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Contemporary Drama American

This story contains themes or mentions of mental health issues.

        A gray reef fans on the edge of the eastern horizon. Cobalt blue mixed with midnight. An hour until the first fingers of sunlight. An hour back I quit twisting in the bed sheets. Wouldn’t do any good to fall asleep at 4am. Four is a time to relieve yourself and duck back under the covers for another REM cycle before the world starts calling. That’s for the people who can sleep. For those that can’t, it’s a time to surrender and roll outta there. I don’t sleep much lately. You, only when the medication works.

              The tea kettle sings. Miniature choo-choo. White vapor condenses on the window above the sink. Violet veins of frost dissipate on the pane of glass where the wooden edges meet. I pour the piping liquid into a quench cup and inhale the aroma of liberated caffeine. I put it to my lips for a microsecond. For that wakeup singe.

              Your mother is still in bed but Lucy’s risen with me. Good, old girl. I put down slip-free runners in the kitchen and living room for her – hardwood floors are tough on twelve year-old hindlegs. She nudges the back of my knee with her wet nose; it’s breakfast time. I pour kibble in her dish with a spurt of hot water from the faucet. Life is short. I roll up a piece of bologna and toss that in too. Her head bobs happily in the bowl. I pull on a heavy flannel and make for the garage.

              We had you before we were married, but not too long before. We weren’t prepared, not in the least, but I wasn’t worried. Your mother and I were competent people. The world, for how much it says it loves children, is perpetually short on individuals that love them enough to teach them when they don’t know any better. Your mom, she loved kids even before you arrived. So that’s what she did – taught first-grade daisies up the road on Landry street while her belly swelled with you. Always said that’s why you’re such an avid reader and a talented writer. Because you were reading even before you were born.

              I kept the books at the supermarket in Ashton and studied for my credential. I passed the test but I liked the business and people more than I did burying my nose in the numbers. They gave me a shot managing and I excelled. Our little grocery acquired the minnows, mom-and-pops who were retiring but wanted it to go to good hands. But then the sharks came for us. The regional business I grew was swallowed by a national chain. Some sad stories here and there, but they mostly did right by us and by-and-large my checks got bigger. And it’s just groceries. Never could understand a man that called a business his child. Well, I guess it never was mine anyway.

              Freezing in the garage. Nothing subtle about November’s in New Hampshire. Everything still dark. I strike the light switch and the fluorescent tubes overhead sputter to life. I sip the cup of Earl Grey once more and begin to assemble.

              Bright hazard orange vests hanging above the work bench. Yellow stripes along the shoulders. I took you duck hunting when you were six years old with my buddy Ian. Just to ride in the truck and make the silly calls with us. My dad took me when I was about that age. I remember it fondly. Cold New England air. Dad letting me help pack the hunting kit, the gloves and the vests and the boots. The pop, pop, pop of the pellets exploding from the shotguns. Stalking through the growth to find the downed ducks. I burst into the house that night with four dressed birds tied up in a game bag. I couldn’t wait to show your grandma. I thought maybe it’d be the same for you.

              It wasn’t though, was it?

              Man. That flock took flight in the twilight and Ian and I sprayed and a few came plummeting down. We had Boyd back then before Lucy and when he lumbered back with one in his jaws and set it at our feet, boy did you have a meltdown. You couldn’t stand the sight of it, couldn’t look at the poor thing. You cried in my arms and peeked under my armpit and when you saw it still lying on the ground fresh wailing waves rolled out of you. You asked if we could save it.

              “We can’t save him buddy.”

              You pounded my chest with your two little fists, hot tears turned angry. “Then you shouldn’t have shot him.”

              I had Ian dress the thing away from you and we packed it in early. You wouldn’t say a word the whole ride home, didn’t even leap when I asked if you wanted to stop for a soft serve. Mom asked how it went when we got home.

              “Daddy killed a bird.” That was all you said.

              Christ it’s messy in here. Useless junk accumulated over the years. Bikes hanging from the ceiling, trembling from the draft sneaking under the poorly insulated door. Two ancient sleds on the wall, the metal runners far too sharp for children but that’s exactly who they were for. Tools in disarray. An armoire with a gash in the oak near its iron handle. Three enormous bins stacked on top of one another. Masking tape labels, undifferentiated, that say simply “outdoors”. I steady a stool and step onto its shaky surface. I unstack the boxes and my lower spine groans.

              It was a Sunday I took you duck hunting with me. Mom was in the kitchen fixing you a peanut butter sandwich the next morning, pregnant with your sister, Grace, belly protruding like a bowling ball. I packed it into a brown paper bag while she licked the knife and said I’d take you to school myself. Told her some white lie about getting time off her feet and she should take it easy and have a bath and I’d even pick you up from school at the end of the day. She was skeptical, certainly aware that something was amiss, but offers of solitary hours were far-between and the prospect of a warm bath too enticing to turn down. I called the school from the garage and let them know you’d be home sick for the day.

              I shuffled you into the truck and you were still pouting but I kept a straight face and only let myself grin when I pulled you out and we weren’t in the parking lot of the elementary but rather my favorite stream in Willow state park where the trout get fat in the Fall.

              “I’ve got something to show you.”

              Your eyes two moons. In my hands a fishing rod, a line, and a bright red spinner lure. The only thing brighter: your smile stretched ear-to-ear.

              The fluorescent tubes hum overhead. One flickers but stubbornly perseveres. Here we go. Rubber boots and waders. Tangled lines from past excursions. A tacklebox with all the bait and a landing net as well. I click the tacklebox open and organize things a bit. Vests and rain coats I put in the cab of the truck, boots and waders and rods go in the bed. I spread the cover over the back and rest on the stool. Lucy wanders in and rests her head on my lap.

