A dream I had
The house always made noise. Clicks, creaks, random thumps and pops as the house warmed in the morning and cooled in the evening. It had been that way since the lawyer moved in. He'd been excited to sign the deal on the old house. He could see potential. It would be a long road of renovations and it would cost a lot of money, but he would make the money, he was sure of that, and the renovations would be an enjoyable challenge. Mostly, he couldn't believe his luck on the price and the location. He could ride his bike to the local stores, to the law offices, to the courthouse. The house was central to every meaningful thing in his life.
During his first week sleeping in the house, the thumps and creaks were unsettling. He'd always had the sense that he didn't scare easily. “A predator,” his father had said. He'd always been hard to startle, but in that first week he'd jumped at the sudden noises of the house at least a dozen times, even calling out down a hallway at one point to see if anyone would answer. For a moment, he'd expected to hear a reply. He expected a low moan or a frothy demon hissing from beneath the floorboards. One loud boom on the third day made him cry out. His fearful outburst enraged him and he stomped through the old house shouting the twisting shadows from his mind.
The second week he jumped less, laughed at himself more. The third week, when the sounds seemed to intensify in volume and frequency, he pushed them out of his mind and thought forward to the new floors that would soon be installed. He thought of the new paint smell, the granite counter tops, the new light fixtures and stair banister and bathroom tile and shower/sauna combo. He thought of his budding house in its amazing old, central neighborhood and he smiled as he laid his head down on his pillow. He was asleep before the voices started.
"You can get get out of here, just grab your stuff and go.”
The man woke and opened his eyes without stirring. His eyes strained for light and his ears listened to confirm what he thought he'd heard. It was a voice, a hushed, somewhat gravely, male voice. He wondered if the voice had been from a dream. He wondered if the voice in his dream woke him, or if he'd awoken from his dream because of a voice. The blood rushed to his head and thrashed through his ears. He tried to calm his nerves by breathing in long, slow breaths, but the rasping of his breaths felt too loud. If it had been a voice, a real voice, and the person was in the room, they would hear his breathing change. He held his breath, but the blood rushing through his ears was loud enough to take his hearing, all but a slow thumping somewhere in the distance.
You can get out of here, just grab your stuff and go?
Holding his breath didn't work for long. The rush in his ears grew and his brain began crying out for air. He tried to get a sound, something close and real, before inhaling. He heard nothing as he sipped in a series of trembling breaths. If someone was in the room, they would surely know he was awake now. No sense staying down and waiting for them to act.
The man sat up.
“Hello?” he called. The rushing in his ears slowed and the room returned to him. There was a small hum from his bedside clock, and as he squinted into the rest of the dark room looking for shifting shapes or dark, out of place figures, the ceiling popped in the far right corner where it always popped.
He breathed out a long breath, let it slide out into the darkness and probe the area at the end of the bed, the far corners, let it slide under the door and search the rest of the house. He was ready to lie back down and try to go back to sleep.
“I'll clean it up."
The voice came from the man's left. When he first moved in, the man had placed his old sofa chair, his favorite chair, his lucky chair, against the wall near his bed. The living room would soon be filled with all new furniture, and he was willing to sell or throw away all of his old pieces. All but his lucky chair. There, sitting up, his fingers curled into the bed covers on his lap, he could make out the edge of his lucky chair. As he followed the edge up to the top, the edge continued in a long curve, rounding at the top in the shape of a human head.
“Don't worry, I'll clean it up,” the voice said again. It was casual, apologetic, but unfamiliar. The man reached for the nob on the bedside lamp and twisted it. When the light clicked on, the man pulled the covers up to his mouth and screamed into them without thinking, unconsciously biting into the fabric and readying himself for a fight to the death.
In the chair, a man sat, his shoulders and head heavy against the sofa back, exhausted. His arms hung limply from the chair arms in a posture that suggested appreciated comfort and much needed relief. The posture didn't match the color scheme, a violent shift between flesh tones and white and blue clothing and long smears of shiny red blood. The man could see bloody hand prints on the figure's shirt, blood spatter on his neck and face. The blood was thickest and wettest down his right forearm and hand, and it was many seconds of screaming terror before the man even noticed the bloody hammer, clutched loosely, hanging from too-long fingers. In that moment, watching the droplets of blood fall from the hammer's disfigured head, hearing them plop into the puddle of blood on the boards below, the lawyer knew what the pounding sound had been.
He leaped from the bed and stumbled to the door. As he passed the figure, words came again and sent him screaming into the hallway.
“I said I'll clean it up.”
The door to the hallway burst open under the pressure of the man's shoulder. He hadn't turned the doorknob enough and the impact cracked the bolt housing from the door frame. He stepped out onto the landing at the top of the dual staircase and grabbed the railing. He needed the grip to steady himself as he looked down onto the entryway below. His usually neat entryway was unrecognizable. The Persian rug had been folded over on itself and then again. A pool of blood was spreading from one end, and a pair of pale and lifeless feet extended from the other. The man looked away, only to see another body sitting against the old bookshelf. Most of the volumes had been ripped loose and thrown around the room. A small stack of open books with crinkled, blood-spattered pages, lay at one of the body's feet. The man did not look at the faces. He knew what he would see there if he did.
He turned his head again, and again, his sight running from the carnage and seeking shelter in every dark corner, every high shelf, every shadow, and finding none. The bloody mess followed him, like it knew where he would look next. It was ready whenever his eyes opened, whenever his gaze slipped away from one dead body there would be another, and another, until his flailing hands found the doorknob at the end of the short hallway. He turned the knob and pulled. The faces, their eyes black and their mouths open, yawning wide and hot like caverns to hell, followed him to the door, followed him screaming and gnawing and biting at his heels with broken teeth and tasting the air with shriveled, gray tongues. Their gnashing and screaming followed him. He could feel their breath on the backs of his knees. He could feel fingers grasping at his ankles, nearly getting their grips on one leg, and when he ripped that leg clear they would have their blood-sticky skin on the other. His feet danced up and away from them and he growled and screeched. Their moaning followed him down the hallway and up to the doorway and cut out as the lawyer slammed the door behind him.
Silence. The lawyer waited, expecting to hear nails scratching on the wood and the ghoulish moaning slide under the bottom of the door. But there was nothing. A new room opened before him, a familiar room. His feet slid warily across the floral strip of carpet ushering him into his mother's study. As he made his way along the entry wall, his hand slid along the wallpaper, guiding him. His fingertips barely touched, barely made a sound, but he still stopped for fear that the whisper of his skin on the old paper was too loud.
The silence surrounded him for a moment. Then in the distance, in the heart of the study, the slight dinging of piano keys crawled through the quiet and sent small plumes of dust sparkling into the dancing light of a single candle on an end table. The flame flickered at each new note. The man smelled dampness, the smell of old wood and old books and an old soul. It was his mother's study where his mother would go to play. When he was a child, he would sneak in to listen. He would watch her pull the sheet music from a single box, like ancient scriptures only she could read. She would decipher and translate, and the man would hide in a corner, in a dark and quiet place, to listen to her holy incantations.
The music stopped. The man stopped and clamped his teeth and pressed his hands over his mouth. He knew if she heard him she would run him out. She would usher him with soft hands and harsh whispers to a door she would open silently. She would warn him of his father, warn him not to go sneaking about like a spider.
This time she didn't come to usher him out.
“Have you come to hear or to listen?”
Her voice seemed farther away than the ten feet between the piano and the edge of the entry wall. The man couldn't tell if she was talking to him or to someone else, or if the voice had actually been uttered by a person, at all. Did I imagine it? He waited. The music started again. He pulled his hands from his mouth and pressed them gently against the wallpaper. The oil and sweat from his hands made his fingers stick. He pulled back instinctively. His fingers peeled away from the wall with a loud sucking noise and the man could feel something on his fingertips. He looked down and nothing had stuck to his fingers, but instead the skin from his finger tips had come off on the wall. The blood oozed out in hot red dots and ran down his fingers to his palms. Before he could cry out, he stumbled into the study and the song from the piano stopped. He grasped his fingers and squeezed. He felt the blood oozing out. It seemed to ooze faster the harder he tried to keep it in, and soon the droplets were falling onto the floral rug at his feet.
Over the top of the piano, he saw his mother shift in her seat and look toward him. The light from the candle twisted her features, shrouding parts of her face in darkness and unnaturally bathing others in warm light. As she moved, the features moved.
“Don't worry, I'll clean it up.”
Her head turned to the right and the lawyer watched a hand appear on the ground from behind the piano. The hand was attached to an arm, but the arm didn't extend from forearm to elbow to bicep and tricep to shoulder. The hand supported a forearm and an elbow that lead to another forearm and elbow, and another, and before the man could see how many segments the arm had, another hand slapped down next to it. This second arm contained at least as many segments, and as the two arms and hands shuddered in the candlelight, six more hands slapped against the hardwood floors, their forearms and elbows leading up to a central body, a short torso. The torso was pallid and bruised, and there seemed to be something squirming beneath the surface of the skin, as if the torso was a bag of snakes. From the other end of the torso, a head rolled up onto the top of the body. A face turned to look at the man. It was upside down, and righted itself suddenly, in a single hard jerk, against the sound of cracking bones. A slight hiss escaped the thin lips that divided the face nearly in two, and when the lips parted, a long row of thin fangs slowly separated.
A hand dropped on the man's shoulder. He turned to face the twisted scowl of his dead mother, and he suddenly stared into the empty holes where her eyes had once been.
“Little spider, sneaking around in the dark,” she moaned. Her face turned to the eight legged creature. The beast hissed and exposed its teeth, but mother's stare pulled a screech from somewhere deep in its chest and the legs gave out, curling underneath its rippling body. It fell to the floor in its frozen crouch and its head cracked again as it twisted sideways. Its eyes closed and the thin lips sealed shut and the skin stretched over the lines until the head was smooth and featureless.
“Are spiders welcome here?” she asked.
A camera flashed and whined nearby. The flash shined across the walls and ceiling of the room, and the man's mother was gone. He felt he knew where she'd gone and he turned to run back out of the room. Once back in the entry hallway, the door was gone. Another flash from the camera stole the candle's flame and the darkness reclaimed its territories.
Another camera flash. Another long whine as the bulb recharged. The man tried to call out into the darkness. He felt his friends must be nearby, that they must be playing a trick on him. Before the camera flash went off again, the man knew these weren't his friends. He remembered them sleeping in the next room, passed out on sofas and inflatable mattresses. He knew they were asleep and he was alone and something was sending flashes of light out at even intervals from the corner of his mother's study.
“What if they're not sleeping?” the man whispered, knowing before he finished the question that they were all dead.
Another flash lit up the room. Something was different. Something was there that wasn't there before. Ahead of him, was it seven feet? something was on the ground that he didn't see during the previous flashes. As the flash bulb recharged a new sound emerged, the slight pattering of something along the ground, a pattering and something else, something rough against the wood. He tried to dismiss the thought as soon as it appeared. He couldn't. Fingernails. It sounded like fingernails scraping the wood in front of him. The sound made its way across the room until it was directly at his feet. The flash bulb charged and was set to go off again. He knew what he would see when the room lit up.
“Does the defense rest, counselor?”
His mother's voice. He felt her hands on his shoulders when the flash erupted. But when the light filled the room he didn't see his mother. The floorboards creaked and the creature looked up at him with its head upside down, its fangs parted and dripping with blood, its fingers dug into the wood and its legs coiled to leap. He didn't scream until the fingers were pulling at his clothes and curling around his flesh and pressing into the gaps between his bones. As it made its way up his stomach and chest and twisted its pale arms around his neck, the weight of the demon pulled him to the left and he teetered and slammed into the nearest wall. The picture frames fell to the floor, their glass covers shattering in unison. The man heard the glass break but couldn't see it. The creature's hands were covering his eyes, the jagged, blackened fingernails clawing at the lids. When the man opened his mouth to scream, the fingers jammed themselves between his lips and pulled at the inside of his cheeks. They pulled and scraped and reached deeper. The man felt the fingers around his tongue, felt them slide along his back teeth and mash their way into his throat. The more frantically he clawed at the creature's limbs, the tighter they squeezed and the deeper they reached. But the hands over his face relaxed enough for him to pull them from his eyes. He opened them to see the man from his bedroom, still holding the hammer, limping toward him across the floral throw rug.
"Does the defense rest?"
The creature shrieked as its bones cracked and snapped under the new pulling pressure and the man's cries faded into the cold corners of the old house.
A father smiles as his daughter finishes tying a double surgeon's knot, connecting the leader of her fly line to the tippet. He can remember her eyes when she was six years old, wide and unblinking as she watched him tie knots for the first time. He can remember the first time he guided her fingers through the process. He hid a smile when she threw the lines down in frustration. He patted her back when she cried. He countered her desire to quit with reassurance. “You can do it,” he'd said, “with a little more practice. You can do it.” Now, four years later, sitting on a rock at the edge of the Deschutes river, she proves his prediction once again.
“Nailed it!” she says, throwing her hands up. The knot is secure, excess line is trimmed, and she didn't jab herself with the hook the way she has so many times before. She curls and uncurls her fingers, garnering praise from an invisible crowd.
“I knew you could do it,” the father says. “I think it's safe to officially declare you a fisherman.”
“Fisherwoman,” she retorts.
The girl considers this.
“Fishergirl,” she says, nodding. “For now.”
The father smiles. The girl secures the hook to the her fly rod's cork handle and the two rise and make their way down the trail. It is another half a mile of singing Disney songs and talking about the girl's upcoming historical figure presentation before they see their special spot, a wider stretch in the river with rocky shallows and an open area for casting. There are fewer trees and bushes near the water here, fewer things to snag a fly hook and dampen the day. As the father sets his backpack down and goes to get their waders, the little girl looks down the river.
“Hey dad,” she starts. Her voice rises at the end, an inflection he is getting more used to hearing. A question is coming, a question that will almost certainly involve reminding the father of his little girl's continuing search for independence. He loves and hates the inflection and the questions that follow. His mouth smiles and his eyes wince.
“Have you ever gone farther down the trail?”
The father looks out at the trail, at the surrounding forest. His eyes scan to the river and he watches the water hiss around a distant bend.
“Farther, here? Well, now that I think about it, no I don't think so. I think this spot is as far as I've gone. Yeah, I've been to other areas of the river, but never farther on this trail.”
He has a hand on the waders but stops.
“Do you think we could... keep going? Maybe find a new spot to fish?”
Farther down the trail, a new spot to fish. Change. She looks up at him, hopeful. The top of her head lines up with his sternum. He hasn't noticed this until now. Last he checked, her hair had the tangles and dirt of a little girl who climbed trees and played with bugs and he could tussle the hair at about stomach height. Now, the hair falls in long, shining, straightened strands, sheets of light brown silk brightened by the morning light. It falls the way it falls on the girls from from the TV shows, and he wouldn't dare mess it up.
“You want to try something new, huh?”
“You tie your own flies and catch your own fish and you want to explore the world?”
“Well, I just think maybe it's time for something new. I love this spot, our spot. But maybe it's time for... an adventure.”
The father raises an eyebrow.
“A grand adventure,” she says.
He zips the backpack back up and throws it over his shoulder.
“Lead the way, adventuregirl.”
The trail continues along the river for another mile. The father asks her about each new pool, and each time the girl tells him no, that they need to keep going. As they walk, the girl asks her father about other places where he has fished in his life. She listens quietly to his descriptions of the Snake River in Montana, of fishing for salmon in Alaska, of his trips to Scotland and Chile and New Zealand. She asks about the fish he caught, the other animals he saw, and the people he met along the way. He is talking about the brown bears in Alaska, fat on spawning salmon, when they reach the end of the marked trail.
“Well, end of the line,” he says, stopping. The river is narrower here, flanked by tall, thin pines and scrub brush. It is narrower, but deeper. He realizes it would be a challenge to fish, even for him. “You want to try to put in here or head back?”
The girl steps over the log barriers at the end of the trail and ducks her head under the tree branches.
“Let's keep going,” she says without looking back.
The father follows, lifting the branches away from his face. The forest is thicker here, darker, with more trees growing more closely together. The girl can slip in between them easily, twisting her body left to squirm around one pair of tight trees, then right to slip around another. Without carrying a back pack, she is able to duck under the lower branches and fallen logs and scramble up and down the increasingly rocky terrain. The father tears through the brush and branches. The limbs grab him and slow him down. He stomps into the bushes in his way and loops around tight groupings of trees when he needs to, and tries to keep up.
The morning sun's light is dimming, choked by clouds and by the thickening canopy. Twenty feet have opened up between them, and the father tries to get his daughter to slow down.
“Wow, look at these mushrooms,” he calls out. The girl doesn't respond, doesn't stop or turn. The father is starting to notice the labored sound of his breathing. He pushes on, faster still, in one more attempt to catch up without having to yell for the girl to stop and wait.
The river is dropping down into a valley now, more sharply than before. The sound is changing. Water is slashing against rock and tree trunk, pinched by the valley walls and forced into an tightening tunnel. The descent has created pooling points that build up and cascade down over rocky dams into more pools below. The churning of falls and rapids is rattling through the trees, and when the man calls out to the girl to slow down, she doesn't hear him. When one of his footsteps catches moss and his foot slides out from under him, she doesn't hear him. He pitches forward and drops toward the rock and his arms come up just in time to shield his face. He rebounds off of the slippery surface and bounces to the right, his balance lost, and he tumbles sideways over a bush and lands on his back on the forest floor. The waders pad his fall, but the impact stuns him. He can't breathe. For a moment he thinks he broke his back, but the feeling returns to his legs and he can feel the slow scrape of his boots on the leaves and dirt.
His diaphragm relaxes and he fights for a breath. The first breath is a battle. The second is easier. After panting for a few seconds, he groans and rolls over onto his hands and knees. When he looks up, the girl is gone. He tries to call out to her but he can't get enough air into his lungs. The call leaks out with a wheeze and is immediately swallowed by the rush of the water.
He struggles to his feet, leaning against the nearest tree, and calls out again. This yell is a little louder, but he gets no response. He works his way around the rock that took him down. He looks up the hill, follows the ridge out to an overlook. He can't see her. His right ankle is hot. He can feel a pulsing throb start just above the boot line, but otherwise the fall doesn't seem to have been destructive.
A distant whisper, a voice on the wind. The man stops and looks up again. He isn't even sure whether he heard the yell or imagined it. When he calls back, nothing. He continues scrambling along the rocky edge, grabbing tree branches and ripping roots from their soil to help him climb a little higher with each step.
“Dad!” the voice calls out again. This time he is certain, he heard it, and it is his daughter calling out for him. The pain in his ankle leaves and he surges faster up the side of the valley. His hands pull at the rocks and dirt and he doesn't notice the tears in his skin or the blood beginning to run. His daughter is calling to him, she needs his help, and he claws and pumps his feet and surges upward.
He pulls himself over a final boulder and reaches a flat, high clearing overlooking the river. A final series of falls has lead to a long, deep pool, and at the edge of a rocky cliff overlooking the pool, the girl is standing. She hears her father's footsteps and turns.
“Look!” she says, pointing to the tallest waterfall, a fifteen-foot churning slide down a step and flat rock surface. After she points it out and then looks back at her father's face, she notices his dirty clothes and heaving breaths.
“Are you okay?” she asks.
“What are you doing?” he yells. “You can't just run off ahead by yourself! I was yelling for you!”
The words spill out between harsh gulps of air. Without noticing, the father has hunched over to rest his hands on his knees, hulking, a furious ape. His panic and fear are now pouring out in anger. He expels them like poisons that have to be drained before they fully infect him.
“I'm sorry,” the girl says.
“Do we ever separate when we're hiking?”
The girl shakes her head.
“Do you ever run off where no one can see or hear you?”
She shakes her head again.
“I thought you were right behind me.”
“Well then you weren't paying attention. Pay attention. Out here, you always pay attention.”
The father straightens up. He finally feels the cuts on his hands and looks down at the state of his clothes. There is dirt on his knees and thighs, on the front of his jacket. He starts to brush off the dust but looks at the blood on his hands and stops.
“I'm sorry,” the girls says again. The father shakes his head as he kneels in the dirt. He gets a water bottle from the pack and pours it over his hands. He rubs them together and removes most of the blood. He considers where to wipe them off and chooses his pants. They are dark and even if the blood doesn't wash out completely, it won't matter.
