs inside.
Juliette squints her eyes trying to see what Martin would have seen to jump away from the door like that. She doesn't see anything. She settles back into her seat. She looks back to Hillary, still asleep.
Martin is back in a few seconds. He locks the door and bounds back out to the truck.
“What happened back there, did you see a spider or something?”
“The what? Oh, at the door when I... yeah, I thought I saw something in the reflection from the window. I thought something was behind me. It was nothing, just the old crazy brain messing with me again.”
He hands Juliette the fifty dollar bill. This time, the truck isn't moving, so she can sprawl across the console and give him a hug. She whispers in his ear.
“You're the best.”
When they get to Victoria's driveway, the front light clicks on and Victoria appears at the front door. Juliette grabs her bag and heads inside. Martin grabs a still-sleeping Hillary and throws her over his shoulder. He carries her up the front walk and hands her to Victoria.
“Looks like you guys had a good day,” Victoria says, hoisting Hillary over her own shoulder. If Hillary woke up during the exchange, it didn't last long. She nestles her face into Victoria's shoulder and is immediately asleep again.
“The best,” Martin says.
“See you next week, dad,” Juliette says. When she disappears into the house, Victoria looks at Martin and raises an eyebrow. Martin shrugs and can't hold back a satisfied smile.
“Thank you,” he says. He turns and heads back to the truck before Victoria can respond. When he gets to the truck he looks back. She waves to him from the front door. He waves back as they move inside. Not a bad end to the day.
Chirping howlers, swinging in the trees. Chirping howlers, they squawk and squeal and laugh their foolish laughs and forget to look down. They eat their stinking fruit and toss the chewed shells down down down, down from the light, down through the twisting leaves and vines onto the dark earth at my feet. They toss their wasted fruit with their scent, black and coarse, and howl away together. They leave a trail for me to follow. The ants and I notice the fruit, while the howlers laugh and swing and forget to look down.
Look down and see my eyes, little howler. Look down and see me watching you.
They jump and swing toward the burning light. Every morning, despite the past, they strip the same leaves and drop the same fruit on the same path toward the water pit. Their stinking fruit and rolling waves of foolish hoots and woops slither through the tree tops.
The water pit. All must stop at the water pit. No creature can avoid it for long. No creature has found a better place for many miles. Stinking howlers and bounding horns and tuskers and every flying thing must stop and stoop below the trickling ripples of water pit. Legs crouched low, heads down, eyes up but not up enough, they lap up the water and wait. Some stand upright and sniff, eyes wide and shining, ears arched and straining. They twitch while their friends drink. They twitch and worry and wait.
They wait for me.
I follow a trail, but unlike the howlers it is a new path I've never taken. It conceals me as I follow. The ground is soft and gives silently away under my piercing claws. The dirt whispers under my steps. I crouch low and let the brush slide across my ears, across my neck and back. As I draw closer to water pit I can hear the birds begin to stir. They fear that I am here, but they don't know. I stop. One thinks it may have heard me, but it did not. Its head tilts side to side. One dark eye searches, then the other. It peers into the shade, across the broken beams of dusty light. It doesn't see me. I want to swish my tail. It quivers behind me, aching to flit against the leaves and twigs. It wants to flit but I tell it no. It obeys. I hold. I watch the bright light get cut by the birds' wide wings as they circle and search for me. They, like the howlers, squawk and squeal at my presence. They will not see me today. I am in my secret place. I am crouched low, too low for them to see.
They settle their squawking and return to water pit. I must stay quiet. The creatures are wary.
Before I see water pit I smell them. Howler scent, not the stink of their discarded fruits but the smell of their hands and feet, the smell they leave on the branches and rocks they touch. I can smell the heat from their faces. I can hear their fingers slide around the branches holding them. I can hear them shake the leaves. I can hear their breathing. I feel their chests rising as they hold their breath and look around. They are looking for me. They are looking for me and can't see me and the thought of their failed searching opens my mouth. Their breaths chug from wide-eyed faces. My breaths are small and quiet. They will not hear me. They will not smell me. They will not see me.
Not until I want them to see me.