              “We’ll try the first few together, okay? So here’s what we do: rock once, rock twice, and then we toss in a straight line, stop with the rod, we follow through, and then once it’s in the water we reel her in slow.” I demonstrated once on my own. Then I stood behind you, showed you how to grip. We rocked together, my hands on your forearms. “One rock, two, then….toss!” The lure flew twenty feet and landed with a tiny splash. “Alright, now bring it back with the reel. Slow, like you’re winding a toy.”

              You reeled. I patted you on the back, proud. “That was great Adam! Do you wanna try the next one on your –

              No opportunity to finish.

              In the stream there was a massive leap. A rainbow trout glinting in the sun, it attacked the bait. How the rod stayed in your hands I will never know because that fish gave a great big jerk on the line but still it wasn’t enough to tug away from you. I hung on with you and we reeled with all our might. It thrashed and twisted violently.

              “Grab the net Adam! Grab it!” You relinquished the rod and held the net giggling like a mad man. When there was no line left to reel, I dumped him sideways. You held him high like a prize.

              I can hear tinkering in the house now. Lucy plods out to discover who is up.

              Your elation becomes near-instant terror. “The hook is stuck in his mouth! He’s going to die! Dad, get it out! Get it out!” Your grand prize has morphed into a grenade. You drop it on the loose sediment of the shore and turn your back to it, hands in your eyes.

              “Easy, easy.” Your back still turned to me, palms stemming tears. “Look”.

              You turn to see. With small pliers I bend the lure that has twisted into a tangled snare. The metal hook complies, then it comes free. The trout writhes. I grab him and hold him steady with two hands. Your sobbing has stopped.

              “Come here, son. Touch him.”

              You take a few timid steps. Your eyes swollen and red looking into mine. Then, with three fingers, you touch him just below the fin. A smile on your face. I feel your nervous system exhale.

              “Now what?” You ask. A wood pecker hammers away high above.

              “Now, we put him back.”

              We place him in the water together and his dorsal roars to life. A large splunk as he motors away.

              I turn off the garage lights and return to the kitchen. First light is illuminating. My breaths are tiny clouds in its radiance.

              “Hey, son.”

              “Hey, dad.”

              Your mother and I were blindsided when you enlisted. It was never on our radar. I suppose neither were two jets barreling into the twin towers. Patriotic fever in those days. Our little community and those adjacent sent a lot of young boys to the middle east.

              Your mother, distraught, tortured with grief. Her special little guy.

              “Smart boys don’t go to war Adam. People with any type of future don’t go to the desert to shoot other scared, lost boys.”

              You calm and understanding. “I’m not going to shoot anyone mom. I’m going to take care of scared boys who have taken bullets themselves.”

              “Please”, she sobbed. “Please don’t do this.”

              But there was no convincing you, and no matter how frightened I was for you I was also immensely proud.

Eighteen months later you were in Fallujah. Ten months on the ground. You tore shrapnel out of infantry muscles. Applied pressure to wounds you knew were fatal, carmine splotches seeping through sheet after sheet of heavy gauze. Made tourniquets for limbs blown to bits by roadside IED’s, jagged bone fragments poking through skin, tibia chiclets lost in the dirt.

And then an IED came for you.

              “I was thinking about taking a drive this morning.”

              You’re pouring coffee. Rose quartz light invading the kitchen.

              “How about it? Wanna come with?”

              Your eyes are buried in the back of your skull. Dark bags beneath the sockets.

              “I don’t know dad. I haven’t slept at all.”

              I give you a sheepish smile. “Ditto.”

              You smile back. “Sure.”

              An emergency evacuation. A life-saving surgery that amputates above the right knee. Your eyes in Germany, groggy, in-and-out of consciousness. Your mother and I terrorized, gasping for news back home. A complicating infection and a resulting fever that wouldn’t quit. Two days of silence. Finally, a phone call.

              You were going to make it.

              Nine more surgeries to follow over the next two years. Physical therapy and insomnia. Night terrors. At four o’clock I was up this morning. At two you were screaming murder in your bed. Endless pharmacology. Pills for pain. Pills for PTSD. Pills for insomnia and night terrors and anxiety. You, fading away. Your personality an infrequent visitor I rarely glimpse. That’s something I could never say out loud.

              The leaves are all down. A galaxy of colors a month ago. Now it’s all rotting on the coniferous floor. Brilliance comes and goes.

              A psychiatric review and mandated six months at the V.A. clinic when a character in the novel you’re writing embarks on a mass shooting. They changed your dosage. I removed anything with a firing pin from the property to be safe. I believe you that it’s fiction.

              The tires rumble on the gravel road. Forty-one degrees on the dashboard. It’s warmed up. The trailhead is barely visible. Overgrown brush and branches swoop over its demarcation reclaiming the flagging efforts of an underfunded forest service. I park on the side of the road and get to unloading all of the gear.

              “It’s freezing dad.”

              I give him a playful bump on the shoulder. “C’mon, just a few casts.”

              We wade into the current and alternate lines. Silence is good conversation for now. Cathartic. Birdsongs chorus down upon us. Time slips away.

              “Hey dad.”


              “You remember when I caught that trout when I was a little kid?”

              “I do.”

              A deer guides her fawn on the opposite shore.



              You pause. “Will things ever be the same again?”

              The fawn and the mother are gone.

              “Ya know son, I don’t know if they ever will.”

              A splash on the end of your line.

              “But that doesn’t mean we can’t make ourselves new.”

November 11, 2023 22:17

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Lucas Mark
11:02 Nov 29, 2023

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