“You've got to be smarter than that,” he says. His voice has calmed. He is breathing full, slow breaths again, and the poison is mostly spent. Part of him regrets the harsh outburst, but part of him needed it. Part of him wanted her to feel upset, to realize how her lack of attention had made him feel, and remind her how dangerous the forest can be when you don't pay attention.
The blood is still running from his hands. He steps down the rocks to the edge of the river, a few feet from the top of the tallest falls. There is a rocky platform near the rush of water. He kneels down there and puts his hands in the torrent. The water washes away the new blood and the cold helps numb his hands and stop the bleeding. Even with the crashing rush of water a few feet from him, he still hears the careful footsteps of his daughter coming down after him. When the feet stop, he pulls his hands from the water and wipes them off on his pants again.
“You just have to be careful,” he says. “I heard you yell for me and I thought...” He stops and stands, wipes his hands on his pants a few more times. Even glancing at her only for a moment, the father sees that the girl's eyes are shiny with tears. He swallows the rest of his poison and reaches out for the girl. He grabs the beck of her neck and pulls her to his chest.
“I'm sorry, daddy,” she cries into his jacket. He pulls her closer and she hugs his waist and squeezes.
“I'm sorry I yelled,” he says. He kisses the top of her head. They hold each other and let the rushing water fill their ears and drown out the girl's sobs and the memories of the angry words.
An echoing splash rises from the long, dark pool below. Even fifty feet away, even amid the noise of the rapids and falls, even pressed hard against her father's chest, the girl hears it. The two look up together. The splash was massive, and they watch the ripples run outward from the source. They consider what could have made such a splash, and figure it could have only been one thing.
The father pulls a pair of waders from his bag and tosses them to the girl.
“Go get 'em,” he says.
The girl races down the rocky cliff and scrambles along the ridge to the pool below. She has to make her way down river for a few hundred feet before back-tracking around five-foot-high scrub brush and a crowded line of fallen trees, but after a minute she appears at the edge of the pool. The ripples from whatever made that massive splash are still visible in the deeper, slower moving water.
The girl pulls the hook from the cork handle and pulls out the line. She begins her casting, checking behind her for branches that might snag her fly on her back casts. She steps out into the cold currents and looks back again. She isn't convinced she is in the clear, not for where she wants to cast, so she takes a few more steps. When she feels confident her casts will have the room they need, she is fifteen feet into the river and the water is nearly to her stomach.
The line flits back and forth through the air six times before she has an adequate amount of line out for her first attempt. The fly floats out over the churning water and drops gently onto the dark surface. The light catches the hairs jutting out from the fly's back and the girl easily follows its path down the pool. The father can see it from his overlook. They both watch and wait for a splash, or a ripple, or for the fly to suddenly disappear below the surface and the line to go taut.
The hairs shine in the low light. No ripples, no splashes. The girl jerks the fly from the water and casts again, four flicks back and forth, and sends the line back out a few feet farther. They wait again, staring, the girl's hands poised and ready to set the hook if that monster fish finds her nymph too tempting to let pass. The fly stays on top of the ripples for nearly thirty feet and the girl pulls it back into the air again.
The father tries to keep his eyes on the fly as he makes his way down the embankment toward the edge of the pool. The girl took the long way, the safer way, around the cliffs to the left side of the pool, but he is going to take a straight line over the rocks and moss and fallen logs, skirting the base of the falls, to the head of the pool. He has his waders, so he will be able to make his way to her through the water rather than having to claw and crash through the harsh, largely untouched forest.
As he reaches the last small cliff before the water's edge, he sits down and pulls the waders from his pack. He slides them over his boots and up his calves to his knees. Then he stands up so he can pull them the rest of the way up over his waist and secure the straps over his shoulders. Another massive splash interrupts him. He looks up in time to see something slide back beneath the water's surface as the splash settles and the waves begin their outward ripple. It was green, shining, with a long frilled fin running along either side of its body. He knows there are big fish in the river, and maybe his distance from the splash and the low light made it seem bigger than it is, but he wonders if it was a fish, at all. There shouldn't be any other kind of water creature in these pools, but for a moment, when he first saw the color and structures of the figure, the father's mind went to crocodile. He dismisses the idea. Crocodiles in Oregon? He shakes his head. But crocodile was his second thought. He doesn't even reconsider what he first thought he saw.
The girl is staying calm. She is following the procedures they've talked about before. She is staying patient, watching carefully, sending the fly on good lines through the current, and she is remembering to breathe. The man smiles. He smiles until her fly slips below the water's surface.
“Fish on!” the girl yells as the line goes taut. The force of the catch tightens the line and pulls more out of the reel, making it click and whiz in her hands until she catches the lever and pulls up on the rod to set the hook. The rod bows into a high, long arc and the water bubbles and swirls beneath the line.
“You got it!” the father yells back. “Take your time! Make your way back toward shore and reel that puppy in!”
The girl doesn't hear him. She is watching the spot where the line is stabbing into the river as it moves slowly down stream. She can feel the weight of whatever is on the other end. Whatever it is has a strong pull and is ready for a fight. Her hands tighten around the reel and she begins to crank the line back in.
The father sees that she isn't making her way back to the shore. She is strongly rooted in her place, and her shoulders are higher now, tensed. She is laboring. He cups his hands around his mouth.
“Walk back to shore and reel it in!” he yells. She turns back toward him for a moment, but then is back to fighting the power of the line. She takes a step forward. It almost looks like a stumble, like she is being yanked. The water is deeper here, up to her chest. She takes another step.
“Honey?” the man calls. As the call leaves him, another splash draws his attention. He sees the form again, green and scaled and edged by frilled fins. It isn't a fish. It isn't a crocodile. The first thought he had when he saw it returns and he squints into the water and tries to understand what he is seeing. It almost looks like... a tentacle.
A sudden crash of water from the far end of the pool pulls his attention back to his daughter. Her reel explodes under a new surge of pressure, and all of the line goes out in a matter of seconds. The pull is so hard the reel can't keep up with the speed and the coiling mechanism catches. There is a crunching sound, plastic and metal breaking, and then a final snap yanks the spool from its place on the fly rod and pulls it into the roiling water fifteen feet from where the girl is standing. She is stunned by the sudden jerk, and once the reel is gone, she backs up toward the shore. She backs up because she is staring at a moving mass of squirming limbs a few feet beneath the river's surface. She, too, is trying to understand what she is seeing. She is seeing what her father saw, but where he saw one tentacle of the creature, she is seeing dozens twisting and unfurling together like a tangle of writhing snakes.
The father is watching from above when the girl's hypnosis is finally broken. When she turns back to look for him, her eyes are wide and wild and her mouth opens into a scream the man can feel in his bones.
“It's okay,” the man whispers. “Everything is okay.”
Her scream fills the small valley for a few seconds before the river opens and a dark mountain of churning flesh and scales and fins climbs high into the air. The crash of the water and rocks sends an umbrella of debris up and out over the small stretch of river. Rocks rain down, but the girl doesn't shield herself. She stares up into the shifting black mass and watches as four tentacled arms wriggle up from the waves and splay out into the trees and brush at the river's edges. The tentacles slither through the dirt and fallen leaves. They each find a hold on various tree trunks, and as the slimy arms wrap themselves around the trees, the beast shudders and pulls itself up from the river bottom. It slides along the rocks, upstream, toward the little girl. Another set of tentacles appear, and the water cascades down from them and splashes into the river. Some of the falling water splashes up into the little girl's face, but she still doesn't shield her eyes or try to get away. She doesn't hear her father scream for her to run. She doesn't hear him leap into the water and thrash his way toward her. She doesn't see him swim with the current and reach for her. She is watching the creature twist its tentacles around her fishing line so it can pull the hook from the flesh of its face. The hook seems to be lodged in one of the scaly folds under its one massive, quivering eye. As the girl watches the creature pull at the line, another series of smaller tentacles wriggle out from behind two splayed fins at the sides of the creature's mouth. These smaller tentacles tap along the scales, searching. When they reach the line, they tear it from their flesh and the forest fills with a shrill siren that shakes the leaves from their branches and sends every beast to its burrow and every bird to flight.
“I'm coming!” the father yells, his head barely above the surface. His hands claw into the water and he kicks as hard as he can. But the waders filled with water the moment he leaped into the river and the weight of it is pulling him down. He is too busy trying to get to the girl to notice his feet sinking lower and lower in the water with each kick. At first, he can thrust with his arms and pull himself well up and out of the water. The second time he raises his head to yell, his chin barely breaks the surface. Now, twenty feet from the girl, he kicks his feet and cranes his neck to take a breath and call out to her again. His mouth doesn't break the surface. He kicks and pulls at the water again. Only his eyes and the top of his head are above water. He suddenly feels the weight of the waders. He suddenly feels the chill of the forty-seven degree water. A wave from the creature's movements washes over his face and he goes under. The shoulder straps are easy to slide down over his shoulders, but freeing his boots is not. It takes multiple kicks and pulls before his boots slide free of the waders. When he pops out of the water and gasps in his first panicked breath, his daughter isn't in the water anymore. She is at least fifteen feet in the air, her legs dangling as her tiny balled up fists slam into the tentacle wrapped around her waist. She is screaming. The father's head slips back below the surface and the scream disappears. He fights the river's pull and thrusts his head above the water again. She is still screaming. His legs slam into a submerged rock and he goes under. The pressure has pinned him to the boulder, wedging his right foot. His arms twist wildly through the water. As he reaches upward, the hands break the surface and feel air. He can feel his daughter's fear. He brings his arms back down to the rock and presses against it. His legs don't move. He pushes again, arching his back against the weight of the thousands of gallons baring down on him. Another hard push, and another, and on the fourth effort he feels his foot shift. He pushes again, his hope renewed, and the boot scrapes loose and he tumbles forward over the boulder and back into open water.
He flails and claws his way back to the surface. He doesn't realize how desperate he was to breathe until he feels the fresh air on his face and opens his mouth to suck it in. This time he doesn't sink back below the waves. This time he bobs, his arms flapping enough to keep his head upright and his chin out in the quiet autumn air.
The quiet air.
There is no screaming.
He looks up into open sky. His daughter is no longer suspended by the creature's tentacles. The massive creature is gone. His daughter's screams are gone. His daughter is gone.
He pulls toward the shore and kicks his legs until he feels the rocky riverbed. He presses forward until he can stand. He trudges through the water until waist deep, and his chest heaves at the chance for multiple deep breaths in a row. He stumbles to a boulder and collapses across it. He coughs a spray of water out of his throat and tries to open his lungs back up against the bitter cold.
He looks left and sees the water falls where he entered the water. The falls are much farther away than he would have thought. When he turns to the right and looks down river, he sees nothing at first. His eyes are blurry from the water and his glasses came off during the swim. He rubs his eyes and squints and a dark mass moves slightly back and forth in the distance. The creature is far down river, sliding away from him. He can see the blur of tentacles rising and falling and rolling along the terrain.
He can't see his daughter.
He pushes back to his feet and sloshes through the rest of the shallow water to the shore. He tears through the stalks and bushes and runs through the brush hoping for something resembling a path. He finds none. The trees are tightly bunched and jut up from the rocky ground at random angles. He slides around them and over them. Their branches reach out and take sections of skin, dig into his scalp, and carve short, bloody canyons in his cheeks and neck. He pays no attention and presses forward. When he realizes he is mumbling his daughter's name, he begins to scream it. He screams it over and over, to every tree, to every rock he steps over, to every leafy branch that mars his face. He screams it across the water, against the walls of the valley, up into the tree tops and into the clouds and deep blue above. Four miles down the river he is still screaming it. He never caught sight of the creature once he left the river, and when National Park Rangers find him hours later, he is still trying to scream her name. When they ask him what is wrong, her name leaves his cracked lips in hoarse whispers. When they take him by the arms to stop him from stumbling on, he pushes them away. Her name lashes out at them with a hiss and a growl and he fights on. He wants to tell them a monster has his daughter and it is headed this way and he can't stop chasing it or he will never see his daughter again. He wants to tell them to get help, to call in the national guard and get helicopters and fighter jets and Navy Seals to hunt the creature down. He wants their understanding. He wants them to see. But all that comes out is her name, again and again, through his stuttering mouth and his flared nostrils and wild eyes. The only monster the rangers can see is him, all cuts and bruises and insanity. He is still rasping her name when they restrain him, when they put him in their cruiser and drive him to the nearest hospital. Once on the gurney his voice is gone. He is still mouthing her name when the nurses sedate him. In his nightmares, a man stands in a doorway into darkness. The man knows where his daughter is but won't say. The father is running toward the man, and the harder he runs the farther away the man gets, until the man finally disappears into the darkness. The door closes just before the father reaches it. No matter how hard he slams his fists into the door, it will not open. It will never reopen. The father is alone, screaming and slamming his fists into the door when the tentacles squirm their way around his legs, around his stomach and chest, around his neck and armpits. He is still screaming when the scaly wet limbs jerk him backward into the darkness, still screaming as he disappears into the twisting, crushing mass.
The TV is mumbling nonsense. Martin sits in his blue recliner clicking aimlessly from channel to channel. One channel has a commercial about double cheese burgers and fries. An ice-filled cup is filled with dark, crackling soda. A woman takes a satisfying drink. A man bites a massive hunk out of the burger. Martin's chin drops and his hand goes to his belly.
Suddenly he is up and in the kitchen. He picks up his wallet to inspect it: a few receipts and now three one-dollar bills. Three dollars. The bank statement might not offer much more. He looks across the counter top items and their sticky note dollar amounts. He quickly estimates how much money he would have if he sold everything for its asking price. The thought of having all that money makes him hopeful. But then, realizing that even selling all of these things and getting full price would barely cover Juliette's Portland trip, the glimmer of hope goes out.
He grabs his keys.
Martin pulls forward and surveys the drive-thru menu. He shuts his eyes and grimaces against the squeal of his brakes.
The intercom crackles to life. A tired teenage boy speaks.
“Welcome to Tuco's Tacos, order whenever you're ready.”
Martin leans his head out the window.
“Hi, yeah, can I get three bean and beef burritos, please? No lettuce and no sour cream.”
“Alright, would you like to try one of our cinnamon crispy twisters?”
The question dribbles out of the speaker like it is being read from a card for the first time, and like the teenager is reading it against his will.
“No, thank you,” Martin says.
“Okay. Then your total will be $1.77.”
“Did you get the no lettuce and no sour cream?” Martin asks.
The voice continues, garbled, and Martin hears the word “window” near the end.
After pulling forward and giving the kid two of the three dollar bills from his wallet, Martin takes the bag. He circles around through the parking lot to a shadowy space under two of the six trees in the lot. The parking space doesn't have any street lights near it, and what light does reach the area is mostly blocked by the trees. It is dark, quiet, and it isn't the first time Martin has parked here.
Martin takes the first burrito out of the bag, the smell of warmed flour tortilla already filling the truck before he even unwraps it. As he peels the wrapping open, more smells emerge. He can smell the beans, black beans pressed into refried bean paste. He can smell the sauce, sharp, lots of tomato to it. Then other smells pass through and he lets out a sigh through his nostrils. He lays the burrito down on his leg and opens one end. He knows what he will find before he sees it.
Lettuce. Shredded green strands stuck together by globs of thick white sour cream. Not only are there the two things he wanted to avoid, but the burrito appears to have more of each item than usual. Martin puts the burrito on the center console and removes the second. It is the same, loaded with extra lettuce and sour cream. The third burrito is a chicken fajita burrito, with lettuce, sour cream, and a corn tortilla. He leans back in the driver's seat, lets his head press into the head rest. He considers walking back into the shop and telling whoever is working the counter his problem. He considers doing so loudly, obnoxiously, tipping over chairs and flipping tables and jamming any spare lettuce he can find up the drive-thru worker's ass. He smiles at the thought before it disappears.
He picks up the first burrito and takes a bite. He spent two of his last three dollars buying burritos that aren't right and he doesn't have the strength to do anything about it. He just takes his frustration out on the two beef burritos, chewing without mercy. The burrito and carrots at lunch and the three burritos here in the parking lot are the only things Martin has eaten today. Ever since he ate the fajita mixture from Javier's restaurant salad bar in second grade, he has tried to avoid cooked peppers and onions. Folded over one of Javier's toilets, he tried to focus on the clear and clean water and not on the stickiness of the toilet seat, or the hints of yellow under the lid and at the edges. He tried not to breathe through his nose. When the first heaves rolled up through his stomach and chest and the first tube of vomit sprayed into the once clean water below, he tried to ignore the spray hitting his face. Three heaves later, his knees sore against the bright red and yellow tile floor, his puke an unnatural, shining yellow illuminated by the intense overhead lights, he swore a silent oath to never eat fajitas, especially the grilled peppers and onions therein, ever again. For decades he kept this promise.
With his taste buds and stomach already offended at his allowance of sour cream and lettuce, the chicken fajita burrito is non-negotiable. His hunger permitted the canceling effects of the amazing beans and beef against the terrible lettuce and sour cream. The health benefits of lettuce and the calories in the sour cream make them more bearable. But as he unwraps the chicken fajita burrito, he doesn't even take a bite. He paid most of his limited money to get nothing he wanted, but he still can't walk back into Tuco's to complain. Instead, he rolls down his driver side window to throw the burrito into a nearby bush.
Before he can throw it, he notices movement across the parking lot. In a lot of hundreds of parking spaces, he is in his truck, another pair of cars far off to his right sit next to each other, and a final car, by itself, is sitting at the curb in front of a closed craft shop. There is someone in the lone car. It was the person's movement that drew Martin's attention. The car is an older Cadillac, long and wide and low to the road. It is a car that men would've driven with pride originally, a symbol of buying power and financial security. It would've showed support for American manufacturing. It is a car old women would come to drive, as the price dropped, due to its size and structural integrity, and the connection to a bygone era. A classic gas-guzzling tank of a car that, when given a few thousand dollars of shining rims and monstrous speakers, with a hydraulic lift system thrown in for extra pimp status, would come to be stereo-typically associated with a different group of people.
The Cadillac is low on its lift, the undercarriage only a few inches from the asphalt. The lights are off, but a nearby street lamp is shining enough light into the driver side window that Martin can see the driver is wearing a blue shirt, possibly a jersey. The driver's forearm appears, shining in the street lamp light, when he reaches for something across the top of his dashboard.
Headlights glare at Martin from the lot entrance. Another car, a black Honda Civic, pulls in and slows to a stop. The headlights go out, but after a few seconds the car moves again, in a long circle, around the edges of the parking lot until it gets to the Cadillac. The car pulls up alongside the Cadillac so both drivers' doors face each other. It stops only briefly, long enough for windows to go down and items to be passed back and forth between the two drivers.
Martin puts the fajita burrito on the center console and stares.
“What the hell?”
Once the items are passed, the Cadillac stays and the second car continues its long circle around the rest of the lot before heading back onto the street and back in the direction from where it came.
The Cadillac driver isn't moving. He is sitting and waiting, and it only takes three minutes for another car to enter the lot and take the same route as the first. Another exchange, this one taking a few seconds longer, and then the car leaves. As it is leaving, Martin catches more movement, a man walking on foot from a side alley between stores. The man stops, looks around the lot, and continues along the sidewalk toward the craft store. He stops and turns, looking in the crafts store window, until the man in the Cadillac rolls down the passenger window and calls out to him. The man looks left and right before stepping to the window. Martin watches the man drop something onto the passenger seat. The man leans into the window and the two exchange a few words. The man takes something jams it deep into his pocket, pockets his other hand, and walks away with his head down. He disappears back into the alley.
Martin looks around. He wonders if he is watching drugs deals take place, if they can be this obvious and out in the open and not draw attention. He turns to look behind him, half expecting to see a SWAT team moving in, rifles and shotguns ready. He listens for approaching sirens, waits to see the flashing of blue and red in the night air.
Over the next twelve minutes, two more exchanges take place. Nothing, no sirens, no lights, no police response of any kind. No one is seeing what Martin is seeing. No one notices. Or if they do notice, they don't care. These men are trading money for illegal drugs and none of them have gone to jail or prison, yet. Martin shakes his head at how easy it is.