Opening my mouth parts my fangs. They are sticky today. They pulse in my mouth and are ready for the neck, ready to pierce and hold, ready to crush and rip and kill. The tail wants to twitch and the mouth wants to take hold of something and feel it moving. My teeth want to clamp onto bones and hold and feel the squirming struggle. The struggle will be quick, very quick. Their bodies will twist and writhe and they will try to call out to their friends for help. But no help will come. It will be too quick and no help will come and they will realize this and stop. Another twitch, and another, and a slight quiver, and maybe, if they are very strong, maybe one more effort to bellow and scratch and free themselves before the silence.
Before the transition.
The bright light in the sky is quiet today, hidden by moving air. Young daughter is sleeping on my arm but she is moving, kicking out her legs, her hands are thumping against my fur. She will wake soon and be ready for food. Thinking of her hunger reminds me of mine. It is time to move, time to climb and pick from the high fruit. The group is stirring, preparing to leave. Long hair woops. He is ready to go, so now it is official and we are on the move.
After the fruit, we will head to water pit.
The flies are scattered and calm today. The group swats at them occasionally, without real intent, and I stop to listen for their buzzing. I can hear very little, only when one or two flies are near my head. We are all grateful for the rest from their bothering.
My hand still hurts from before my last sleep. The branch that broke in my grip surprised me. I wasn't ready for the short fall to the branches below and I caught myself without thinking. The strain caused noises. I heard and felt a crunch. Then the heat came. My hand is bigger now. I don't want to use it or have it touched. It is strong enough to hold young daughter, but I usher her off of my arm so she can climb for herself. She should climb herself, for strength, and I am happy to climb one handed without her extra weight on me.
The fruit is good today. The skin is splitting and the fruit within is juicy and sweet. Only a few sleeps ago, these same trees and this same fruit was hard, bitter. We scrunched our faces and choked them down. We chewed at the sweetest parts, dropping the rest to the creatures below and leaving as many on the tree as we could so they could grow ripe and delicious. Our leaving them paid off. Now they are perfect, and we will have many more days to wake and feast.
Young daughter has found a fruit. It isn't yet ripe and she can't pull it from its branch. I call to her and she listens. It is good when she listens. I show her to another bunch, a ready bunch, and as she grips one fruit and yanks at it, the fruit pops free from its branch more quickly than she expects. She does this often, but she is getting better at catching herself before she falls. Today, her tail catches a nearby branch and she holds the fruit while she swings and flails to recover her balance. Once set on a trustworthy branch, she tears at the skin and chomps into the fruit. Her eyes rise to mine. She is happy with her new choice. I am happy, too.
My claws dig into the dirt. I wish they were digging into the trunk of a tree. I wish I was climbing to a high branch, dragging a lifeless howler with me. I want to feel their fur in my mouth. I want to feel their weight, feel my neck pulling, lifting, straining to hoist them into the perfect place in the perfect tree. I want to settle in and lay them down and listen for the quiet after the other creatures scatter in fear. I want to eat in the silence.
Young daughter is full and wants me to carry her again. I tell her no and she listens. She is listening well today. I think she knows about my hand and is trying to help by being good. I let her lead me as we follow long hair toward water pit. She is yet again stronger than she was before last sleep, stronger and stronger every trip to water pit. She is keeping up with the group. She is keeping up better than me, and long hair has to make two more stops than usual to wait for me to catch up. I have been using my hot hand in my climbing hoping it would get better. It is not getting better. I will climb without it for the rest of the journey to water pit.
Young daughter chirps at me. She waves her hands, wanting me to go faster. She hangs by her tail and waves. The group descends toward the sound of water pit rushing.
The howlers are coming. The first in line casts a shadow over my secret place as he swings down to water pit. He is the leader, the one who woops with long hair. He is the most alert, the most ready. He is the most dangerous. Maybe someday soon I will go for him. He is fast, but not faster than me. He is strong, but he would break in my jaws. But with his blood on my lips and his woops silent, the howlers may never return to water pit. I have killed many in the group. I have killed many under the wild eyes and frantic woops of the long hair, and yet they still return. They are wary, but they return. Their eyes dart and scan and their legs are ever ready to leap and scramble away to the high branches where they think they are safe. At the smallest sound, at the slightest stirring of wind or rain or bird or horned beast, they are ready to flee. And yet, they return.