Looking at the Cadillac, Martin wonders what else is in the car. He wonders if it has anything like the car from the news, half a million dollars, guns, drugs? Maybe there are bags and bags of cash and cocaine in the trunk. Maybe there is a body.
Martin freezes. He hears the footsteps before he sees who is making them, but there is suddenly a figure on the sidewalk to his left, less than twenty feet from the car. The first thing his eyes see is orange. It's a man, or maybe a teenager, walking along the RiteAid store front and surveying the lot the way the others did. But while the others wore dark, nondescript clothing, things that would be hard to pinpoint by a witness, the teenager is wearing a bright red and black flat-billed hat, baggy red pants, and a fiery orange hoodie. When the kid pulls his sagging pants up, Martin can see bright white shoes. Martin has two quick judgments: the boy is either a gang member or he is trying to be.
Or maybe a clown.
Gang-banging peacock flashes in his mind.
Martin leans over to his glove box. It opens and he fumbles his hand through it looking for a pen and a piece of paper. He looks at the license plate of the Cadillac. He isn't even sure why, and as his pen touches the paper he considers putting it all back in the glove box and driving back to his apartment and sitting in his recliner with his friend Jack Daniels and whatever pacifying TV shows happen to be on tonight.
The peacock approaches the Cadillac's passenger window and leans in. The forearms move across the dashboard again. This exchange is different. The peacock doesn't give anything and doesn't get anything. He steps back, his arms out to his side, asking a question, “What was I supposed to do?” The driver is saying something and the peacock shakes his head. He is embarrassed. He is being scolded. As the boy's head drops slightly, Martin can hear his own father's voice chastising him, questioning his work ethic, his decisions. He shakes his head and forces his eyes back to the license plate. He squints against the darkness. The first three symbols are numbers, he thinks, maybe a six and then an eight. They might both be sixes or they might both be eights. He curls his hands together to form a spyglass and squints a little harder. He closes his left eye. His right eye is stronger. Narrowing the field of vision helps and he is almost certain, six-eight-one, then E-T-N. Oregon plates.
Martin drops the chicken burrito out the window onto the ground. As he does, the peacock leans back into the Cadillac's window. His hands are moving as he talks. He is trying to explain himself, trying to find mercy. He pulls his hand out of the window and points in Martin's direction. Martin stiffens. The boy walked right by him on the sidewalk, maybe he saw Martin and wants to let the driver know. Maybe he thought Martin was a lookout, or a cop.
The Cadillac's headlights go on and Martin jolts upright, kicking his feet into the gas pedal and brake. He grabs for his keys and jams them clumsily into the hard plastic around the truck's ignition. He is still watching the Cadillac when he finds the ignition slot. He stabs the key into the metal but it won't go. He pushes harder, frantically, and hears the Cadillac's engine turn over. The peacock stands up and turns toward Martin. The Cadillac drops into gear and pulls forward.
“Shit,” Martin hisses, “no no no no!” The key still won't go. He finally looks down and realizes he is trying with the wrong key. He switches over to the correct key and jams it in. When he looks up, the Cadillac has covered half the distance between them, now about fifty feet away. Martin turns the key. The engine whines twice before starting, but it is too late. The Cadillac's beams are shining directly into the cab now. Before Martin can throw the truck into reverse, flashing blue and red erupt from his rear view mirrors.
Two police cruisers appear from a nearby side street and screech into the parking lot. The Cadillac makes a hard left and accelerates across the empty parking spots toward the lot's other exit. Martin watches the Cadillac turn and sees an orange and red blur running toward the alley between stores. In the rush, the teenager loses one of his shoes. It tumbles white and shining onto the pavement. The boy turns and starts back to get it, but the cruisers split and one has him framed by its headlights. He leaves the shoe and scrambles back to the alley and disappears. The cruiser mounts the curb and follows the boy into the alley.
The Cadillac fishtails into the street. Oncoming traffic has to slam on their brakes and swerve to avoid colliding head on, and the night air fills with screeching tires and revving engines and the piercing cry of the cruiser's sirens as the chase tears off into the city.
Martin finally moves. He's been rigid, a motionless prey hiding from swirling predators. He breathes out suddenly. He was holding his breath. His body shudders and cries out for air and he gasps to appease it. The adrenaline surge is overwhelming. He can feel his pulse in his eyes, in his hands and feet, and the two burritos with their sour cream-covered lettuce suddenly try to make their way back up from his stomach and reappear. He grabs his mouth, clenches. He can feel the acid bubbling up in the back of his throat. But the rebellion stops. He breathes through his nose in long hisses and the food returns slowly back down into his stomach.
When the Cadillac was rolling toward him, Martin envisioned it drifting slowly by as a shotgun or an Uzi barrel appeared from one of the windows. He imagined flashes of light and deafening booms and bullets and broken glass and twisting metal crashing all around him. But thinking back on that moment, that exact moment when he realized the boy pointed him out and the car was rolling toward him with violent purpose, he froze but he wasn't scared. He didn't know what was going to happen but he wasn't scared. He was curious. He grips the steering wheel and squeezes. There is a deep and low hum rising in his ears. It is a dull bellow from somewhere dark, a charge of readiness rippling through his muscles and senses and mind. He recognizes it. He has felt it before. He was twelve. He and his father had hiked eight miles up from their hunting camp into the higher elevation barren ridges and peaks of the mountains of eastern Oregon. They were following elk, rifles on their backs, in the light snow of late fall. It was Martin's first big hunt. When he and his father sat down on a ridge, Martin was tasked with scoping the ridge one thousand meters across the valley. He had stiffened up then, too. He had held his breath. He had wondered if he would see an elk, and what would happen if he saw one. He peered through the binoculars and knew he would see one. He felt it, the way tonight he'd felt something was going on in the parking lot. Before the elk appeared in his sights, the deep and low hum rose from somewhere in his head. The sizzle touched every part of his body and widened his eyes and opened his ears and then there, behind a long gray boulder, antlers moved. They shook back and forth, and then floated gradually forward until a fully grown bull elk appeared. Off to the right a few meters, two females were following. He whispered to his father what he could see. His own words sounded strange in his ears, as did his father's excited response. The air itself seemed to shift in color and tone, darkening around him at the edges of his vision. Sounds began to warp and merge together into a strange new language Martin had never heard before, and the ridge line and sky pulsed and swayed in color-mixing waves until nothing he had seen or thought he'd seen seemed trustworthy. Later, even when pulling the sled with the elk's hind quarters, it didn't feel real. Even when his lungs burned in the cold mountain air and his legs and back doubled him over with pain, he couldn't stop asking himself if it was all real.
Martin looks around. The parking lot is silent now and all other cars have gone. Martin wonders if there was a Cadillac or a series of drugs deals or a police chase at all. The rush is still there, fading into the many hidden caverns of his awareness, but with so much something and now so much nothing, he wonders if he went home and finished the bottle of Jack and fell asleep in the recliner. He wonders if any of this is real.
He starts the truck. When the headlights click on, the Rite Aid and craft store windows light up, reflecting some of the light back toward Martin and reflecting some onto the sidewalk and asphalt. Martin is suddenly certain he didn't imagine the drug dealers and car chases. In the middle of the sidewalk, now bright and white under the glow of the headlights, is the boy's white shoe. Martin shifts into gear and eases forward along the curb. He watches the lot entrances, checks his rear view mirror, listens for the sound of returning sirens. He hears and sees nothing as he pulls up alongside the white shoe. He knows he should leave it. Even as he is opening his door he knows he should simply drive home and forget about all of this. When he walks over and reaches down for the shoe, he is wondering what he is doing. When he tosses the shoe onto the passenger seat and drives out of the lot, he is still shaking his head, confused at this other person he is watching live through his body. He curses into the rear view mirror. The reflection smiles back.
Martin is back on the jack hammer. The sight of workers entering the trailer and leaving in a fury is commonplace now. The remaining crew members have stopped watching the dramas unfold. It barely warrants a look or a shake of the head.
Jerry walks up as one of the many layoffs of the day makes his way down the trailer stairs and toward the parking lot.
“It's brutal, man. It's goddamned ruthless and brutal.”
Martin nods, but the nod is empty. He is numb to it. Whatever happens, happens.
“Hey man,” Jerry continues, “some of the guys are going to meet at Bailey's tonight, try to drink our troubles away. You interested?”
Martin lays the jack hammer down and takes off his helmet to wipe his brow.
“Eh, I don't know, Jerry. The thought of hanging out in a bar with a bunch of sad guys doesn't sound super appealing.”
“What? You have a date with a dude or something? Come on, Marty, come out with the guys, have a drink, shoot the shit, it will be good for you.”
“Come on, man...”
“No we get it, it's cool. You've been acting super weird lately, weirder than usual and now it all makes sense. You've met someone, a tall, dark, handsome stranger who has shown you a love deeper and more powerful than you ever thought possible.”
“That's,” Martin starts.
“You two are in love and you're getting ready to run away together.”
“That's exactly it,” Martin finishes.
“And tonight is the night you both leave this town and all your troubles behind... tonight is the night you begin your new life together?”
“It's just a few drinks with your friends, Marty. Come have a drink with your friends.”
The man stomping down the stairs from the trailer now is Carl Sims. Martin isn't sure how many years Carl has been with the company, but he knows it is more than ten. Carl was there when it was Bell Construction.
Martin puts his helmet back on.
“I'm really just not feeling up to it.
“Come on, just a few drinks. You're a bachelor now, start acting like one.”
“Dude, don't be a little bitch.”
“First drink is on me.”
“I said no, Jerry, Jesus! You do still understand the word no, right? N... O... It's what adults say when someone asks if they want to do something they don't want to do...”
“Whoa dude, easy...”
“They say no and then normal people say okay and get a clue and move on. Just move on, Jerry. Move on.”
Jerry is caught staring, wondering if Martin is playing some sort of game. He smiles and when Martin doesn't smile back, he has his answer. He starts to say something else. Martin's eyes tell him that wouldn't be a good idea. When the thoughts settle and his options dwindle down to the obvious that there is nothing more to say, he walks away. Martin is reaching the end of some invisible rope. His birthday, his relationships, his job, his life, nothing is as he wants it to be.
When he turns back to his ditch he checks his watch... 3:56. Almost quitting time, almost the survival of another day. A voice calls to Martin from behind him. It is one of the two big men in dark suits.
“Martin Bell?” the man asks, raising his chin toward Martin. When Martin nods the man waves him over. “Please come with me.”
This is it, he's being called in. It's over. When he checked his bank account online, he found thirty-eight dollars left in his account. He still has his single dollar bill in his wallet. Thirty-nine dollars to his name. He's at the end of his money, his job, his caring. He drops the jack hammer and follows the man to the trailer.
Inside the office, a small table has been set up for the site manager and the other two suits Martin saw step out of the big black SUV a few days ago. They each have a stack of files and paperwork laid out before them. The woman, Susan, speaks first.
“Hi, Martin, please have a seat.”
A single chair has been set in front of their head table. It has all the delicacy and care of an all-cement interrogation room. But this is not an interrogation or a trial. This is the sentencing.
Martin looks to the only other man not wearing a suit – his boss, Mark Bowman.
“My dad would be proud of you, Mark. You're doing a bang-up job with the company he built.”
“Just hear us out, Martin, before you get too emotional here. This is a tough time for us, for all of us. There are factors in play here that no one could have predicted. Banks are closing, our lenders are cutting off lines of credit...”
Mark's voice fades in Martin's mind. He hears the deep hum inside his head returning. It drowns out the voices of the panel members almost completely. Susan's mouth moves, then Mark's, then the other man in the suit, then Mark's again. Occasionally, a word slips through and Martin hears things like “leverage” and “personnel” and “retention” and the voices slowly fade back in. He hears “Would that be helpful for you, Martin? Martin?”
“Does that make sense, Martin?” Susan asks.
Martin comes back to full attention.
“Sure. You are firing me.”
“Well, we wanted to give you some time to look at other options and...”
“Oh sorry, you are firing me, but out of respect for me or my dad or something, you want me to keep working for a few more weeks. Is that right?”
“We will really need your help as we finish up this site,” Susan says.
Martin looks at her. He smiles, lets out a single laugh. He holds his stare, straight into her eyes, and waits for her to look away or be quiet.
“Marty... we're trying to help you,” Mark says.
“Help me, well... thank you so much. I feel so... helped. You don't know it but you are actually helping me. This is something I wasn't willing to do myself, but now... here we are. I know a lot of people stormed out of here violently, pissed off, but believe me when I say this... thank you. Thank you all. I look forward to our continued success as we work together toward excellence, with discipline and integrity, as we finish up this site.”
The three shift in their seats, confused. They glance to each other because looking at Martin's awkward, frozen grin and stare is too uncomfortable. He is a prisoner thanking the Warden for his abuse, and it is hard to tell if he is being violently sarcastic or insanely sincere.
“Well...” Susan starts, clearing her throat and stalling with a few “ums” before she continues. “We are... very glad to hear that, Martin. And let me just say that your work ethic and service to this company...”
Martin doesn't keep listening. While Susan continues her empty sentiments, Martin rises from his seat and steps toward the desk. The three flinch slightly and go to get up. One of the large security guards steps forward, ready to grab Martin if he tries anything violent.
Martin doesn't try anything violent. He grabs his paperwork from the desk. He turns without a word. He walks out, away from Susan's comments, away from Mark's calls for him to come back. He walks quietly out into the warm fall air. He walks down the trailer steps past Jerry.
“What did they say?” Jerry asks.
Martin ignores him. Jerry calls after him. Martin hears nothing. He sees only the pavement directly in front of him. He hears only the scream in his own head.
Martin stands in his kitchen. He is surveying his craigslist items. He has a legal pad and he crosses off his heater. He crosses off the “$40” and writes in “$30.” Then he crosses out the “$30.” Then he crosses it out a little more. His pencil scribbles wildly until the number sinks into the shining gray graphite. He keeps scribbling. Even after that part of the paper is thinning and warping, he is still scribbling, harder and faster and more violently, until the pressure is too great. The pencil tip breaks. He stops, motionless. Thirty dollars use to be less than about an hour's worth of work. Thirty dollars used to be nothing. Martin thinks about the number of times he threw away thirty dollars on nothing. He runs through a list of five things quickly, then presses the broken pencil tip back into the paper. He leans into the counter top, presses his hand into the pencil, drives his fingers down with all of his weight. The end of the pencil breaks off and tumbles off the edge of the counter. He joins the rest of the pencil with the notepad and turns, hurling them at the refrigerator. Magnets fall to the floor and the pictures they were holding follow. The pencil plinks to the linoleum and rolls up against the living room carpet. The pad falls on its face with a slap, and the refrigerator's compressor kicks on.
A primal growl rises from Martin's chest. He wants to let it out, wants to open the growl up into a snarl, into a roar, into the cleansing desolation of an angry god. He wants to destroy the world.
He brings it back down. He calms the bubbling magma beneath the volcano once again. This was another tremor. This was the mountain warning the villagers to evacuate, to seek shelter elsewhere. The real eruption is still to come.
Martin drops into his recliner. He hits the remote's power button without putting down his bottle of Jack. A car commercial appears. When the announcer gets to his punchline, about how this car will change the world and save humanity and redefine what it means to be human, Martin takes another drink. His termination papers are crumpled in between his hand and the bottle. He likes feeling the paper as he drinks, likes feeling it slide across the bottle's weirdly shaped neck. The papers crinkle as his grip tightens. He pictures the bottle giving in to his pressure and popping. He imagines it spilling the rest of the whiskey on him while the jagged edges of the bottle's broken neck dive into the flesh of his hands, in between fingers, under skin and tendon and through veins and capillaries and nerves. He imagines the leading edge of glass digging deepest, hitting bone. He will bleed into the paper. He will blot out whatever the ink says now with his own deep crimson story.
He is drinking like a man being forced by his arm and hand to drink, like it's not his arm and not his pain and not his anger and fear. A force is driving the bottle up to his lips and up again. The alcohol is quieting a distant voice that is telling him to stop, that is telling him this isn't the way through to better times. That voice is being smothered under a blanket of broken conversations with Victoria, smothered like their love for each other. He has given in to this other force and he wants to obey. The bottle hits his lips every few seconds, but the drinking isn't making the buzz in his head go away. If anything, the sound is growing. It is spreading through his mind and scratching out all of the unwanted thoughts. But there are so many and the pencil is growing dull. Another pull from the bottle sharpens it a little and the stain spreads. His conversation with Victoria blackens under the alcohol. Thoughts of the money for Jules, the money for rent and for food and for life, all get scribbled over. The dark pencil is carving long furrows in the paper of Martin's mind. It carves out trenches in memories of Jerry and Bruce and the times they shared on the site and in bars and while watching fights. It digs into the loss of dad's company, the end of a lifetime of work. It blackens the image of his mother's body in the hospital bed. It blackens the image of the flowers on her chest in her pale blue dress in that dark brown casket. The alcohol swallows up the outline of her headstone, of Victoria and Jules and Hillary holding hands in the grass beside it.
The bottle hits his lips, bangs against his teeth. He spills some of it down his chin and onto his shirt and sighs the drinker's sigh. The darkness is nearly complete. The black will take him soon, take him into the morning of a new day where he will have to face all of these things again and again.
Before the edges of his vision close in, Hillary's face is there. She holds up her bracelet and smiles. She goes in for a hug and squeezes the air from Martin's chest. She dances away and looks back, tells him not to be sad on his birthday. She holds a fishing rod with a fish on the hook. She dances around a fire and sings to him.
“No,” Martin says, shaking his head.
She climbs into his lap and plays with the scruff on his chin. She falls asleep in his arms.
“No,” he growls.
The dark edges of his vision move in. They bleed into Hillary's smooth white skin, clouding the beauty and pulling her below the surface of the rising waters of Martin's anger. Her hair floats. The water crawls up her neck, up her cheeks to her ears and her chin and wraps itself around her. Martin squeezes the bottle and the growl rises again and Hillary's mouth is gone, then her cheeks and eyes, then her nose. She slips below the surface and Martin can't pull her back.
He roars to his feet, flinging the crossword puzzle from his lap to the wall and down onto the unfinished bookshelf and its pile of random books. He throws the recliner over, breaks the lamp. He spots the TV, spots the commercial and the uselessness of the thing and knows the perfect place for his useless bottle. His arm winds back and he steps into a vicious throw, and the bottle rolls through the air leaving a spray of whiskey splashing behind it. The bottle flips end over end and slams into the wall behind the TV. The bottom end rips through the drywall and the bottle sticks there, its spout leaning out over the TV's many open ports and exposed electrical ingredients. When the whiskey leaks out and into the device, Martin heaves and clenches his fists. When the first smoke tails wave in the hidden breezes of the front speakers, Martin knows what is coming. He let the bottle go hoping for an explosion of glass and fire and destruction. He wanted sparks and flames, wanted to know that the bottle would never again give him whiskey and the TV would never pacify his boredom. But all he got was the thunk of the bottle going through the painted sheet rock. The commercial is still playing, and once the bottle's down turned spout pours enough fluid into the TV's electrical components, a series of crackles and hisses send the screen to black.
The hum in Martin's head peaks. He hears nothing else. He sees nothing but the TV's reflective glass surface warping his features and telling him what a clown he is, what a monster he is. He sees his image, backlit by the kitchen light, warped by the curved glass so he is pinched at the ends of his body and thick in the middle.
Martin steps toward the mocking glass and crouches down. He wraps his hands around the TV's base and bends his legs so he can drive the TV up off of its platform. He positions his hands and drops his chin on the top of the TV. He winces against the weight on his sore back but he doesn't stop until the glass and plastic beast is up at chin level. The lift brings the TV's electrical cord beyond its reach capacity and it pops free from the wall, and in that moment of freedom, Martin lunges forward. His stomach flexes and his chest and shoulders drop, bending him over at the waste and sending the massive TV crashing through the entertainment center. The wood cracks and splinters, the DVD player bursts under the crush, and the thick glass screen shatters. The sound of bursting plastic and glass doesn't have a chance to settle before Martin presses his palms into the wall for balance and begins to stomp. His boot smashes the TV's plastic casing. He feels the wood splinter and crumble, feels the glass shards grind into the floor and fight back against the rubber of his boots. He feels a few shards lodge in the rubber and the thought that they might go through the sole of his boots and into his foot only makes him stomp harder.
Let it come, he thinks. Let it jam into my foot and sever an artery and leave me be.
He rips the whiskey bottle from the wall and slams it down into the carnage. Again, the bottle doesn't break, not until Martin stomps into it. Its shards mix with the TV until the paper label on the neck and the body are twisted and crumpled reminders of what had been.
It is less than a minute before Martin is forcing hot air out through wheezing gasps and stomping through the crushed plastic and wires into the carpet below. He notices the booming sound and the walls shaking and realizes the noise is from him. He peels his hands off the wall and gives one upturned corner of the TV one more obliterating stomp before stepping back to survey what he has done.
Martin rips his keys off of the counter and is out in his truck, slamming the door and cranking it into gear, before the TV stops smoking.
He clicks on the headlights. He ignores the red light telling him to fasten his seat belt. His fingers are tingling and he isn't sure if it's from the whiskey or the rage. He punches the power button on the stereo system, quieting the cackling DJ. He doesn't stop at the four stop signs on his way toward the bar. The two traffic lights are green. Martin dares them to turn red before he gets to them. He wants them to turn red. The roar of the engine is nothing against the roar in his head.
The whiskey is playing with his sense of time and he is still going too fast when he sees the turn into Bailey's Pub. He locks up the brakes and sets the tires screaming against the asphalt. The truck is still sliding when he pulls the wheel to the right, thumping up over the entrance rise and fishtailing into the lot. He nearly clips the back end of a Ford F-150 and a small Nissan. Two people jump back in fear, and then wave their hands at Martin. He can't make out what they yell, but he doesn't care. The tires grab and roll smoothly again and Martin guides the truck into a parking space near the back door of the bar. The sign is illuminated, “Bailey's Pub,” with a small “Open” sigh flashing beneath it. There are enough cars in the lot to tell Martin the place is busy tonight.
It doesn't matter. One person or a hundred people, it doesn't matter. As he walks to the door he sees his online bank statement blinking in his mind again. Thirty-eight dollars. Thirty-eight dollars.
He opens the door.
When he steps inside, before the door can shut, Jerry and Bruce spot him. Jerry waves him over to their table.
“Well look who it is, Mr. quiet psycho,” Jerry says. As the greeting leaves his mouth, he sees Martin's face. He tries to laugh off the psycho part and he slaps Martin on the shoulder and gives it a squeeze. He grins at Martin, and waves his free hand over toward one of the free seats at the table. “I'm glad you came buddy, I was a little worried about you when you left the site.”
“But we knew the free drink offer would be too good to pass up,” Bruce says. His eyes meet Jerry's and as Martin sinks into the booth, they raise their eyebrows at each other.
“Yeah, I knew the offer of a free drink would get you down here,” Jerry echoes.
“Turns out your offer was too good to pass up,” Martin says. The whiskey smell hits Jerry first, hard enough that he has to clear his throat as he sits down.
“So what's the word, Mr. Bell?” Bruce asks, just as Martin's breath hits him. He sees Martin's eyes, dilated and slow in their scanning. He sees Martin's head swaying slightly. Martin isn't usually the one to get wasted with the guys, especially in public. He tries to stop himself from asking his question but it's been ready to come out all evening and he is trying to remember the last time he saw Martin Bell drunk.
“What did they tell you in the office?” he asks.
Jerry chokes on his beer.
“Jesus, Bruce, the man just walked in. Chill out for a second. Marty, whatcha drinking tonight?”
“Something dark and strong,” Martin says.
Jerry lets out a single burst of forced laughter. “Just the way I like my women, Frank? Frank? Can we get a round of whiskey Cokes?” He waves again and calls out his order again. Frank, behind the bar, finally sees him and waves his acknowledgment.
“Oh we are gonna have fun tonight, boys. Martin freakin Bell is out, he looks ready to party, and this place is going to oblige him!”
“You guys get called in yet?” Martin asks.
The question takes the air out of Jerry's deflecting celebration.
“Nope, not yet. As of tonight we are still employed. Like we said, we're the friggin best. There is always room for the best, amen?”
“Amen!” Bruce yells.
Martin shrugs and drinks to that. He won't tell them he's been fired just yet. His quiet reaction after leaving the little corporate trailer powwow could have been a sign that he was angry, that he was frustrated, that he was fired. But he is always quiet. People often ask him if he is mad when he isn't mad, it is a vibe he gives off now. He was quiet but he was calm. He didn't throw anything, break anything, swear or scream or attack anyone, he simply walked to his car and drove away. In the tangled haze of his rage-filled whiskey thoughts, he decides to keep them in the dark a little while longer.
Bruce and Jerry slam their glasses down on the table and growl out the whiskey burn. Martin sets his glass down and sighs. As they slam their glasses down, the bell at the front door rings. Martin and Bruce can see who it is walking in. It is Shawn Mackay, Big Mack, scanning the room. The way the door swings over into the wall next to it, and the way Shawn is swaying from foot to foot, he is either angry or drunk. He looks a little like Martin.
His scanning stops at the bar and he stomps over and joins two other men there. He orders his first drink. He demands it, loudly. Martin watches him and smirks. He isn't the only one looking to retake some measure of power tonight.
“Oh Lord, here we go,” Bruce says.
Jerry turns to look.
“Big Mack,” he says, shaking his head. He turns back to the table. “He doesn't seem to be his normal, cheerful self tonight, does he?”
Martin and Bruce both nod, but Martin's eyes stay on Shawn longer than the others. He watches Shawn demand his drink, watches as his friends try to agree with everything he says and try not to anger him further. He watches as Shawn gulps down the drink and immediately demands another.
Bruce hits his beer again.
“Some guys can't handle doing their job and can't handle losing their job.”
“You ladies behave while I'm gone,” Jerry says, standing and grabbing his crotch, “I gotta take a piss.”
“Hurry back or you'll miss the circle-jerk,” Bruce calls after him.
Martin is still watching Shawn when he asks Bruce, “Hey man, does your wife still work at the DMV?”
“Yep, eleven years and she hasn't killed anyone yet.”
Martin glances sideways. He sees a red Cadillac swerving away from police cars.
“Is she allowed to look up license plates, like... track down a car's owner?”
Bruce puts his drink down. He is confused by the question, a little worried.
“Some guy cut you off on your way to work this morning or something?”
“No, nothing like that, it's just I...” Martin stops, his sober brain poking through. This is not the time to be asking these sorts of questions. He reconsiders and decides he probably shouldn't be drunk and pissed off when he tries to get his friend's wife to break the law for his own personal drug dealer hunt.
“Yeah, you know what?” he starts, “sorry, never mind. That can't be legal. Sorry I asked.”
“Now wait a minute,” Bruce says, putting his hands up. “I didn't say she couldn't do it. I don't really know, actually, but I can ask her. Just who is it we're hunting down, here?”
“No, no, forget it, it's stupid. I don't want to get Sheila in trouble. Forget I brought it up.”
Now Bruce is getting curious.
“Wait a second, wait... now Marty, is this search for... a woman's license plate number and address and maybe, I don't know, phone number, by chance?”
Martin smiles. Bruce offered a perfect alibi. Martin hadn't even considered an alibi, hadn't considered what excuse he was going to use for needing the license plate number looked up before asking the question. He shakes his head at how stupid he is. But Bruce's excuse works, he will take it.
“You saucy minx, you met a girl and didn't even get her number or anything, didn't you? Didn't you?”
“Well, you know, it all happened so fast, she was there and then she was gone. I saw her at Safeway and before I could...”
“Say no more, my friend, say no more.”
“I saw her license plate and it kind of just, stuck in my head, so...”
“She was good enough to get you memorizing license plate numbers? Heh, you got something stuck in your head.”
“Come on man, it's probably nothing. She's probably happily married with three kids and a dog and her husband is a underwear model doctor and she lives in a mansion.”
Bruce finishes off his beer and brings it down to the table like a judge with a gavel.
“It's fate, totally. I get it, dude, I totally get it!” Bruce laughs and slaps Martin on the back. “I love it, I friggin love it! Martin Bell, back on the prowl. Good for you, dude, after the couple of years you've had, good for you. My man, back on the hunt, I love it. Sounds like you're a little out of practice but you'll get it back. Those muscles never go away, it's like riding a bike. We'll solve this mystery. We'll find out who your Cinderella is.”
“You don't think a woman would find it weird, like I'm a stalker? Because I feel like a stalker.”
“Well that's because you are a stalker. All men are stalkers. We track, we hunt, we chase, we subdue. See the prey,” he picks up his whiskey and Coke, “catch the prey. Man shit, hell yeah. But you know what? Chicks dig it. Yeah they friggin dig it, dude, they love being chased. I say chase on, my friend. I'll find out what Sheila can do and let you know.”
“Thanks, man,” Martin says. The hum behind his eyes ebbs for a moment.
Shawn is getting louder. His ranting is spreading throughout the bar. He wants everyone to hear how abused he is, how stupid the people who fired him are. Bruce and Martin tune back in as the ranting grows. Everyone in the bar is tuning in, whether they want to or not.
“They think they're gonna find another man like me?” Shawn yells. He bangs an open hand into his chest two times. “Another badass tough-as-shit guy like me? Yeah good luck, there's no one in this shitty town who can hang with me. No one. No one in the state. Jim, tell me I'm wrong. Tell me I'm wrong, is there anyone who can out work me in this whole gay-ass state?”
Jim Kreuger, Shawn's friend, has stopped trying to shut him up. Jim is nodding and agreeing with everything he says to try to get him to calm down. The other man is Art Delper. Both men are putting hands on Shawn, trying to comfort and quiet him. They are trying to contain the fire. But when they touch him he smacks their hands away. Frank behind the bar has been through this many times. He is taking his time making drinks, and trying to be very cordial in the meantime.
Most faces in the bar have turned downward. Shawn's drunken ranting is destroying all of the conversations, and draining the fun from the dance floor. Smiles are fading, the chatter is gone, and the only two people still dancing are drunker than Shawn is.
There is one slightly happy face in the bar. No one sees it, but Martin is grinning. He is enjoying this. This is what he came for.
Shawn slams his beer bottle into the floor and a woman gasps when it shatters. The other people near the bar move away.
“I guess some people are too damn good. Some work so hard it makes other people look bad. Is it my fault that I'm the best damn employee they ever had?”
Jerry is headed back from the bathrooms. He hasn't been listening to the ranting and raving. He is walking in blind. As he passes the bar, Shawn is punctuating his last ranted sentence by waving his arms to the side. He touches Jerry's arm. He turns.
“Hey, you should probably watch yourself around me tonight, little man. You bump into me again and you might regret it.”
“Whoa, sorry Shawn, I didn't mean to,” Jerry says.
“Yeah you look sorry. You'll be sorry if you touch me again.”
Jerry waves an apologetic hand and continues back toward Martin and Bruce.
“Hey, I heard you still have your job there, Jerry. Is that true, Jerry? You still have your job?”
“So far, man, so far. But tomorrow? Who knows.”
“Yeah, who knows? Who knows? I know. You're gonna keep your job, Jerry, for sure. You know how I know?”
Shawn's friends know what's coming. They try to talk him off the ledge but Shawn isn't listening. This is what he came here for tonight, to release that anger on as many people as possible. He came to spread his pain and he finds his first easy target.
“Must be nice... being a Mexican. Sometimes it pays to be a little darker than the rest of us, hey Jerry?”
Jerry sits back down with Bruce and Martin. He doesn't care, he knows Shawn is drunk and is content to ignore him and let the flames burn themselves out. He's dealt with this most of his life, and he sees Shawn's friends are really moving in to help stop him now. They are making a much stronger effort to guide him toward the door and take him somewhere else.
“Yeah, you know it's true. No company wants to fire minorities. They're scared they'll get sued, scared you'll cry about how racist everyone is. How does that feel, knowing you will keep your job because you're brown?”
Before Jim and Art can get him to the door, Shawn shakes free of their grip. He steps forward, sensing a way into an altercation. Jerry isn't fighting back, but Shawn thinks he can change that if he keeps pushing. This is what Shawn came here for.
But this is also what Martin came here for.
“It's not his fault you got fired,” Martin says.
Shawn's voice had been such a dominant focus of everyone's attention that hearing Martin's voice, low and calm, silences the room. It breaks one tension and quickly replaces it with another. The question vibrates through the room: someone is actually going to engage with this monster? But the surprise that someone is going to stand up and the fear of what Shawn might do are replaced by a different fear. Martin's voice is lower, calmer, but somehow more intimidating than Shawn's loud drunken voice has been. There is a darkness in Martin's voice, in his posture, like the hooded hangman. He is the tiger, quietly crouched behind the squawking baboon.
“What was that?” Shawn asks.
“It's not his fault you got fired,” Martin says again, even calmer. He doesn't even look up from his beer this time.
Shawn steps forward. He waves toward the bar without looking.
“Hey Frank, turn that music off, we all need to hear something.”
“Come on, Shawn, we don't need to...”
“I said turn it off!” Shawn yells. He points and stares until Frank makes his way to the stereo deck. He turns the music down.
“Lower,” Shawn says.
Frank cuts the music completely.
“Better,” Shawn says. He takes a few more steps toward Martin's table.
“Now, what was it you were saying?”
“It's not Jerry's fault you got fired.”
“Is that right?”
“It's not his fault, it's not Frank's fault, it's not any of our faults. So maybe just, dial it down a little bit.”
Shawn relaxes. He straightens up and steps back, turning to the rest of the bar patrons with a smile. His shoulders shrug and a flash of true happiness crosses his face.
“Oh, thank you, not his fault, not your fault, no one's fault, got it. That is very helpful, Martin.”
Shawn has found what he's been looking for. He thinks he has found a vessel for his rage.
“So tell me, helpful little Martin, whose fault is it that I got fired?”
Martin turns in his chair to face Shawn. He looks up, calmly.
“Well, you could blame the market tanking. You could blame Wall Street, or the banks, or the politicians who caused it. You could blame Three Peaks Construction.”
“Oh I do,” Shawn says, “I do blame them, all of them. If they were here with us right now, I would let them know just how I feel.”
“Since they're not here, is any of this helping you feel better?”
Shawn steps closer.
“You know what? It's starting to.”
“Doesn't seem like it's helping much.”
“Well maybe since the bankers and brokers aren't here I can find someone else to feel my pain.”
“If you want to blame someone for your pain, there is really only one person to blame.”
Shawn steps closer, anticipating what is about to be said. He has been waiting all night, waiting for the starter pistol to go off and for someone to challenge him. In his mind, when challenged, fighting back would be necessary. It would be their fault for challenging. The beating he would put on them would be their fault. He didn't think that person would be Martin Bell. He is genuinely surprised at Martin, usually so soft spoken, and so much smaller, for being the guy to force the violence.
The guys around them stop and watch, also anticipating the shit that's about to go down. Marty is calm. He is numb from the alcohol, the helplessness, the shambles of his life. He isn't afraid because he doesn't care anymore. Shawn is just a shitty old TV that is ready to be shattered.
“It's your fault, Shawn. If you'd been worth keeping they would have kept you. If you were the best worker in the state, you'd still have a job. But when they looked at the bottom line and weighed their expenses against your worth, you came up...”
Martin holds up his thumb and forefinger so they measure about an inch apart. He closes one eye and aims the inch measurement at Shawn's head.
There is no stopping Shawn now. His rage overtakes him and he lunges at Martin at full speed. His hands slam into Martin's chest and he grips Martin's shirt while he pushes him backward into a wall. Martin's back slams into the wall with a nasty thud, and then he takes an overhand right to the face, just above his left eyebrow. A cut opens up and Shawn tries to hit him again but Martin goes down to one knee and Shawn's fist hits the wall above Martin's head. This doesn't slow him down and the next punch hits Martin in the back of the head.
Even though he knew what he was doing, the attack was still surprising. Martin's arms go up to his face at first, purely on instinct, but all they do is block his own vision of Shawn's punches. When the second punch lands on the back of his head, an old system reboots. Other than working as an assistant coach for a few years with the high school wrestling team, it has been a long time since Martin Bell shot a double leg take down, but here in the bar, down on one knee, the wrestler returns. He grabs Shawn's legs and tries to lift him. Shawn is six-foot three and over two hundred and thirty pounds. He now has a good layer of fat covering the systems of muscle and tendon that tie his body together, but he is still massive and strong. Even with the two solid punches to the head and the big size disadvantage, Martin's powerful lifting breaks Shawn's balance for a moment and he has to stop punching to regain it. He gets his balance back and continues dropping right hands. They are rabid, winging punches to the side of the body and down onto Martin's back.
Martin plants both feet and dives his shoulder and head into Shawn's hip. He winces slightly at the punches, but uses the opportunity to bull rush Shawn backwards into the edge of the bar, knocking over a few stools and sending the patrons scattering. Everyone moves outward to clear a central space for the men to fight. No one steps in to break it up. In this bar, everyone knows the drill.
After taking a few more blows to his ribs and back, Martin lets go of Shawn's legs. He arches his back and drives his head straight up and the back of his head crashes into Shawn's face with a crunch. Shawn grabs his nose and stumbles backward. He is stunned, but only for a moment, and once he sees his own blood on his fingertips, he charges back in, fists ready. This time, his fists will destroy Martin's face. This time, he aims to finish it. But this time, Martin is ready for the first punch. He ducks down under it, and as the punch scatters the air above Martin's head, Martin's shoulder slams into Shawn's pelvis. Shawn sprawls out over Martin's back, giving Martin the leverage he needs to get underneath Shawn and elevate him. He grabs handfuls of Shawn's pants and scoops both of Shawn's legs up. As Martin stands, Shawn folds around his back and shoulders and hangs in the air. Martin lifts him over his shoulder, and before Shawn can break free, he is hurtling through space toward a far corner of the bar. Martin runs him forward and slings him down, slamming him over a table and onto the bar's rough hardwood floors.
The crash silences the room. The patrons screaming and pleading with the men to stop cut out completely. There is no music playing, no one is talking, and a few horrified gasps rise and fall in the seconds before and after the slam. Then everyone and everything is quiet.
Except for Martin's fists.
The slam obviously knocked Shawn unconscious. He is motionless, except for the sudden jerking of his head from side to side as Martin mounts him and begins punching him in the face. Left hand, then right hand, then left, then right. After a few devastating punches, Martin clutches Shawn's throat with his left hand and punches only with his right. It is the only sound in the bar, the hard, cold smack of knuckles on flesh and bone. Martin's face is frozen in disconnected disgust. He get's at least five nasty shots in before Bruce and Jerry move in to pull him away. Martin has a cut over his eye brow from Shawn's first punch. It is bleeding down his cheek and jaw onto his neck and shirt, but he is on his feet, his chest heaving and his breaths hissing through his nose. Shawn is unconscious with his eyes open. He is missing a few teeth and has gashes over his nose and both eyebrows. His breathing is forced and raspy, and he sprays blood with each labored exhale.
The crowd is silenced by their change of mind. At first, hearing Martin speak up against a drunk and belligerent Shawn made them happy. It made them hopeful that maybe Martin would stop Shawn's tirade, one way or another. Then they felt fear for Martin as the two squared off and faced each other. Martin, being so much shorter and generally smaller, shouldn't have stood a chance. Their fears were realized when it seemed that Shawn would make quick work of Martin. Then Martin surprised them again by holding his own, and again by taking the fight back to Shawn. But no one was ready for the body slam. No one was ready for the sound of Shawn's head hitting the floor, or of his ribs breaking. No one was ready for the sounds he made. While they were processing the violence of the slam, they realized they were even less prepared for the violent snapping of Shawn's head from side to side as each new punch connected. The sprays of blood, the moans from Shawn, and maybe most disturbing, Martin's cold face and silent rage. He didn't make a sound, didn't growl or yell, just stared down at his opponent.
When Bruce and Jerry pulled Martin away, and the crowd could see, unobstructed, the extent of the beating, they couldn't help but feel sorry for Shawn. Martin had broken him. The way he was lying on the floor, one arm twitching at his side and the other waving limply in the air for help, the crowd couldn't hate him anymore. He looked as though Martin had ruined him, like he would never be the same. Any cheering, out loud or internal, stopped.