Here, now, over my head, they have returned.
Young daughter will stay with me today. We will wait for safety and clearance from long hair and we will descend to the edge of water pit together. The flies are quiet today and the quiet is making me hear things. I hear the stirring of leaves. I hear the movement of dirt in the darkness. It is probably the wind rustling through the trees, but that sound and the sound of the other, the jagged nightmare, are very much the same.
Is it his bloodied breath I smell?
Was that a glint of deadly teeth?
In the trees, nowhere and everywhere, there is a roaring nightmare, a blazing, thrashing carnage of ripping claws and hissing teeth and leaping, crushing consumption. It is a blur from the shadows. The sound of the hiss and the roar and the scraping of claws on ground and rock and tree means death.
Death always follows the rage.
I was once young daughter. I was once being shown how to climb and find fruit and travel safely to water pit. I was once young daughter to a long hair. On a quiet day with few flies and a great heat from the burning light, the shadows moved. The leaves changed. The forest floor came alive and an echoing roar took my long hair from my sight, took him down into the shadows and concealed him in leaves. The forest opened and closed around him and we climbed, screaming, back to our trees. We climbed and screamed and never looked back.
I was young daughter once. I have seen the forest take many others since then and I wish to never again hear those dark noises rising from the darkness.
The leaves move again, without the wind. Long hair hears it, too. He is watching from a safe place, his head steady and his eyes locked on some dark shape. He moves his head and stops again. He looks deeper. We wait. If he thinks he sees something or hears something, we will wait. We will wait for many breaths. We will return to our trees thirsty if we must.
Long hair snorts. Young daughter jumps at the sound and loses her grip on the branch.
He thinks he sees me but he doesn't. The leaves will make noise and he will think it is me. He will think everything is me, that I am everywhere. He will look to the shadows and the shade of every branch and bush and blade of tall grass and think I am staring back at him. He is staring down now, staring to each dark place. He is holding very still, but I can see his eyes. I can see him scanning and searching and hoping that today will be a safe day. He is hoping he won't have to tell his howlers that they are not safe to drink.
They are not safe to drink.
My fangs are aching for blood today.
The others are making their ways down to water pit, slowly, carefully. They settle in on their branches and wait for the long hair to tell them it is safe. He will tell them it is safe because he won't see me and they will trust him and enjoy a few long drinks from water pit. Then the forest will go silent as I leap on their backs and plunge my claws into their shrieking bodies.
They have a little one today. There is a mother with her little one, waiting to drink. The older howlers are quiet and still. The long hair is still searching the darkness for a sign of me, but the young one is bouncing on a branch. It is moving. The mother barks her disgusting noises and the little one stops for a moment. Then it is moving again.
The long hair snorts. Before I realize what is happening, the little one is falling. It lost its grip on the branch it was bouncing on and is falling through leaves and branches toward water pit. It swings its arms and legs out to catch hold of something but can't find a grip. I know I will have it in my jaws in moments. Tail swishes and I don't stop it. My claws dig into the dirt and I am away, bounding over my hiding rock and leaping over water pit. When the little one falls to the forest floor, I will be on top of it. I will crush its body with a single bite. I will be merciful.
Come to me, little one.
Young daughter is falling through the branches toward water pit. I shriek without trying and am down after her. Her little arms reach out for branches. Grab on, young daughter! Grab on! Her tail lurches into the air and finds nothing. Her right arm flails. Her left arm stretches out and she grabs leaves, tearing them from the branches as she continues to fall.
I am climbing down, tearing through the trees after her. Through the branches I see it, the forest opening up, teeth exposed and ready. The roaring nightmare awakens.
Young daughter grabs a branch with her foot. She has a hold of it for a moment and her body swings over and away from water pit. She can't hold on and continues to fall. Her body hits a thick branch and she stops. She folds around the branch and her arms and legs and tail bind together. She is holding on.
But the impact was too great and she is suddenly very still, too still. She is not hanging on but slipping slowly over and off of the branch. Her tail isn't reaching out. Her arms and legs are limp. She falls.