When the police arrive, Martin doesn't resist the handcuffs. He doesn't see the eyes of the people watching the cops take him away. He doesn't see the fear in their eyes, the confusion at this suddenly revealed secret violence, this hidden rage they'd never known. When the officer pushes Martin's head down into the cruiser and closes the door, Jerry and Bruce are there yelling words at him. They are asking him if they should call someone, a lawyer, or maybe Victoria?
Martin doesn't hear them. The hum in his head is gone. Now, he hears nothing.
He writes his name on a form an officer slides over to him during processing. He stands for his mug shots, follows the directions. He quietly rubs his wrists when they remove his handcuffs and close him into the holding cell with five other guys. He doesn't hear the first questions from the other inmates. When they see he isn't going to respond to their questions, they return to their seats and go back to their conversations.
Martin's eyes aren't seeing shapes. Everything is a smear mixed in with everything else around it. His life has been soaked and smudged together. Nothing is singular now, it has all fallen to his anger. In the blur, across the cell, is a bright red and orange spot. He can't make out the form, but the colors bring him back to earlier in the night. Red and orange? The thought creeps in, around the chaos and rage. Didn't I see red and orange earlier tonight?
The red and orange smudge shifts. It swirls at the corners and becomes a little clearer.
Red and orange clothes on a person. Martin is nearly there. The figure shifts again and he can see dyed blonde hair. He knows that isn't what he saw before, he saw a big red and black hat. The police must have taken his hat. When he looks down the memory twists into sudden, sharp focus. The figure is wearing a bright white shoe. One bright white shoe and one dirty white sock.
It is the kid from the parking lot, the gangster peacock. The kid is looking down at his hands as they twist and writhe in his lap. The bright white shoe is tapping manically on the cement.
It's the drug dealer's friend from Tuco's.
Martin looks down at his own hands. They are bruised and bloody. There is a gash on his knuckle, probably from Shawn's teeth. He reaches up to his swollen eyebrow. He brings the finger tips back into view and they are wet with fresh blood.
Bruised, bloody, his body coming down from the adrenaline high into the aching pains across his face and arms and legs, Martin sits back against the cement wall of the holding cell and smiles.
Martin closes his apartment door and drops his keys and wallet on the counter. He checks his phone. No new messages, so the phone joins the keys and wallet. He pulls off his work boots and drops them in the garage. The other pieces come off as he makes his way to the bathroom.
He showers quickly. He doesn't stand under the water and let it slowly burn through the dirt and sweat of the day. He grabs a wash cloth and the bar of soap and gets to work, scrubbing and rinsing before the water is fully warmed. By the time steam begins to build up in the little bathroom, Martin has already scrubbed a few beads of shampoo through his hair and washed it down the drain in swirling light brown surges. He scrubs his face and shuts the water off. He is toweled off and in his closet looking through the few remaining clean shirts he has kept since the move in less than five minutes.
He finds a shirt, a green and white button down he can wear with his one clean pair of jeans. He grabs socks, his second to last pair of clean underwear, and a pair of black boots. Between shower time and dressing time, he is at seven minutes. He walks back out into the living room. He passes the unfinished bookshelf. He used to feel an urgency whenever passing it, a sense of guilt that he needed to finish the shelf and load the books and be done with it. Tomorrow, he kept thinking. The guilt about putting the task off again and again peaked one night after coming home from a site. He walked by the book shelf, its plastic bag of screws and posts shining like garbage on the side of a road, the books stacked in uneven, toppling heaps, and the black particle board shelves accordioned together like the collapsed floors of a building. He walked by for the hundredth time and felt nothing. The guilt left him. The need for impending construction and organization died and a sheet of glad acceptance slid across the thoughts as if over the body of a dead man.
Now, walking into the kitchen, he doesn't even see it.
The boxes lined up and stacked on the wall opposite followed. A brief and sudden drive pushed him to set up the entertainment center enough to hold his giant cubic mass of a TV, along with the small DVD player which went on the shelf below. He got the organizing bug long enough to set the player on its shelf but not enough to hook it up. It sits beneath the bowing boards that support the TV, the red power light destined to stay dim.
In the kitchen, Martin surveys a different scene: random items run the length of the counter and the full width and length of his dining table and its chairs. There is a bowling ball, blue and red swirled, beside a toaster and another stack of books. There are CDs and an old laptop. At the edge of the counter top, partly hanging out over the living room, is a dark leather belt with two sheathed knives.
Martin grabs the space heater and wraps the cord around it, looping it back through itself at the top. He wants it to look small and compact and neat, like it would be easily stored and easily retrieved when needed. He wants it to look ready to use. There is a sticky note on the counter in front of it. $40. Martin needs the heater to look like it's worth $40. He really needs that amount.
Martin grabs his keys and wallet and stuffs them into his back pocket. He reaches for the door but stops. He tucks the heater under his left arm so he can pick up the knife belt with his right. The leather is soft and engraved with crosshatches and zig zags and flowery swirls every few inches. The belt was handmade by someone with real skill. Two handles extend from the sheaths. They are curved, smooth deer antler, the safer end of decorative and custom made hunting knives. The handles were once nearly white but have been yellowed by weather and use. Martin pulls the leather to his face and breathes. He takes in the old smell, takes in the memories that come with it. He pulls one of the knives from its sheath and tilts it in the low light from the apartment's front windows. He pulls the blade up his forearm, severing a small forest of hairs with ease. Seeing the blade in the light of evening reminds him of the hides the blade has been through, the organs it separated, the flesh it removed.
At the base of the blade there is an inscription:
“It's about the chase -love, dad.”
He sheaths the knife and places the belt back on the counter. He sighs at the sticky note underneath it. $100.
He really needs this money.
He locks the door after he leaves.
Martin's truck pulls into a driveway. As he gets out of the truck, the front door to the house bursts open and a smiling ten-year-old girl comes running out.
“Daddy, daddy!! Happy birthday, daddy!!”
She runs and leaps, knowing he will catch her and pull her into a long, strong hug.
“Thank you, Hilly Bee!” Martin says, growling into the hug. He holds her, shakes her back and forth, and they laugh when he puts her down and a few strands of hair get caught in the stubble on his chin.
Once free from his spiky chin hair, Hillary grins.
“I made you something, daddy. It's something special for your birthday!”
“For me? For my birthday?” Martin asks, looking around as if confused. He puts a hand on his chin and squints, “Is it my birthday?”
“Daddy, of course it is your birthday. How could you forget your own birthday?”
“That's what happens when you get old, Hill,” Juliette says, still texting as she approaches. She shuffles up to Martin without looking away from the phone. She is being forced to celebrate Martin's birthday. She is leaving the home she prefers and the parent she prefers and the phone time with friends she prefers to eat pizza with her little sister and her father and pretend to care about his surviving another year on earth.
“And a good evening to you, too, m'lady,” Martin says, bowing. He swings his arms out in a wide arc and turns his face toward the ground. Hillary loves it, giggling and bowing in return. Juliette looks up from her phone enough to close her eyes and shake her head.
“Hey, no eye rolls on my birthday,” Martin says.
“Yeah,” Hillary echoes, “no eye rolls on daddy's birthday. Dad, dad, she still has her phone!”
Juliette doesn't roll her eyes. She turns her head toward Hillary and bunches her lips together. Martin holds out his hand and exasperation rolls through Juliette's entire body all the way down to her feet, which look for a second as if they might start stomping the ground in protest. Martin stops smiling at the sight of a near tantrum from his sixteen-year-old daughter.
Juliette contains her tantrum. But she grips her phone, knowing she screwed up letting it be visible. She has broken a long-held rule from a rule book of which she is not a fan.
“She's right, you know the drill,” Martin says, extending his hand.
“Jesus Christ! How about her phone?” Juliette asks.
Despite her blasphemy, she gives up the phone without another word. She does, in fact, know the drill, and she knows arguing the point will only infuriate her and make the evening that much more difficult to bear.
Martin's brow furrows. He is confused by Juliette's question, “What about her phone?” He looks back to Hillary.
“What about her phone?” he asks.
“You mean,” Hillary begins, reaching deep into one of the pockets in her overalls. It takes her a few seconds to push past the random scraps of paper and Kleenex and the troll doll she forgot she put in there, but she finds what she is looking for and her hand appears, triumphant, holding a shiny new smart phone.
She giggles with delight.
“Where did you...” Martin starts, before he is interrupted by her singing.
“I have my own cell phone, I have my own cell phone, mwuhahahaaaa!”
“I know, right?” Juliette says, handing Martin her phone. “Finally, you and I are in agreement, what the hell?”
“Hey, easy with that,” Martin says, to another eye roll.
“My very own phone with my very own case. Look dad, look at the case. I picked it out, pink and purple with diamonds. Isn't it so awesome?”
Martin takes it from her carefully. He turns it over and over in his hands. He holds it up in the last minutes of sunlight, seeming to inspect every part of it with supreme interest. He lets his jaw drop open and his eyes go wide.
“Holy... moly... it IS so awesome! It is so awesome it is going in my pocket with your sister's phone. You don't think they'll fight in there, do you?”
Hillary doesn't even care, she is just excited to have her own phone and to have it taken away, just like her big sister. She feels very proud of her own maturity.
“Maybe on one of our nights out together we can have a super fun cell phone night. No talking aloud, no real interaction, only texts and emails... we can spend the evening looking up Justin Bieber facts and sending selfies to each other.”
“Can't wait,” Juliette says.
Victoria, late thirties, makes her way down the walkway from the house. She steps beside Martin but keeps a noticeable distance.
“Have fun, girls, be nice to the birthday boy,” she says.
“I love you, mommy,” Hillary says, rushing in for a final hug.
“I'll see you tonight,” Victoria replies, returning the hug and adding a kiss to the top of Hillary's head.
“You sure you don't want to come with us?” Juliette grins.
Victoria grins back and forces a hug from Juliette. She waves goodbye to her daughters as they climb into Martin's truck. Once the girls are inside, she takes one more step toward him.
“Hey, I hate to keep bringing it up, but the deadline for Juliette's Portland trip is coming up.”
“Do you? Do you hate bringing it up? It seems to me that you love bringing it up.”
“I do hate bringing it up.”
“How many times have you told me about the deadline in the last two weeks?”
“Don't be an ass.”
Martin smiles and turns toward Victoria. She is waving at the girls, and she tries to keep a smile on her face as Martin speaks:
“Me? How about I'm a grown man who understands how calendars and money work. How about this is me telling you, for the last time, that I'll have the money for her trip on time, even before the deadline, and the next time you ask me about it I'm going to ignore you? How's that?”
“Wow,” Victoria says, losing the smile for a split second, 'okay, okay, I'm sorry. You're right, you've proven over and over again that you are totally reliable and never need to be reminded about anything. How could I be so rude?”
“I don't know how you can be so rude.”
“Just get in the truck, Martin.”
“Oh, am I the reason we're still out here arguing? All you had to say was 'happy birthday, Martin, have fun with the girls.' But you just can't help yourself.”
“Fine, have a great night.”
“And maybe you should consider telling me when you're thinking about giving our daughter her own cell phone. Didn't you think maybe that would be something I would want to know, that maybe I would have some input on the matter?”
“Everyone her age has their own phone, Martin.”
“She's ten!” Martin says, eyes wide, leaning in.
“It's how things are now.”
“Oh yeah, ten-year-olds with their own phones and unlimited internet access?”
“Everyone has a phone, it is where the world is headed, Martin. She is safer with a phone, she'll have fun with her phone, I don't see what the problem is.”
Martin drops his arms to his sides. He hadn't realized they were rising, that he was balling up his fists, until they suddenly relax. He glances back at the girls as they watch him from the truck. Hillary waves at him to get a move on.
“Okay, well, I'm going to go now. Thanks for the continued respect, as always.”
Victoria is done. She has done this too many times before and remembers she divorced him so she wouldn't have to have these conversations. Her face softens and she starts to walk back toward the house. Just before stepping up on the front porch, she turns.
“Happy birthday, Martin.”
There is nothing more to say. She turns and disappears into the house. Martin opens his mouth to shout after her, but he, too, remembers that they aren't married anymore. He has no power here, like every other area of his life. His mouth closes into clenched fury. He is having trouble holding all of the fury in. The seals are cracking. He isn't sure how much longer he wants to hold it all in.
His head is down as he walks to the truck. He straightens up before he gets to his door, but not soon enough. Juliette locks eyes with him as he opens the door. She watched the scene unfold and she lets him know. It is a scene she witnessed many times as their daughter. It goes into the large file of “fights between mom and dad.”
As Martin starts the truck and clicks in his seat belt, she lets him know she saw everything.
“That looked like fun,” she says.
“Happy birthday to me,” Martin replies, throwing the truck into gear. “Now who's ready for some pizza?”
The truck backs out of the driveway to the sound of Hillary screaming about her love and readiness for pizza. The tires screech as Martin punches the gas peddle, and they rumble down the street. Martin looks at the clock. 5:22. Perfect timing. He looks to the passenger side floor board. The little space heater is sitting there, ready to make him some money. With only those two dollars sitting in his wallet, he knows he needs to get the full amount in cash right now.
“Do you girls mind if we make a quick stop on the way to pizza?” Martin yells into the windshield.
“Do we have a choice?” Juliette mumbles.
“Not if you want to eat,” Martin says, smiling at Juliette in the rear view mirror.
Martin looks down at his phone again. He sees that, according to the directions, the next right turn should be Frankfurt and he memorizes the house number.
“Daddy, you're not supposed to use your phone while you drive,” Hillary says.
“I thought we weren't supposed to use phones at all on our magical wonderful super special days out with dad,” Juliette says.
The truck pulls up to a large, newer house next to other large, newer houses. There aren't many cars parked on the street. Martin imagines the two and three-car garages are probably full of BMWs and the latest Lexus and Cadillac SUVs. The ones that are parked on the street were made by Audi and BMW.
Martin parks behind a shining black Audi.
“Stay in the truck, girls, I'll be right back.”
“Whose house is this, dad?” Hillary asks, looking at the wide ground-level front window and the towering roof line more than two stories up.
“Hopefully a woman who wants to buy a small space heater,” Martin says.
Martin approaches the door with the heater tucked under his arm like a football. The doorbell is a delicate, melodious chime that sings through the whole house. A small dog barks, and after a few moments a figure appears in the treated glass. The figure scoops up the dog and opens the door.
“Hi, I'm Martin, did you call about a space heater on craigslist?”
When the first two words leave the woman's mouth, Martin knows it is the same woman from the phone earlier. She is even still battling the little dog who challenged their phone conversation. Martin looks down at the dog's growling, floppy jowls and sees a personalized dog collar. “Brutus.”
“Yes, yes, yes, hi, thank you for coming by, thank you. Please excuse Brutus, he is a very tough and vicious killer.”
She continues talking to the dog as Martin speaks. It is obvious who is more important here.
“Yes he is. Well here is the heater if you want to take a look at it. You can plug it in and make sure it works, if you like.”
“Yes, yes, yes, that looks great. Let me just take Brutus back to his room. I'll be right back.”
Martin is not excited about waiting for this woman to tend to her stupid dog. She is wasting his time. He is wondering why she, knowing he was coming over to show her the heater, didn't plan ahead to put the dog away in the first place. He looks back to the truck and waves to the girls. Hillary waves back excitedly. Juliette does not. Martin gives a thumbs up and turns back to the door. He can hear the woman talking to the dog. It is crazy dog-person talk, lots of questions about how cute the dog is, how smart and silly the dog is, infuriating things to someone who doesn't have a dog and whose precious family time is being wasted.
“Yes, yes, yes, so sorry about that. Brutus can be very demanding. Now, looking at the heater it is smaller than I thought it would be, and the picture made it look, I don't know... darker? I'm not sure it is the right tone for my room.”
The woman takes the heater and turns it over and over in her hands.
“Well it could definitely be painted, and it is small but it pumps out a lot of heat, a surprising amount of heat.”
She looks briefly at Martin, at his pants and then his shirt.
“Maybe for you, but I have some very tall ceilings in my guesthouse. It would have its work cut out for it.”
The tall ceilings of your guesthouse? Martin thinks to himself. He also thinks about his hands around the woman's throat. Instead, he considers her house, and her view of him. She sees some lower class male, some guy, some construction worker or some other form of dirty day laborer and enjoys exerting power. Martin imagines her buying items from Best Buy just so she can enjoy the pleasure of asking for a manager and complaining the manager into humble submission. Martin sees her husband off running some successful business while she terrorizes the daytime staffs of every retail store in a ten mile radius.
He changes his tactics.
“Well, yeah, I understand. If it's not for you then it's not for you, that's okay.”
He reaches out for it, silently demanding that she give it back.
“Well let me look at it for a second,” she says. She turns so the light from the front door's stained glass peering windows dances across the wrapped cord and the dark blue metal.
“Hey, if it's not what you want it's not what you want,” Martin says.
The woman pulls the heater against her chest.
“It's not the ideal color or size, but you came all this way. I can give you $30 for it.”
Martin tries to hold strong.
“Well, I have someone else interested in it, you were just first in line. She offered me $40 so I kind of need $40.”
“Yes, yes, yes, I see. Well that's too bad, it is a cute little heater.”
Her shifts between unpleasable aristocrat and considerate customer makes Martin want to grab the heater and throw it through her seventy-inch flatscreen TV. She has more than enough money to pay the asking price for the heater. Forty dollars is nothing to her, but she enjoys watching Martin bargain. She is watching him battle his own thoughts, one foot in the door and one foot out and ready to run. Martin knows she doesn't really need the heater, not this particular heater, not from him, but she does like playing with people. He can see her eyes, see that the control is fun for her. These are probably her hobbies: her stupid dog, Brutus, and manipulating people in whatever ways she can. She enjoys the power shift, especially against a big, strong man. She doesn't have to budge on price, so either she gets it for the price she wants, or the man in front of her begs and pleads for more money that she isn't going to give and then leaves, a failure. Whatever happens, she wins.
She is still holding the heater when their eyes meet. She smiles. Martin flinches.
“You know what? You seem like a nice lady, and selling it to you gets the heater off my hands. How about we meet in the middle, $35?”
She shakes her head and smiles.
“You know, holding it and seeing it up close, I really think $30 is my final price.”
Martin can feel the Italian marble stone beneath his feet. He can smell the incense burning from her small yoga studio where she probably hosts friends and a private yoga instructor. He can hear Brutus growling in a back room, a solid gold heart-shaped name plate tinkling on the chain attaching it to his premium leather collar. She is clutching the heater with her bony, ringed fingers, the diamonds sparkling in the light, taunting him. At any other time on any other night, he tells himself he would tell this woman to go fuck herself.
But the girls are in the truck just outside.
“Alright,” he says, clapping his hands together once and loud, “$30 it is.”
The woman smiles.
“Oh really? Wonderful, thank you so much. Brutus will be thrilled.”
Martin watches her switch the heater to her left arm so she can dig into a pocket with her right. She pulls out a ten dollar bill and a twenty. It is obvious those two bills were the only bills in her pocket. She knew that would be the price.
“Have a lovely day,” she says.
Before Martin can answer her, the door is closing. Once closed, he can hear her conversation with Brutus strike up again. He sighs, placing the money in his wallet. Thirty-two dollars should get him through dinner and dessert.
When he gets back in the truck, Juliette is ready. She watched the interaction play out and she has a pretty good idea of how it went down.
“Well did she buy it, daddy?” Hillary asks.
“She sure did,” Martin says.
“Did you get your asking price?” Juliette asks. She knows the answer.
“I got enough for pizza!” Martin announces to Hillary's delight.
“Figures,” Juliette says. Hillary cheers again for the idea of pizza. She chants it in a long crescendo, pizza, pizza, and Juliette settles back into her seat. She folds her arms and frowns out the window. She is afraid her dad doesn't have enough self awareness or respect to be hurt by her statements. She wants him to feel the sting of his failures. She feels he deserves it, and she wants to make him feel the way splitting up their family made her feel.
Martin does a decent job hiding the pain her words cause him, but he is deeply affected by her barbs. Her barbs are different from the barbs of an ex-wife. Hers are much more painful, as he wants her respect and admiration far more than he wants Victoria's.