The little one is falling. The mother is coming down after her. She hopes to save her little one. She hopes to steal her from me. If she comes down to the ground, I will take both of them. It would be foolish to challenge me. I will gladly prove that to her.
I leap and claws come out. My leap is perfect. I will land on top of the little howler and tear it to pieces. The mother will see this and try to stop me and I will do the same to her. I will have plenty of meat for my tree. I will not be hungry tonight.
The howlers scream and screech. They know what I am going to do. They know they will have to watch and there is nothing they can do about it.
Young daughter is falling. The beast is coming. I will not live to see another howler taken into the darkness.
There are three branches between me and young daughter. Good hand grabs the first and I swing. I land on second branch with my feet. On third branch, I will have to use bad hand to swing or use bad hand to reach down and scoop up young daughter. Before I can choose, I am doing it: I am swinging on bad hand and reaching out to young daughter with good hand. Something cracks above me. I feel the shift in my grip. Bad hand bursts. There is a scream in my arm and burning fire in my fingers. I don't feel the branch anymore, but good hand grabs young daughter by the skin on her back and holds. We are tumbling across the dirt and rocks. There is a roar from above and another scream from my body. Something hit my back, it is burning hot like bad hand and we are still tumbling. Bushes scrape at my face. Branches are breaking all around us. Another roar, and woops from long hair and shrieks from the others and when I finally stop, young daughter is under me, against my chest. She is not moving.
I am moving. I stand and run and reach for the trees. They reach back, offering me help, offering their hands for me to grab. I take their offerings and grab, pulling myself and young daughter up off of the ground. I reach for the next branch and pull. Bad hand is grabbing each branch and holding on somehow, though I don't feel my fingers or my hand or my wrist or most of my arm. I feel the pain. I feel something crunching and moving around inside my skin. But mostly, I feel the tree shaking below me as the forest opens and the monster reaches out to take me down.
I missed! The little one dropped and I leaped and I didn't see the mother coming in. She dropped down so fast. I've never seen them come down from the tops so fast, not when they've seen me, not when I've been here. She jumped down and grabbed the little one and tumbled into the brush, through one of my secret places.
Even though she surprised me with her stupidity, I still took a piece of her. I can feel her blood on my claws. I can smell it. She got past me, I missed grabbing her, but it doesn't matter. They will both be mine.
She is scrambling to get back into the trees. She is having trouble carrying little one and climbing at the same time. No one can escape from me. No one can escape from me when they are scratched and bleeding and carrying a little one. I will lunge for her. I will leap on her back and plunge my fangs into her skull. I will crush her and silence her and throw her from these high branches to the dust and dirt below. I will not drag her into a hidden place. I will tear into her in the open, on the forest floor, in front of all of her fellow howlers and any other creatures who wish to watch. I will end her world, and take her little one with me. Maybe I will kill the mother and save the little one to play with later. Maybe I will hold her in my jaws and let the other howlers hear her squeals and screams. Maybe I will carry her with me as I follow them everywhere they go. Maybe they will never be free of me, or free of the helpless screams of one of their own.
Maybe then they will leave for another water pit.
I can hear the claws and teeth but I won't stop. I will climb. I will jump and climb on bad hand through all of the crunching and snapping and loud, aching pain. I will reach and pull and claw my way up and up and up until young daughter is safe. I will fight the dark beast if I have to. I will roar into those jagged teeth and rip them from their mouth.
I will shred the mother's back. I will chew off her face and tear out her throat and swallow her heart.
I will not let young daughter be taken.
I will not stop until the little one is mine.
I hear the beast coming. I hear his claws tearing the bark off of the tree, snapping off branches. I hear his breaths huffing and hissing at my feet. My back is pulsing with pain, and as I hear the sound of the beast's claws hitting the tree, I know the pain on my back is from those claws. It doesn't matter, I will not stop. When the claws get closer, when I feel them hit my leg and dig in, I still climb. When claws slice into the back of my thigh and try to throw me from the tree, I still climb. Up, up another branch, up again, high into the trees. Long hair is watching. He is coming to me from above, reaching out. He will not be able to save me.
But he can save young daughter.