Martin and the girls sit at a table in a nearly empty pizza place. It is a Wednesday evening, apparently not the wildest time for Pepe's Pizza Parlor. The red tiled floor screams for action, for children to run excitedly across it from the pizza counter to the video games to the indoor play place. But without throngs of screaming children, the bright tiles seem absurd, the flashing lights and blinking buzzers from the arcade seem out of place, offensive. The parlor is telling him to have fun, screaming at him to have a good time, without providing any real entertainment.
But Hillary is smiling and so Martin smiles.
Martin sits at the table Hillary picks out and watches her run to get the napkins and drinks. It is his birthday, he isn't supposed to do any of the work. That's what Hillary told him in the parking lot. There is young couple in one corner, and one other family with small children a few tables away. The parents reflect a state of being Martin can understand. They don't look at each other. They don't speak except to tell one of their children to stop doing whatever dangerous or destructive thing they are doing. Martin is having a hard time ignoring the oldest boy, maybe six years old, who is rhythmically banging his empty plastic cup on the table. He has managed to spill the last of the bright orange substance he is supposed to be drinking all over his lap and seat. Now, each time he bangs the cup into the table, the last tiny bubbles of sugary soda spray out onto the table and the boy's arm and hand, while his mother tries to manage the two other younger siblings.
Hillary's voice slowly re-enters Martin's consciousness.
“And if I have the best animal mask I win a lunch with my teacher in the teacher's lounge!”
Clunk... clunk... clunk.
“I think I should make a giraffe mask because I don't think that anyone else would think to make a giraffe mask and giraffes are awesome and weird and cool.”
Clunk... clunk... clunk.
“But I don't think I can make a giraffe mask by myself. Do you think you could help me, daddy?”
Clunk... clunk... clunk.
“Daddy? Dad, are you listening?”
“Martin!!” Juliette snaps.
The mother finally clicks back into reality and grabs the cup from her son. She whispers for him to stop it, something about not getting ice cream if he doesn't stop. She refills his cup with soda.
“What's that, sweetie? Giraffes?” Martin says.
“Wow, dad, you really need to work on your listening skills.”
She passes him his drink. The Pepsi is still crackling and the carbonation sends a spray of Pepsi particles down onto the back of his hand. He takes three gulps through the straw.
“Sorry, Hill, I was just thinking about... all that delicious ice cream we're going to be eating after this.”
“Why aren't you eating any pizza?” she asks.
“You know, I'm just... I'm just not that hungry.”
Martins stomach twists and gurgles beneath the table. He hasn't eaten anything since his one burrito and bag of carrots at eleven thirty. He is starting to feel the headache slither behind his eyes and sharpen its claws.
“Saving room for ice cream?”
“That's it, Hilly, I'm saving room for ice cream.”
Hillary smiles. She decides to ask him about the giraffe mask later and instead starts fishing in one of her other overall pockets. She finds what she is looking for.
“I have a surprise for you, daddy. It's a super secret and special birthday surprise, just for you. You have to close your eyes.”
“A birthday surprise, huh?”
Martin closes his eyes.
“Now hold out your hand,” she says, her hands behind her back, her feet rocking back and forth from heels to toes. Martin holds out his hand and shows that he is trying to peak and see what his surprise will be.
“No peaking!” Hillary scolds.
He shuts them again and fights back a smile. Hillary pulls out a bracelet made of lanyards and beads. The beads are spaced evenly across the back of the bracelet, D – A – D – D – Y, with a heart bead at both ends end. She places the bracelet gently into his hand.
“Surprise! Happy birthday!”
Martin opens his eyes. The lanyard bracelet sparkles up at him. It's a silly thing, all florescent lanyard and shiny beads with big bubble letters and sparkles on the hearts. It's a monstrous and loud and ridiculous and bright and happy and dancing with the boisterous love he has only ever seen from little Hillary. He can see her smile in the beads, hear her laughter in the click of the plastic pieces.
“Wow, that's amazing,” his whispers. Juliette looks up from her pizza when she hears the subtle wavering in his voice. “Where did you buy this?”
“I made it,” Hillary says. She opens her arms wide, an unofficial abracadabra.
“What? You made this yourself? No way, I can't even believe that.”
Martin is playing it up, but he can't actually believe that she made it. Not like this, not this fitting, not this perfectly... her.
“I made it all by myself at school. The lanyards are red and black, your favorite colors, and I added pink because that's my favorite color, and it says 'daddy' because, duh, you're my daddy.”
Juliette is seeing the bracelet for the first time, too. She agrees with Martin, it looks like someone made it after getting perfect instructions from Martin's psyche. She heard his voice waver before, and now, after Hillary's all-too-adorable explanation, Juliette looks to Martin's eyes to see his reaction.
She wants to see tears.
“It's,” he starts. He has to take another breath and slow his mind down. “It's really, really beautiful, Hilly Bean.”
Juliette grabs her slice of pizza and takes a bite to hide her smile.
Hillary jumps forward and takes the bracelet. She wraps it around Martin's right wrist. Martin can't stop the surge in his heart now. He is going to lose his job. He is going to lose the only source of income he has known since he was fifteen. He had to sell a space heater and made barely enough money to buy his little girls pizza and ice cream. One of those little girls, only ten years old, took time at school to put real thought and care into a gift for him on his birthday. She picked out the parts. She put them together herself, to be kind, to make him happy.
For a moment, Martin feels like he will be able to hold back the tears. He will have to sneak a wipe or two on his sleeve, or slip away to the bathroom for a few minutes. But when Hillary wraps the lanyards around his massive wrists and the bracelet isn't big enough to tie off, the first tear streaks down his cheek and falls on the tacky checkered table.
“I love it, Hill,” he says.
“Oh no, it doesn't reach, daddy. It doesn't fit.”
“It's not perfect. It's too small. How are you going to wear it if it's too small?”
Martin pulls her head into his chest and kisses it. Two more tears slide down his cheeks and disappear into the sandy blonde hair.
“It is perfect, Hillary. It is beautiful and perfect just like you.”
Juliette notices his tears.
“Don't worry, I didn't get you anything. No tears necessary.”
Martin doesn't let the barb sting.
“Well that's okay, I guess I will just have to love Hillary more from now on.” He sniffs hard and wipes his sleeve across his eyes one by one. He pulls Hillary in for one more hug and kiss. “Hey Hill, do you want to be my favorite daughter?”
“Daddy! That is terrible.”
“Fine by me,” Juliette says.
“Are you sure, Jules? I don't think fathers give their second favorite daughters hundreds of dollars for trips to the beach and theaters and Portland medical schools.”
Juliette takes the pizza away from her mouth. She opens it to speak but nothing comes out. That's it, Martin thinks. He is happy for a little leverage on the moody teenager. Juliette's face softens for the first time all night. He actually caught her off guard.
“What? I thought mom was paying for that.”
“Nope, yours truly. First off, you're welcome. Second, you might want to be a little nicer to me. At least for a little while. When is the trip, two weeks?”
Juliette nods, then shakes her head.
“It is like four hundred bucks, are you sure you can...” her voice trails off.
“I do have a job, you know,” Martin says, “where I, like... make money and stuff. It's not a lot of money, but...”
“Not as much as mommy!” Hillary says.
“Right you are, Hillary, thank you, not as much as mommy.”
“And not as much as Saxon!” she says, laughing.
“Hillary!” Juliette shouts. Her rebuke is sudden and loud and harsh. The couple in the corner look up from their pizza. The little boy stops banging his once again empty cup and his mother looks over, stunned. Martin sees what has happened. Hillary has spilled some secret that has been discussed, a secret he is not welcome into. By the way Juliette is looking at Hillary, and the way Hillary's head is hanging down over her discarded pizza crusts, the secret was important.
“Well... I don't know who that is, but I think it's a safe bet that you're probably right, I probably don't make as much money as... who was it, Saxon? Saxon? But don't worry, I make enough. Yes, I am going to pay for it, and I should have it for you on Saturday.”
Juliette finally pulls her flogging eyes from Hillary's shamed face. Her look softens again, knowing her broke father is paying for her trip to Portland and he now knows there is some other man, Saxon, in his daughters' lives who makes a lot of money.
“Four hundred dollars is a lot of tiny heaters,” she says.
“It is, I know. It's been hard, having to dig into my tiny heater reserves. I've had to part with some really nice heaters, thanks to you, heaters I had for a very long time. Heaters that I respected. Heaters that I loved.”
Hillary giggles. Juliette cracks a smirk. She knows her dad doesn't have a lot of money, and for a moment she is truly grateful and thanks him.
“But I know the trip is important to you, and I have no idea why you would want to watch an actual surgery, watch someone get cut open, tinkered with, and then sewn back up...”
“They cut people open and sew them back up?” Hillary gasps.
“Sorry Hillary, but it's okay, they do it to help people. Sometimes things break and a doctor goes in to fix it.”
“It is kind of gross,” he says, nodding to Hillary. He looks at Juliette. “You want to cut people open?”
“It's actually really great, Hillary. Your sister wants to help people and that's... really cool.”
“Daddy, can we stop talking about this?”
“I guess. What do you want to talk about? How cool Saxon is?”
“I can't believe she said that. I'm sorry, dad.”
Martin doesn't miss the end of the sentence: dad.
“Hey, it's fine, who your mom hangs out with is up to her. It's good to know that you think he is cool. I'm glad, I'm happy for her.”
“He is really nice, and he is smart.”
“And he is really funny. He is even funnier than you, dad.”
“Easy, okay, it's my birthday. Is your other present just to make me feel bad all night?”
Hillary giggles again.
“I'm about to start talking about cutting people open again.”
“Noooo!” Hillary whines.
“Saxon, huh? What kind of stupid name is...”
Juliette sighs. She is too tired of this. He relents.
“Well, if you like him and your mom likes him then he must be a pretty cool guy.”
Hillary shoves the last of her pizza into her mouth and mumbles through the cheese and crust.
“Maybe you can meet him sometime.”
Martin grabs Juliette's last piece of pizza from her hand and chomps it greedily down.
Hillary, Juliette, and Martin are rumbling along in his truck. They each have their own ice cream cone. Martin turns on the radio. It is country music.
“How is your ice cream, daddy?” Hillary chirps, her hands covered in the melting dribbles of vanilla ice cream.
“Oh, so good, the best I've ever eaten as a 39-year-old.”
“This is the first ice cream you've had as a 39-year-old.”
“Ugh, no country music, please,” Juliette interjects. “Change the channel before I kill myself.”
Martin starts switching stations. On one channel, a news update is being played. The news anchor tells a story about local authorities pulling over two men in a vehicle and finding over a half a million dollars in drugs, guns, and cash in the trunk.
“You just turned thirty-nine, dad, so this is...”
Martin shushes her and turns up the volume. The men were pulled over for the cracks in their windshield. Once stopped, the officers found bullet holes in the glass and in the passenger door. The anchor finishes the story by relaying the authorities' guess about the men's activity: drug runners from California.
When the story is over, AC/DC begins to play. Martin turns the volume back down.
“What happened, dad?” Hillary asks. “What was the story about?”
Half a million dollars? Martin wonders.
“Nothing,” he says, “nothing important. Just some bad people getting caught doing bad things.”
Hillary keeps her questions to herself for the rest of the drive home. As Martin pulls the truck into Victoria's driveway, the front porch lights up and the front door opens. Martin kills the headlights and Victoria waves from the front door.
“Bye, daddy! Happy birthday!” Hillary says. She waits for him to slide out of the driver's seat so she can grab him around the waist and growl hug him again. The two twist back and forth for a few seconds as Victoria makes her way off of the front porch onto the driveway.
“Happy birthday, dad,” Juliette says. She doesn't ask for a hug, but her tone has changed. For Martin, it is better than a hug. “Come on, Hill, let's go inside.”
“Thank you, girls, I'll see you on Saturday.”
The girls make their way toward the front door, but Hillary pulls herself from Juliette's grasp and turns, running back to Martin. She throws herself face first into his stomach and hugs him tight. Martin picks her up and returns the squeeze.
“Don't be sad, daddy,” Hillary whispers. “You can't be sad on your birthday.”
“Is that the birthday rule?” Martin asks.
Hillary nods. She pulls away but then goes in for another hug, one more. Martin's eyes pick up the shine they had in the pizza parlor and he kisses her head and puts her down hoping she won't notice. She returns to her sister and they greet Victoria at the door. The girls disappear into the house and Victoria looks, for a moment, as if she will wave to Martin. The moment passes and she, too, disappears into the house.
As Martin gets back into the truck and backs out into the street, he sees the bracelet Hillary made him sitting in one of the cup holders. A cup holder is no place for this precious work of art and love. He hangs it from the rear view mirror, the letters facing out. He stares at it, stares at every detail of every bead and twist of lanyard and sparkle on the hearts. He doesn't have to fight the tears now, but he does. His lips quiver. He holds it all in. He closes his eyes against the rising sound in his throat and his fists turn to stone on the steering wheel. He loses the fight for a moment and a sob blasts suddenly out of his mouth. He bites down. He tries to take a deep breath in through his nose and hold it but his body is locked. He knows when he breathes out he will probably break down. He will cry and sob and rip the truck apart in his rage. As his lungs burn and his mind begins to scream for air, he prepares.
A car honk breaks his trance and brings him back. A pair of headlights shine at him from his rear view mirror. He stopped in the middle of the street, and now, seeing someone behind him, he speeds off toward home.
Martin Bell is sitting in a faded blue recliner, a hardcover book about the arctic laid out on his lap to support the slow scribblings of his pen on a folded newspaper. He is staring, number twelve across, five letters, “to act under a heavy burden.” He presses his pen into the first square. The answer should be “labor,” but that would mean eight down couldn't be “dilemma.” He looks again to the index. Eight down, “Crisis.” Using Dilemma fits with twenty-five across, but Martin is leery about the chances that there is a word for “acting under a heavy burden” that ends with an “I.” Twenty-one across doesn't help because he doesn't know the “one-eyed time-traveling Marvel mutant.” He picks the pen back up and considers what eight down might be if twelve across is “labor.” He looks back to one down and questions his answer there, too. “Predict,” four letters, could be a lot of things.
The pen digs into the paper. He presses harder here than he has in the other boxes and the letters stand out in the puzzle. He looks to eight down and considers what sort of word conveys a crisis and has “R” for a second letter. It could be “problem,” he decides. It has seven letters and there are seven spaces, but “problem” would change twenty-five across.
Martin's fingers tighten around the pen. While considering the three intersecting words, his eyes can't ignore how much darker “labor” is than the rest of the words in the puzzle. It's bothering him too much to focus on the right combination of possible words and their intersecting letter corroborations. He has, so far, written twelve answers into the crossword puzzle's squares, and he begins to darken these other guesses.
The recliner is the only piece of furniture in the apartment's living room. To Martin's left, a small black bookshelf sits, half-done, beside the piles of books that might one day complete it. Against the wall to his right, five boxes form a cardboard table where Martin has thrown clothes, shoes, and a lamp that is missing its bulb.
Directly in front of the recliner, pushed nearly and unevenly to the wall, is a small entertainment center with an old forty-two-inch TV. It is not a lightweight flat screen. The particle board platform of the entertainment center is bowing under the weight of the three and a half feet wide and nearly three and a half feet deep behemoth. It even has a long, external antennae. As Martin darkens the last letter in the puzzle and squints to check the consistency again, a commercial for a cell phone provider pulls him from his frustration. The commercial asks him about his cell service, about dropped calls and limited reception and expensive data plans. It asks him about his family members using all of his data and going over the family limit. Then it asks him if he wishes for a better way.
The only other unpacked box in the room is beside the recliner, sitting on the floor within Martin's reach. The box contains items for the kitchen and a dozen DVDs, but for now he is finding more use for the box as a side table. On top of the box is another small reading lamp next to a crumpled Baby Ruth wrapper, the TV remote, and a half-empty bottle of Jack Daniel's whiskey. When Martin reaches for the remote, he bumps the bottle, nearly knocking it to the carpet below. He doesn't react, just picks up the remote and tries to change the channel as the bottle wobbles back and forth and then rights itself.
The TV doesn't change. Martin presses the button again, channel up, and a third time. The screen clicks to a new channel, which is in the middle of its own commercial. It is a woman talking about car insurance. Martin clicks the remote again. The woman remains, her smile too white, her eyes too blue, her world too clean and shining and bright. He pushes the button, harder. She remains. She laughs. Martin looks down to the remote to make sure he is pressing the right button. He is, and he tries again. She is still laughing, clasping her hands and swaying back and forth as if nothing in the world could ever be difficult for her or anyone, anywhere. Martin's thumb pops under the pressure of jamming the button down again and again.
He lays the remote down on the recliner's arm and trades it for the bottle of whiskey. He takes two gulps and shuts his eyes against the TV's insistence. He breathes out, coughing once, and puts the bottle back on its box. He cradles the remote in the left hand so he can press harder with his right. The woman remains. He reaches out, getting the remote closer to the screen. He bangs the remote against his palm. Maybe the battery is loose, he thinks. Something cracks in the remote's base and he presses the button again. The woman remains, confident, all-knowing, and she smiles her victorious smile as the company's phone number and website appear on the screen.
Labor, its letters black, not written so much as carved into the rough, cloudy gray surface of the newspaper, pulse in Martin's eyes and pound in his head. Labor, labor, he feels the heavy burden and his arm swings in a long, violent backhand arc across his legs. The crossword puzzle and the book about the animals of the arctic fly from his lap. They flap through the living room like startled quail and crash against the bookshelf wall. Before they have settled on the piles of other books and papers, the remote hits the hard glass of the TV, its cheap plastic bindings exploding its rubber buttons and its batteries and any weak or unsecured electronic parts around the room. One piece makes its way back to Martin, bouncing off of his forearm and settling in his lap.
The piece falls to the floor as Martin stands. He has the bottle of whiskey by the neck and roars at the TV. He grips the back of the recliner and heaves it onto its side. He kicks the box and the lamp hits the floor with a pop. The bulb bursts and its white shards tinkle against each other and settle quietly into the carpet, the smaller pieces embedding themselves deep enough in the fibers that the vacuum will have trouble finding them.
The box flips over onto its top, spitting out a single DVD on its way over. With the chair down and the box upended, Martin turns to the TV. He pauses, like a pitcher reading a batter's stance, but he has no need to pause. He knows the pitch he is going to throw. He winds up, a small step driving him forward, and he looses the bottle. He is screaming as it leaves his fingers and he is screaming as the bottle flips end over end into the wall behind the TV. The bottle tears through the paint and sheet rock bottom first and lodges there, nearly upside down, a foot above the TV. Martin coughs through a sore throat. His throat wasn't prepared for his primal scream and he heaves and hacks and lets the rage radiate outward and come back to him.
His rage screams out and echoes back. His rage tears at his throat and pounds blood through his neck and shoulders. He heaved the bottle at the TV wanting, needing the glass to explode and scatter shards and noise all over the room. His rage needs to throw things and kick things and break things, to break all of the boxes and their spotted glasses and chipped dinner plates and cracking, fading, needlessly painful picture frames. He wants the whiskey to spray out over the TV and ignite and burn through the living room and the kitchen and the bedroom and take all of the clogging, choking, enslaving boxes and bags and clothes and tools and pictures and papers and clear them out. His rage wants to destroy his little things and his little apartment and his little life. It wants to be clear, to walk freely through a single day and not have to step over things and around things and through things, to not have to file anything or clean anything, to not have to use hangers or drawers or walk-in closets or cell phones or check books.
He doesn't get his explosion or violent chaos. He doesn't get the life-clearing brush fire, not a single flame. Looking around now, he gets, instead, a tipped over reclining chair, a broken light bulb, maybe even the lamp itself. He gets a broken remote control. He gets a whiskey-bottle-sized hole in the wall behind the TV. The rage doesn't gets its destructive outpouring. Instead, it goes inward. He can feel it start, the pulse in his neck and the noise thumping up under his skull. It is like claws on this inside, scraping the bone, clawing for a way out. The scraping creates a low hum. It vibrates beind his eyes, across to his temples, to the top of his head and the back of his skull and down into the base of the skull. The claws dig and scrape, looking for a way out, until Martin drops to one knee. He tips forward, nearly collapsing face first onto the floor. He catches himself on the tipped recliner.
The storm in his head softens. He feels it collect, pooling at the base of his skull, before it begins to drain, down into his chest and out to his fingertips, into his stomach and pelvis, into his balls and behind his hamstrings into the backs of his knees, down into his shins, to his ankles, into his feet. The rage is trickling down, but everywhere it touches stays charged. It is calmly spreading, shifting from a loud, explosive, forceful rage he was controlling to something else. He can feel the power, the choice, draining from him. There is usually strength in his rage. There is a calm he feels, something about being able to scream and lash out, that always helped him feel in control. The choice to destroy the whiskey bottle and the TV was control. Burning the apartment to the ground would be a sort of control. The rage is a beast with a saddle and reigns and when Martin screams its name and lives out its presence, he feels a control he doesn't feel anywhere else.
He has lost it. The rage has dissipated, returning to the corners of his body, to the ends of his limbs and the center of his chest. He laughs, quickly in between harsh breaths. He stands for a moment, then lets his hands go to his knees and he breathes there, looking up to laugh, again. He stands to full height and looks around the room, looks behind him, looks through the blinds into the outside world, and laughs. He knows he has lost control of the beast. He won't be able to ride it on the destructive rampage he hoped.
The bottle, lodged in the wall, spout down, is pouring whiskey out on the TV below. Martin laughs at how a grown man who played baseball his whole life could fly into a rage and throw a whiskey bottle at a large TV set from less than ten feet away and miss. As the rage dampens and the shuddering in Martin's fists and throat slow, the trickle of whiskey begins running into one of the cooling vents on top of the TV. Martin stops laughing when he hears the first hissing and popping of the liquid hitting heated circuits and exposed wiring. A slim trail of smoke curves its way through one of the vents, then the other, and puffs out from one of the speakers on the front before the commercial disappears and the screen crackles to black.
No explosion, no crash, no fire. The TV dies quietly with some popping circuits and a cut to sudden, black silence. Martin's stained t-shirt is heaving, his breathing accelerating. He wanted to end the TV himself, loudly, violently. He stares back at his reflection in the glass, the white blob of his shirt, the blue blob of his jeans, the two pale arms and the blank face. He watches the distorted figure grow on the glass, watches it reach out, mouth open, and follows the dark rage back from its hiding places to the center of his throat as he fills the apartment with his fury.
A jack hammer tears into the ground. Martin stares through his protective goggles at the crumbling rock and dirt below. When bits of chipped rock and dirt fly up to his face and ping off of his mask and helmet, he doesn't flinch. He doesn't blink. He clenches his teeth and grips the jack hammer's handles and leans more heavily into the machine.
Behind him, across a fresh black asphalt parking lot and a newly cured cement sidewalk and flower bed, beige siding, dull metal, and glass rise from the ground five stories into the northern Oregon haze. The large new building going up behind him says “Carson Medical,” and a nearby trailer reads “Three Peaks Construction.” Men carry long rolls of carpet and spools of wiring from their trucks to the glass entrance. The automatic doors are locked open, and the worker's dusty steps are tracked by protective paper they've taped down from the sidewalk in through the entryway.
Martin is lost in his jack hammering. The drainage ditch he is altering stretches to the west, and has put him by himself at the far end of the lot. He doesn't notice when another worker walks up behind him and begins yelling questions. The worker's badge says “Bruce,” and he cups his hands into a funnel shape and his yelling grows. After a third try, he is done yelling. He looks around on the ground and finds a small rock. The throw is perfect, hitting Martin in the back of his over-sized orange helmet. Martin turns and the man continues yelling.
“Hey, lunch, are you ready for lunch?” Bruce yells. Martin removes his ear protection and points to his ears. He shakes his head, waving for Bruce to say whatever it was again. He cups his hand around his ear. Bruce holds up an imaginary sandwich and bites into it.
“Eat, do you want to eat?” he yells.
Martin cuts the jack hammer out completely. He surveys his progress and is pleased enough. He shrugs and nods to Bruce and lays the jack hammer down.
When Martin finally sits at the outdoor lunch table, the sounds of construction are still in the background. Distant and muted, but still there. This is an outdoor eating area the crew has built for the medical building. Martin, Bruce, and another man, Jerry, all sit eating their lunches. Their lunch courtyard stretches out from the southwest corner of Carson Medical. The landscaping crew planted trees and a hedge that wraps around three quarters of the space, nearly enclosing it completely. The bushes and trees help dull the sounds of power saws and nail guns and generators. The area has picnic tables with umbrella holsters at each table. In a few weeks, doctors and nurses will be breathing fresh air under the shade of the umbrellas and feeling the cool cement tables on their forearms while they gobble their lunches down in weary shifts.
Jerry, Bruce, and Martin smile as they sit at tables they built and enjoy their own handiwork. They joke about each others choice of lunch. Jerry gets roasted for his giant meatball sub. Bruce's masculinity is questioned because of the crust-free sandwiches his wife makes him. As the conversation moves to the upcoming MMA fights, Martin sits quietly, slowly chewing his burrito, absent. When he notices the other two looking at him to either agree or disagree with the statement that was just made, he does his best to fake a laugh and nod his appreciation. His clueless response doesn't cut it.
“Come on, Marty, you know Serra got lucky in their first fight and St. Pierre is going to destroy him this time.”
Jerry takes a bite from a massive meatball sub and begins his fight commentary while the marinara sauce is still wet on his bearded chin.
“He's a fruity french Canadian, the worst kind of Canadian, and he's been faking his way to the top because women like him.”
“Women like him, that's why he has knocked out or submitted so many opponents?” Bruce asks. Jerry wipes his chin and mouth with the back of his hand.
“He is the UFC's secret weapon for gaining female fan support. He's not a real fighter.”
“And what, his good looks out-wrestled and then knocked out Matt Hughes, one of the greatest UFC champions of all time? Hughes lost because, what, St Pierre was too pretty?”
“Hughes was a worn-down champion past his prime,” Jerry says.
“Worn down? He is like thirty years old.”
“Nah, he's gotta be almost forty,” Jerry says.
“He's early thirties, thirty-one or thirty-two, maybe.
“That is old in wrestling years.”
Bruce puts his sandwich down and takes two gulps from his thermos. The argument requires him to stop eating and focus his attention. He can't believe what he is hearing. He shakes his head.
“Oh now we're going by wrestling years?” he asks. “First of all, please tell that to Matt Hughes yourself, in person. Please go to his next fight and yell that from the front row, 'Hey Matt, you're too old, you're like eighty in wrestling years, give it up!' Second, Matt Hughes is Matt Hughes. He will never be that worn down.”
“GSP was too big, too fast, Hughes isn't big enough for welterweight anymore. Some of these new guys are cutting almost thirty pounds, coming down from one-ninety-five, two-hundred pounds to fight at one-seventy. GSP is probably coming down from at least one-ninety.”
“Weight isn't everything in a fight,” Bruce says.
“These new guys are too big,” Jerry counters.
“You're insane,” Bruce says, waving at his helpless friend's nonsense. He turns to Martin, who is quietly eating raw, full-sized carrots, the same type of carrots he always brings with him in his work lunch. “Marty, please, talk to him. Talk some sense to this man.”
Martin takes out another carrot and twirls it through his fingers before biting it nearly in half.
“You guys hear about Donovan's crew?” he asks them, without looking up.
Jerry stands up and looks out at the site trailer. Bruce shakes his head as his smile fades. He had picked his sandwich up again and was about to take a bite. He puts his sandwich back down and turns sideways to brush the crumbs from his hands off onto the cement. Bruce looks at Jerry. It is like looking into a mirror, their pained expressions sharing the same question.
“While we're eating?” Jerry asks, also putting his meatball sub back down on its wax paper, “Come on, man.”
Jerry's wipes his mouth and beard with a napkin and wraps the other half of the sandwich back up in the paper it came in. He crushes the edges to keep the wrap tight and stuffs it into his small cooler. Bruce shakes the ice in his thermos and then stares at it before talking.
“We're talking about fights, man, you can't just drop a massive turd right in the middle of the lunch table.”
“That is pretty messed up, man,” Bruce says.
“Rumor is the suits are headed our way sometime this week,” Martin says, ignoring the men's requests. “You can ignore that, if you want.”
Bruce finishes his sandwich and pulls four hard gulps from his thermos. He tightens the nozzle down and crumples up his trash.
“Well, if they're coming to our site, they're coming today. If they don't come today then we may have dodged the chopping block. We may be off the hook.”
“I don't know, man,” Jerry says, “I've been up nights thinking about this. What else do we have to do around here? The project is almost wrapped, they finished the sealants and coatings and I think the last of the carpeting goes in tomorrow. If not tomorrow, next week at the latest. Once you finish those trenches and we fit those drainage pipes, you're all but finished. What else would they have for us here? With the market taking this massive shit...”
Bruce waves his hands and then slams them into his chest.
“Hey, hey, stop. Just stop. There is always room for the best. That is true in anything, even in the worst markets. You think people are just going to stop building shit?”
“They will if there's nothing to build, if there's no money,” Jerry says.
“There is always work to do. Always. And for that work, who is the best?”
Jerry and Marty don't answer. Martin is rolling another carrot between his palms. Jerry is standing behind him, watching over Martin's shoulder.
Bruce stands up.
“Are my best friends bitching out on me? I asked you a question. Who is the best? Who has been doing this since they were teenagers, hell, since before that? Who has been doing this their whole lives?”
Jerry and Marty finally look up at Bruce and then at each other. Martin has been doing this his whole life. He remembers sawing dowels his father gave him when he was five. He remembers trying to drive nails into the spare boards his father brought home from his own work sites. He has been doing this, and only this, for as long as he can remember.
“Who is the best?” Bruce asks again.
Jerry slowly stretches his arms out to the side, encompassing the three of them in his arm half-circle.
“You're goddamned right!” Bruce says.
Bruce sits down again, this time next to Martin. He pulls one of the smaller carrots from Martin's bag and holds it up to his face like he has never seen anything like it before.
“How can you eat these every day?” Bruce asks.
Martin crunches into another one.
Jerry sits down, too, and takes a carrot of his own.
“Are these why you're so big and strong,” Jerry asks, smiling.
“It's why his ears and his front teeth are so big.”
“I bet you take giant, orange shits. I bet it looks like a Uhaul truck coming out of the Lincoln tunnel.”
Bruce laughs as he bites into his carrot. He winces and continues to chew as if being forced to finish the vegetable by cruel terrorists.
Martin throws the last bit of his burrito into his mouth. He chews it quietly and swallows before clearing his throat.
“St. Pierre will dominate Serra,” he says, still without looking up. “He is a scared fighter. He fights at his best when he is the most terrified and he just wasn't scared enough last time. But now he is so afraid of losing again, of getting embarrassed again, that he will be training his ass off. He's going to take it to the bone. I think Serra started something. I think GSP is going to be out for blood this time. He is the future of the sport, a super athlete who trains with world-class coaches and is going to be incredible at everything. No way Serra survives a scared GSP. GSP by knockout.”
Bruce and Jerry are stunned by the sudden fully-formed thoughts from their very negative, seemingly distant, distracted friend. Bruce takes a moment to take it all in, but then nods aggressively in agreement. He is still somewhat surprised and confused by the sudden topic shift, as well as the cold fighting logic from Martin. He wasn't prepared for it, but he welcomes having an ally in the argument.
“Definitely,” Bruce says, still nodding, “I agree, St. Pierre by first round knockout or submission. Probably knockout because he is going to be mad.”
“He will want to make a statement,” Martin continues. “If he can make an example of Serra, he can put the other welterweights on notice. I think his performance will put a little fear and doubt in the hearts of the other guys in the division.”
Jerry spits the chewed carrot into a napkin and crushes it in his hand.
“Well, those are interesting theories, Doctor Martin, but Serra wins again, this time by submission. He is going to expose the fake champion and then break him.”
“So what's the bet, tough guy?” Bruce asks. “If you're so sure, lay your money down.”
“Five hundred bucks, winner take all,” Jerry says.
The men look at each other. They know they don't have that kind of money to throw around right now, not with the economy the way it is. Jerry himself realizes this, too, and back tracks with a laugh.
“Yeah, I wish I could do that. How about... loser brings lunch for a week?”
“Deal,” Bruce says, “and don't forget, I don't like mayo, or the crusts, on my sandwiches.”
Back into their work, Martin re-enters his zone. The hammering drowns out all other noise. It sets a rhythm, a hypnotic rhythm, and sends him speeding through the rest of the afternoon.
The sun is low in the afternoon sky when it finally breaks through the cloud cover. The rays glow in the windows of the two on-site office trailers a few hundred feet behind Martin. The trailers are white, pristine, and he turns his back to avoid the sting of the glare. While his back is turned, the door to the lead trailer opens and a man in jeans and flannel steps out. He is on the phone and looks to his right. Up the road, a large black SUV is pulling into the parking lot. When it stops and the occupants, two men and a woman, get out and close their doors, Martin's hypnosis ends. Even amid the chaos and noise of his work, the muted thud of the SUV doors draws his attention. He stops the jack hammer. As he steadies it up against one of the ridges he carved in the asphalt, Jerry walks up behind him. Jerry's eyes, too, are on the SUV.
“You gotta be shitting me, Marty!” Jerry says. “I told you. I told you our time was up. We're winding down and they're done with us, I told you!”
Martin takes off his helmet and wipes his brow. He squints through the glare at the three figures making their way onto the site. He is trying to see who has been sent.
“We don't know that for sure,” he says.
“Are you high? Why else would they come out here? You think that big black company SUV is here for a tea party? Are they here to give out gold stars for how good we've been? The only reason to send the suits is to trim the fat. They need to assess productivity and expenditures or some shit. They need to streamline profit margins, limit their overhead and risk, right?”
Martin furrows his brow and cocks his head at Jerry's word choice. Bruce joins the two in watching the suits make their ways up the trailer steps and into the site office.
“They need to put us on the street,” Bruce says, spitting into Martin's drainage ditch.
Jerry spits, as well. He shifts from foot to foot and pulls his hard hat back on his head, jamming it down into his scalp as if his head has grown in the one minute he has had the helmet off.
“What the hell am I supposed to do? This is our only income, we have two kids and another one on the way, just what the hell am I supposed to do?”
Bruce offers an option:
“You could go back to selling your body. You still giving those blow job lessons in Tilly Park?”
“Yeah, jackass, and could you thank your mom for me, she's been really helpful. Showed me a lot of nifty tricks.”
The three men watch the suits walk into the trailer. When the door closes, Martin looks around the site. A dozen other men have stopped working to watch the new arrivals, too.
“I swear to God, if they call me into that trailer I'm going to lose it,” Jerry says.
“If they do fire us, they have to give us money, they can't just fire us without a reason and kick us out, right?”
“There might be a severance package,” Martin says, still looking at the other men.
“I'll sever their packages,” Jerry says.
“Not necessarily,” Bruce counters, “this is what we've been paying into unemployment for.”
“That's not enough for a family, though, not for long. My kids, man, you think my unemployment check will cover three kids for the next six months?”
“What am I going to tell Sheila?” Bruce asks. He isn't looking for a response. It's the first time he has considered actually telling his wife that he lost his job. He tries to imagine what she will say. He starts to imagine the worst things she could do, but stops himself.
Martin is not showing the fear Bruce and Jerry are showing. He doesn't really seem to care, at all. He puts his hard hat and gloves back on and goes to pick up the jack hammer. The thoughts make him want to bring the noise back.
“I guess someone isn't too worried about all of this,” Jerry says. They turn and watch Martin pick up the jack hammer and put his goggles back on.
“Aren't you worried, man?” Bruce asks. “You have some other high-paying job lined up we don't know about?”
“Well, if they're going to fire us, there isn't anything we can do. If they fire me I won't have to do this shit anymore. If they don't fire me I have to keep doing this shit. So I don't know, either way is kind of like, who cares.”
Martin puts on the helmet and slides the chin straps around the arms of the goggles. He looks at the other two:
“Maybe getting fired is just what we need.”
Jerry and Bruce look at each other. They can't believe what they are hearing, and from Martin Bell of all people.
“Marty, this isn't Fight Club,” Bruce says, shaking his head. “This isn't the push we need to wake up and start getting serious about our lives. We need these jobs, man. Our families need these jobs... wait, is that shit from those CDs Jerry gave you?”
“Hey, those CDs are really helpful,” Jerry says.
“Is this God closing a door but opening a window or some shit?”
“Seriously, Marty, what's your back up plan? What about your girls, man? What about your alimony? You think you're going to walk off this work site and straight into another job that pays just as well? Do you know how long it took Greg Simons to get another job after they let him go? Nine months. And do you know where he's working now?”
“Burger king,” Martin says.
“Motherfucking Burger King,” Jerry yells. “One of the best cement guys in the business is flipping burgers and going home every night smelling like colon cancer and shattered dreams. Is that your plan, flip burgers with teenagers and junkies?”
Martin adjusts the goggles and fires up the jack hammer. As it roars to life, Bruce and Jerry shake their heads and walk away.
As the trench continues to stretch out away from the building, the first workers are called into the trailer to receive the news of their prospective employment. One of the first men called in is Shawn Mackay, a concrete and asphalt man with a blonde ponytail and a beard. At six-foot-three and two-hundred and forty pounds, he has to turn sideways to fit through the trailer door. He doesn't have to duck down but he does. It makes him feel bigger when he straightens back up again on the other side of the door.
Whatever meeting takes place, it takes less than sixty seconds before he bursts back out through the door, screaming. He doesn't turn sideways are duck on the way out. He simply kicks the door and walks through, his shoulders scraping at the entryway margins as the door slams into the side of the trailer. When the door swings back again, Martin can see that the door did some damage on its swing. A long, thin dark line mark a continuous dent in the trailer's siding exactly as tall as the door. The sunlight wobbles on the glass as the trailer trembles from the impact.
Shawn makes his way down the stairs and spikes his helmet into the sidewalk like it's a football. Two men, nearly-as-large, exit after him. Martin doesn't know them. They follow Shawn as he makes his way into the parking lot. When he turns back toward the trailer to wave his arms and scream threats and obscenities, the men stop and stand side by side, silent. They don't respond to his threats. When Shawn moves toward them as if he has had enough and wants to fight, they remain still except for a slight raising of their chins. Martin realizes they are here to ensure that no one gets desperate, or manic, or violent, or suddenly inspired to cause massive and expensive property damage.
Shawn turns from the men and their upturned chins and stomps to his car. He is hissing curses even after he slams the door. He does his best to peel out of the parking lot.
Martin smiles. He turns back to the jack hammer. He will wait patiently for his turn to storm out of the office. It is what it is. He rides the jack hammer for another forty minutes. When he looks to his watch, it tells him it is 3:57pm, Pacific Standard Time. He looks back to the trailers. The door is closed and the site is quiet. He looks around for Bruce and Jerry. Bruce is on a ladder handing tools to a man inside the building. He can't find Jerry. He considers the possibility that the three of them could make it out of the day, or even the week, with their jobs intact. He considers their value to the company. Maybe the owners want to hold on to the older, more experienced workers. Maybe this is a slight restructuring meant to trim the workforce back, keep it lean and efficient. It is possible they would all be chosen as veterans who work consistently well. He is happy for Jerry and Bruce. He is not as happy as they will be, but as he puts his gloves into his hat and makes the walk toward his truck, he doesn't mind the thought of coming back to the site with the guys tomorrow.
His gear goes in the truck's back seat and as he closes the door, his phone vibrates in his pocket.
He doesn't recognize the number.
“Hello, this is Martin,” he says.
A woman's voice chirps into the phone.
“Hi, I'm calling about a craigslist ad for a space heater, did I call the right number?”
Martin pinches the phone between his ear and shoulder and settles into the truck's driver seat. He was about to toss his wallet into the center console's cup holder, but he opens it and counts the bills. The count doesn't take long. His wallet is holding two one-dollar bills.
“Yes you did, that is my ad,” he says, starting the truck.
“Oh great, well I'm very interested in seeing it, is it still available?”
A dog, small and yippy, the kind of dog Martin never enjoyed being around, is barking in the background. The woman tells the dog to stop, to settle down, right into the phone. When she yells for the dog to sit, Martin jerks the phone from his ear.
“It is,” he says.
“I'm sorry,” she says, shifting the phone, “Brutus, stop it! Stop it! I'm so sorry, what was that? Do you still have it?”
“I do, it is still available,” Martin says again, turning up the truck's air conditioner.
“Brutus!” she screams.