Another stabbing and ripping of claws hits my back. The beast's weight nearly pulls me free from the branch, but bad hand holds. It holds long enough for me to cup young daughter in good hand and fling her limp body through the leaves above me and toward long hair's outstretched hands. Young daughter floats upward and slows. She will come back down. I didn't throw her far enough to make it all the way to long hair's hand. As the claws tear I wait for her to come back down. I might have enough time to catch her and try once more. Before she falls her eyes open. Life returns to her arms and legs and she looks down and sees me. My little one. My young daughter. She sees my face and my eyes and I see hers and she stops falling. She hangs and her arms and legs dangle down toward me. She hangs, and then continues to rise. Long hair caught her. He jumped down lower so he could catch her and now he is pulling her up into the tops of the tree, into the leaves and the high fruit and the safety of the light. She is rising to her troupe and to the rest of her life.
The beast has me. I know what he will do before he does it. I have seen it many times before. I wait for the tangled mass of teeth to appear. I wait for them to part and clamp around my head and crush my skull. The claws will rip me open and spill my life onto the branches and the forest floor below. The beast will take me down and I will disappear from the tree tops and the sweet fruits and the light forever.
No! No, I had them, I had them both, how did she free the little one? No matter, I will see the little one again one day. Maybe when she is bigger and can offer me a bit more flesh I will revisit this encounter. For now, I will give the mother her little victory and take what is mine. My claws are already digging into her flesh. Soon my teeth will be around her neck and all will be finished. The thought of it, of her, being this close, forces a roar I can't stop and don't want to stop. I let it come, let it rise into the canopy.
The building roar of the beast rises behind me. I don't cry out. I don't howl or woop or scream. There is nothing to scream about now, young daughter is safe. The sound rises behind me and I wait for it to crash over me. But a crack ends the roar. Something has given way and the claws release from my leg and back. The weight of the beast leaves me and then I am falling.
No! We are falling, we are tumbling through the branches toward the ground and I can't grab a hold of anything. The thin branches break under me. I reach into air and grab nothing. I turn and look to the ground and it is farther than I thought. I climbed too high during the chase. I have never fallen from this height. I would never jump this far. I have jumped from high branches and felt the heavy impact of landing on the ground. This is much higher than my highest jump. If there was pain from the landing before, what will this landing feel like? We are heading for rocks. A sound is rising in my throat. It is building up and preparing for the impact. When my eyes go up, the howler is no longer right above me. She is much higher up, getting constantly smaller as I fall. She isn't falling. She has grabbed a hold of a branch and stopped herself. She is looking down on me. Her face is shrinking away, but I can see her eyes. She isn't afraid. She isn't angry. She is surprised. And there is something else in her eyes. She is curious. She is wondering what will happen when the source of her fear, when something with such power, something that has affected her life so much...
We fell. The branch I was holding snapped under our combined weight and we fell. I reached out and caught a branch. I don't remember thinking about reaching out. I don't remember seeing a branch, or feeling my hand find its grip, but here I am, watching the beast fall from me toward the rocks below. It will probably land and make its way back up the tree to try again. No matter, I don't have the strength to get away. If it wants to return and try again, I will be here, resting.
Looking down now, seeing that the beast has eyes, I can see that it can be confused. I can see that it can be distracted, and angry, and most surprisingly, I think as it is looking up at me it is feeling... afraid. The greatest source of our fear is... afraid.
When it hits the rocks, I wait for it to get up and dig its claws back into the tree and roar its way back up to me. It doesn't get back up. I can hear it making noises. It is hard to see from here but I think the beast is trying to get up but can't. Then I see the blood. As the beast moans and growls and quivers, a red pool is spreading out beneath its massive head and chest.
It slipped and fell. It messed up. I saved young daughter and escaped from the beast. Now, sitting on this branch that caught me, feeling the blood run down my back and legs, I still might not survive. Many howlers have received injuries like these and the heat and the ache overtook them. I may lie down soon and not get up again. But for now, the beast is bleeding in the dirt. I carry its wounds but I am alive and unafraid. Today, the troupe will quench their thirsts at water pit. Today, I will quench my thirst and feel the light on my face. Tonight, I will enjoy ripe fruit and the sight of young daughter.
After a sleep, I don't know. Tonight might be my last sleep. But today, I am a howler and I survived the beast of the water pit.