“Can I bring it to you sometime this evening?” Martin asks.
“Yes, yes, again, I'm so sorry. Yes, this evening, that would be great.”
“How about 5:30?” Martin asks, turning the air vent directly toward his closed eyes.
“Perfect, yes that's perfect, right after Brutus has his dinner. Here, let me give you my address.”
Martin listens to the woman scold her dog and rifle through drawers and cabinets while she tells him her address. She starts to give him directions from Highway twenty-six and he stops listening. He writes the address down on a napkin from the glove compartment and trusts that google maps will get him there much more quickly and easily than distracted dog lady.
When Martin finally hears silence on the other end of the phone, he jumps back into the conversation.
“Okay, great, thank you, I'll see you at 5:30.”
Martin hangs up while the woman begins her next tirade against Brutus. He looks down at his wallet, then to the truck's gas gauge. He has a little more than a quarter of a tank.
He pulls out of the lot and heads home.
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.
Martin and Carrie are sitting in his living room. Carrie is nursing little Jane. Martin is trying not to look at her exposed breast. He doesn't know where to look.
“Is this making you uncomfortable?” she asks.
“What? No. No, you... feeding your baby is... fine, it's totally fine. It's natural, it's the most natural thing in the world.”
Carrie takes Jane from her breast to her shoulder to burp. Martin looks away as quickly as he can. He sees more than he is comfortable seeing.
“Yeah, it's a little weird. I'm sorry, I have two daughters, I should be used to this sort of thing.”
“You're such a man,” Carrie says, laughing. “So strong and so... weak.” She pats Jane on the back and bounces up and down in the chair. “But it's sweet.”
“I'm not used to it, is all. It's been a long time.”
“I'm not used to it, either,” she says.
“Breast-feeding? Yeah I guess you wouldn't be, yet.”
“No, breast feeding is fine. I'm not used to... awkward men. Sweet men.”
This makes Martin even more uncomfortable. She knows that and she likes it. She is really starting to enjoy his discomfort. She likes having a little bit of power again.
“I don't mean to be... rude, or anything, and maybe I shouldn't say anything...”
“What, I said you were sweet so now you have to say something rude to reclaim your manliness?”
“No, I'm just, wondering... last night you were... and maybe it was because you were scared or in shock, or something, but you were... stuttering. You seemed to have a stutter.”
“Did I? That's weird. I do stutter when I'm nervous, sometimes.”
“I'm sorry, I'm an idiot.”
“Is thi... thi... this bet... better?”
Martin's head drops. He is beyond embarrassed and can't look at her in this moment.
“Ask me about my mom?”
Martin looks up, confused, and still mortified.
“Hey Carrie, you're living with an abusive, violent, drug-dealing boyfriend, how did it feel talking about that with the mom you abandoned? Well, Martin, I'm glad you asked me that because it wasn't easy.”
“How was it, talking to your mom?”
Carrie smiles. She truly is enjoying this.
“How long had it been since you'd seen her?”
“Since before Jane was born. She knew I was pregnant, but I left when I was, like, seven months along.”
Martin is blown away by this information. She left seven months pregnant and had the baby by herself, without any help from her own mother. He shakes his head, amazed. This is a tough girl.
“So your mom hadn't seen Jane before last night?”
Carrie shakes her head.
“I can't even begin to process that. She had to be ecstatic. What did she say? What did you say to her?”
“Well, she still doesn't like Nate, I think she thinks I can do a lot better. Maybe she is right. But he isn't a bad guy. She thinks he is but he's really not. He loves me.”
Martin squints. He doesn't understand what he is hearing. Something is happening, something is wrong. How did she get here? Why is she in his apartment?
“She never liked him, never really liked any of my boyfriends. That is probably common with moms, but she always seemed to hold an extra special dislike for them. No guy was ever going to be good enough.”
Why is she talking about him like she didn't shoot him in the face last night?
“Wait, so... she knows? She knows about Nate? What did you tell her about... last night, about him? Did you...”
“Last night? Martin, what are you talking about?”
Another voice, behind Martin:
“What are you sayin' about me?”
Everything changes in Martin's head. The walls warp and shift. The colors change. Reality is coming apart all around him but no one else seems to notice. On his left, a figure appears. It is a large man, big like Nate. Martin shakes his head because it can't be Nate, Nate is dead. This man who looks and sounds like Nate steps up to Carrie's couch and leans over to give her a kiss. Martin can only see the right side of his face. It looks pretty normal. Then Nate turns.
“You're not harrassin' my lady, are you, Martin?” Nate asks.
Everything slows to a crawl. The left side of Nate's face is a bloody crater. His jawbone is exposed and flesh is hanging from his jaw and cheek. Blood is streaming down from the wound across his neck and chest, soaking into his shirt. His ear is gone.
“What... what is happening?”
“Now you know I can't let you bother my lady, Martin. I just can't have that, can I sweetheart?”
Carrie shakes her head and smiles. She continues to burp Jane over her shoulder. When she looks back into Martin's eyes, her eyes are bloodshot, deep-set, crazy.
“Well, there you go, buddy, you heard the lady.”
Nate goes for a gun. Martin puts his hands up and realizes he has a gun of his own. He levels it and begins firing. The bullets have no effect, they go through Nate and do nothing to him, nothing to the wall behind him, nothing at all. The explosions of each round are blinding, the booms impossibly loud. They take Martin's senses.
Nate is unaffected, he can take his time. There is nothing Martin can do, he is frozen to the chair. He can't move, he can't scream. As Nate's gun rises, Martin looks to Carrie. She is sitting in her chair, the baby crying in her lap. Her neck has settled into an extreme angle and her head is resting on her shoulder. She, too, is bleeding from wounds. Her wounds are in her chest. The baby's feet thrash and her hands grasp at the air above her.
Nate begins pulling the trigger.
Nate's bullets don't disappear. They slam into Martin's body, punching him into the chair. The bullets rip through his chest and take his breath. He fights for air, tries to suck it in, and can't. Nate's teeth glow in the warping light and he hisses laughter as he steps in front of Martin and points the pistol toward Martin's head. Martin screams.
Martin wakes up screaming and sits upright in the chair he was sleeping in. He has a gun and he points it wildly around the room. Nate's face flashes in front of him one more time and then fades. He screams. His hands are up, pawing at the air in front of his face and shielding him from bullets that aren't there.
He is coming down now. He knows it was a dream. He doesn't hear sirens. He peers out the curtain by the window near him. He doesn't see flashing blue and red lights outside. No one is coming for him, yet.
His breathing slows. He closes his eyes. He talks to himself, bring it down, breathe slowly, deeply. Breathe.
“Come on, Marty.”
Breathe. He gets up. In the bathroom he turns on the shower. being in the warm water helps. He feels it run over him as he lets his head hang. The shower floor goes crimson and brown as the blood washes away. That's better, just wash it all away.
Another flash memory of Nate's face, open, lifeless yet glistening and hot. Martin clenches his jaw and lips and closes his eyes hard, as if he can squeeze the thoughts from his mind. He doesn't want these images.
He shuts the water off but stays there, head down, forehead pressed to the shower wall. Breathing. He breathes in, then out slowly... in... out slowly. In. Out. Just breathe, Martin. Just breathe.
Knocking. The sound of knocking.
It is daytime now. Martin sits up suddenly in bed. Someone is here. Someone is knocking on the door. Now the doorbell is ringing. Martin scrambles to his feet and stands still, silent, trying to get a hold of himself and what is happening. Is it the police? he wonders, have they found me already? He considers the possible ways out of this. He considers whether he is ready to try to shoot his way out.
He grabs his gun. He is in his boxer shorts as he enters the front hallway and levels his gun at the door. He waits. More knocking. He hears voices. They are small, feminine.
“Daddy, wake up!!”
It's Saturday. It's his Saturday with the girls.
“Let's just go, Hill,” Juliette says, reaching out to take Hillary's hand.
“Do you think he is still asleep?” Hillary asks.
Martin puts the gun on the fridge and opens the door. Hillary is there, Juliette a few feet behind her, and Victoria has gotten out of her car and is walking up the front path. She stops when Martin opens the door.
“Hey!” Martin yells, blinking in the sunlight. The phlegm of a rough night's sleep rumbles from his throat. He tries to clear it. “Hey, girls, sorry, sorry. Come in, come in!”
He says this without thinking. This is not a good time to come in. He doesn't remember a lot about last night. What did he do with his bloody clothes? Where are his clothes right now? The TV is a shattered, whiskey-soaked mess and the place probably smells like an armpit died in it.
“Daddy, did you just wake up?”
He considers lying, making up a quick story about working out or waking up so early to work that he had to take a nap. He considers saying he has been sick. He dismisses all of these thoughts.
“Um, yeah... yeah I did. Daddy was really tired this morning. I didn't really sleep very well last night and I guess I didn't hear my alarm.”
Martin looks out at Victoria. He shrugs and shakes his head.
“Sorry, Vix, I've got them. I'm here. Thanks.”
Juliette turns to Victoria and smiles. She stretches her arms out toward her father.
“See mom, dad is more than ready and totally capable of taking care of us today. You should probably just go, I'm sure we'll be fine.”
Her sarcasm is sharp and nasty. It is meant to punish both parents, in different ways. She is getting good at that.
Hillary pushes into the apartment straight away. They don't spend much time here so it is something new and different to be explored. Juliette follows. Victoria's face suggests she would like a word with Martin.
“Really, Martin? What, you go out and get hammered with the guys last night, the night before your one full day with the girls this week?”
The image of Carrie holding the gun flashes into Martin's mind. Nate's face, at once sneering with hatred, then open and blood-soaked and lifeless.
“No, nothing like that.”
“Jesus! Well, it looks like you did, it looks like you've been living on the street.”
“Just had a rough night, is all.”
She is visibly shaken by his breath.
“I just slept through my alarm. I'm sorry.”
“Don't apologize to me.”
Hillary's tiny voice calls out from within the apartment.
“It smells like onions and mustard in here!”
Martin winces. Victoria is not pleased.
“Vix, it's fine. I'm fine. I have a whole fun day planned for us and the girls are going to love it, so don't worry.”
“Good, that's good, I hope they do. Just...” she stops, reconsidering what she was going to say. “Just... call me when you want me to pick them up.”
“And... the money? The money for...”
“I have it, it's fine. Thanks.”
Hillary, from inside the apartment again.
“Daddy, what happened to your TV?”
Victoria gives him another exasperated look. The look asks, “What next?”
Part of him never wants her to know. He doesn't want to give her the satisfaction, another incident to point to in order to pass more judgment. But part of him wants to grab her by the neck and yell it straight into her face. He wants to tell her he threw the bottle through the TV in a fit of drunken rage. He wants to tell her he imagined the TV was her face, that the TV was one of the few remaining sources of what could be called joy in his life and wanted to, needed to, destroy it and leave its jagged and ruined remains out in the open for everyone to see. He wants her to know what sorts of destruction he is capable of.
He swallows hard and clears his throat.
“I can't wait to tell you about it, Hilly Billy!” he yells back over his shoulder. Then, turning to Victoria, “Don't worry, it's nothing. It's fine.”
“I'm sure it's not fine but... (yelling to the girls) have fun, girls!”
“Bye, mom!” Hillary yells. Juliette raises her hand as if she is going to wave, but an overwhelming loss of caring sends her hand swinging back down to her side, where it hangs limp.
Once inside, Martin closes the door and runs toward his room.
“Back in a second, girls!”
While he rummages through his drawers, the girls survey his living space. Hillary bounces around the apartment like it's a museum. She loves the open space due to the lack of furniture. She is fascinated by the smashed TV. She reaches gently towards the shards, knowing she probably shouldn't be touching any of it.
“Don't... don't touch it, Hill. Don't touch anything.”
“What do you think happened to it?” Hillary asks.
Juliette ignores her and leaves her to examine the remains of the TV alone. Juliette heads into the kitchen. There are some taco wrappers on the counter, Tuco's. Juliette sits at one of two bar stools and lays her arms on the counter. After looking at the wrappers for a moment, she removes her arms from the counter. She stands up and brushes off whatever bacteria might have jumped onto her butt while she was on the stool. She decides she is going to avoid contact with everything in the apartment, if possible.
Martin returns, just getting his shirt over his head. A quick mouthwash, some deodorant, and a splash of cold water to the face make him seem less ape-like, slightly. He pulls the shirt downward.
“Okay, sorry... that's better” he says, breathing in deeply and sighing loudly out. He has on a cleanish pair of jeans and a red collared shirt. He does look a little better, marginally better. His eyes go to little Hillary who is pointing to the broken TV.
“So? What happened to it?” she asks.
Juliette cuts in.
“It probably killed itself to escape this hell hole.”
“Hey! Go easy. Mr. TV didn't kill himself. I just turned on The Bachelor and it self-destructed.”
“You watch The Bachelor?”
“Of course, I watch it every week. And any reruns, too.”
“You're silly, daddy. That's a girl show.”
Martin slams his hands into his cheeks. His mouth and eyes go wide, shocked.
“What? How dare you! It's called 'The Bachelor,' and bachelors are men so I think men should be able to watch it, too.”
“Well,” Hillary retorts, “he is a bachelor but there are like a hundred women and they have all the drama and girls like drama. So it's a girl show.”
“Well I loved it and I will miss it dearly.”
“Maybe that's why you can't sleep. Watching TV always helps me feel sleepy.”
“Did the TV down a bottle of Jack before it blew itself up?” Juliette asks. She stares over Hillary's head, stares at Martin. She flicks an eyebrow up. In her stare is annoyance and judgment and disappointment. Her look is asking how long Martin is going to keep lying straight to his youngest daughter's face. Her look is judging him for the untold times he must have done the same to her when she was younger. At the end, when her one eyebrow goes back down and her lips tighten together, her look asks if he will ever stop lying to the women in his family.
Humor is his last shield here.
“Well, Juliette, I'm afraid you're right. He'd been drinking heavily, too heavily in my opinion, for weeks before this happened. I had been trying to get him to quit for some time. I tried and tried but it was no use. Sometimes people just won't accept help.”
Her face shifts quickly in and out of something different. Remorse?
Martin sees it. He lets it go, and instead looks back to the ruined TV.
“I knew he would end up like this,” he says, shaking his head.
“You should've done an intervention, daddy,” Hillary says.
“Maybe someone should hold an intervention with you,” Juliette mumbles.
Relentless, blow after blow, Jules won't stop trying to hurt him. The pain and poison in her words are acidic, scalding, and seem to be about more than just a divorce or his broken TV or his broken life.
“Why does she know about interventions?” Martin asks, looking to Juliette.
“We've been watching Intervention. It's educational,” Juliette says, “so she understands the world.”
“I need to know what's what,” Hillary says, giving a single proud nod.
“The real world of movie star drug addicts?” Martin asks.
“The realest,” Juliette says.
“The realest,” Hillary echoes.
“By the look of this place,” Juliette says, looking around through squinted eyes and a furrowed brow, “she'll probably learn more about hitting rock bottom by hanging around here for a few hours.”
“Well, miss sunshine, I bet I can make you stop being so grumpy and mean. What do you think,
Hillary? Do you think I can make miss sunshine over here smile?”
“No way, she never smiles.”
“Do you think I can make her stop being so mean?”
Hillary shakes her head.
“Maybe just a little bit?”
Hillary shakes her head harder and pouts. She just doesn't see any possible way. But then she looks up with a tiny spark of hope.
“Well, dad... you could always try.”
Martin steps forward and offers his hand to Hillary. She obliges, a clean, hard high five.
“Come here, Jules, right here,” he says, moving a chair so they have a little clear area to face each other.
“No thanks,” Jules says.
“Come on, please. Just stand here, right here in front of me.”
“Just here,” he says, pointing.
“Come on, step right up.”
Hillary begins to clap and giggle. She has caught on. Juliette is not as excited.
“Please don't do a magic trick.”
“Yay, yay, magic, magic! Do it dad!”
“Yeah, see, yay magic, yay magic. All the cool people like magic. You want to be cool, don't you, Jules?”
Juliette's lips curl up and she lets the burning fury in her lungs slowly hiss out. She closes her eyes and hates herself for giving in. She knows to refuse would hurt Hillary more than Martin, so she makes her decision. She breaks.
“Okay, great,” Martin says, guiding her by the shoulders. He tilts her and guides her to a spot on the carpet near the kitchen linoleum and plants her in place with a single downward pull. “Here, stand right here, this is going to be amazing. Hillary will be amazed, you will be amazed, heck... I might even amaze myself.”
“Probably not hard to do,” Juliette says.
“Hush now, hold still, hold still, stand up straight, here we go, chin up, shoulders back...”
His hands bounce around her head and shoulders and back . He pulls at her head, lengthening her neck. He jostles her shoulders, first lifting them, then pulling them down, then crunching them forward before pulling them back. His hands go to her hands, first left then right. Her pulls up on her chin, reinforcing posture. His hands flit here, there, all over.
“Hey hey hey, shush shush shush. This will only take a second.”
“Don't break the spell. Don't ruin the magic vibes.”
“Yeah, Jules, don't ruin the magic vibes,” Hillary says.
She rolls her eyes. He rolls his back at her. Then his eyes ask nicely. Please indulge your stupid father, just this once, please.
She relents, again.
“Excellent, excellent, awesome, okay now look, look at my hands, we can all see that there is
nothing in my hands, right?”
He waves his hands around his head. He shows the girls the palms of his hands, then the backs.
“And we can all see that Juliette has nothing in her hands, yes?”
He takes her hands and raises them up above her head. She is keeping her arms limp, trying to help out as little as possible.
“Nothing in her hands, daddy!” Hillary affirms.
“Yes, yes, indeed. But... what about...”
Martin steps back, waving his hands like a dark sorcerer.
“What about... in your HAIR?!”
He claps his hands twice, a lackluster alakazam. It's cheesy showmanship, but his plant was smooth. Juliette reaches for the top of her head and is a little surprised to actually feel something that isn't supposed to be there. She pulls it out. It is thin and light and crunchy. She smiles, knowing what it is. Martin has scored a rare and brief victory.
“Wow!” Hillary says, seeing something in her sister's hand. “Daddy, how did you do that?”
“Wait, is this real?” Juliette asks. She is pealing the bills apart and seeing that they are hundreds.
“What is it, Jules, what is it!”
Juliette holds up the folded bills. She opens them. There are three green and shining one hundred dollar bills. Three hundred dollars, cash.
“It's money,” Juliette says, trying to take the creases out of the bills.
“It's for your trip to Portland,” Martin says, smiling, “I told you I'd get the money.”
“That was actually pretty good,” Juliette says. She reaches back up into her hair, feeling for more.
“That was amazing, dad, how did you do that?” Hillary squeals.
“Magic, of course.”
“But I won't tell you my secrets. I'll never tell!”
Hillary and Martin giggle together at his silliness.
“Dad wait, sorry... is this it? This is only three hundred. The trip costs...”
Martin stops giggling and his eyes go wide.
“WHAT?! Only three hundred? IMPOSSIBLE! I told you your bad attitude would break the magical vibes.”
“No, Jules, why did you break the magical vibes?”
“Unless...” Martin begins. He closes his eyes and holds out a hand, scanning. “Unless... one of the bills got lost... taken, to the nether regions... taken to a dark realm when I cast my spell.”
Hillary is transfixed.
“Hmm... hmmmmm... interesting, Juliette, very interesting... do you, by chance... have a sister?”
“Uh, well... I...”
“She does, daddy, she does. It's me... it's me, daddy!”
Martin moves closer to Hillary.
“Well, then it is possible that some of the money may have... passed to the younger... kinder... sweeter sister, instead.”
Juliette is relieved, then annoyed again. Enough already, stop embarrassing yourself, dad.
“To me?” Hillary asks. She reaches to the top of her head, to the same place Juliette found her money. She squeals. Sure enough, she pulls down a folded up one hundred dollar bill. Martin takes the money and inspects it. He turns it over and back again. He looks back to Hillary.
“You are a crafty little one. And you almost got away with it. But no one can fool the great Martini!”
Hillary giggles and spins around. Even Juliette has to laugh at how stupid her father is, and the fact that he did actually come through with the money for her trip.
Her face and tone soften.
“Thank you, dad.”
“You're welcome. Now... who is ready to catch some fish?!”