Hand in hand, your family and some friends stand in a circle around your father. Ten seconds have passed since his last breath, and you’re counting, wondering if it was his last breath or his last breath. Your eyes lock on his face, and you try to remember when he last opened his eyes and looked around. Days, at least.
The memory blooms in your head, something like a flower or a drop of ink expanding in water. He sat in his recliner, a paper plate in his lap. With a quivering hand, he forked up a piece of your sister’s chocolate sheet cake. His favorite. You pulled your hands into fists as he lifted the bite to his mouth, hoping he wouldn’t drop it. For a second, you considered helping him. After all, isn’t that what sons do for their fathers? You decided against it, though. Some things are more important, like the satisfaction of self-reliance, even when the very concept has eroded and fallen apart. When his lips closed around the bite, your thoughts were a celebration.
He chewed, frowned. “I can’t taste anything,” he said to no one. Then he set the plate on the floor, leaned back, and closed his eyes.
. . . Inhale . . .
“Oh, thank you so much. Thank you, Jesus.”
Shut up, Anna, you think. Shut up, shut up, shut up. You know she won’t, though. Your stepsister’s the woman who spent two years trying to raise the money to buy a bus and start her own tent revival. Four days ago, you saw her try to baptize one of your nephews with a bottle of Sprite. No, shutting up is not something she’s going to do. Instead, she’ll just keep on thanking Jesus. Thank you for lung cancer, and thank you for agonizing chemotherapy, and thank you for killing a man’s taste buds a few days before the rest of him so he can’t even enjoy his last dessert. Thanks a ton, Jesus. You’re a real goddamn peach.
. . . Exhale . . .
You start counting again, working on your own breathing so you can squash down some of the anger simmering in your chest. There are more important things at the moment, because you’re sure this is it. When your sister squeezes your right hand, you think she realizes the same thing. Seventy-two years, and this is his last breath. Your father’s. Dad. Gone.
And then he is gone. Thirty seconds passes. A minute. Two. No other breath comes. The circle of hands watches for a long time, and eventually you realize you’re holding your breath, imitating without knowing. You don’t breathe again until you hear the rattling of the hospice nurse in the kitchen as she collects the various bottles of pain meds. Then, you hug your sister and then your brother and then your stepmother. Everyone gets a turn.
“Thank you, Jesus.”
Raw emotion scratches your stepsister’s voice, and that’s the worst part. She’s not playing a role. Every word she says, she believes. It makes you swallow a shot of guilt with your anger. You swallow a few thoughts, too. Mean ones. They won’t help anybody.
• • • •
An hour passes. People from . . . somewhere . . . wheel your father’s body out of the living room and take him away. Your sister offered to handle those details, so you don’t know where they’re taking him or what happens next. It’s all white noise. Your grief acts as the signal, a sad whine that cuts through everything else and oscillates in the center of you.
You stand in the back yard, a paper plate in your hand. From the same plastic sleeve as the one your father balanced on his lap a few days ago. Two pieces of fried chicken and a little heap of potato salad sit undisturbed, because you’re really not hungry. You just want to be alone for a little bit.
A large tree stands at the yard’s furthest edge, and you watch it. Somewhere inside its calm leaves, a bird trills. The September air is still.
The bird’s song keeps you from hearing your stepsister’s footsteps in the grass until she’s at your side.
“It’s a beautiful day,” she says.
“Yeah.” Your thoughts churn, so you funnel them into a bottle and shove a cork down to keep them in check.
She holds both her hands out, palms up. Opening and closing them a couple of times, she looks as though she’s trying to grab hold of the sunshine. “It’s . . . God did this for Dad, you know? Gave him a beautiful day for his trip to Heaven.”
Just like that, the cork pops free. Your thoughts rush out before you can grab hold of them again. Instead, they do the grabbing, snatching Anna’s hand.
The meaty sound of Anna’s palm against her face is like a cold steak dropped onto a kitchen counter. A gasp follows close on its heels, and then there’s only the bird’s incessant trilling. When you look at her, she’s wearing a shocked expression.
“Are you okay?” you ask.
Her jaw works, mouth opening and closing, but she doesn’t speak. A question fills her eyes.
“You should maybe sit down or something,” you answer. “It’s been a long day.”
Slowly, she nods. Without a word, she turns and walks back to the house. You listen for the whisper of the glass door sliding open and shut, and then you smile. It’s an ugly smile.
• • • •
After giving your stepmother one more hug and asking if she’s sure she’s okay — she lies and says yes — you leave. Some would say the setting sun is painting the sky, but all you can think is that it’s vomiting up half a dozen reds and purples. Anna didn’t say anything for the last few hours you stayed, and it occurs to you that maybe she thought God moved her hand. The idea makes you groan.
As you drive away from the house where your stepmother now lives alone, you inspect the cracks you’ve formed in the past few days. There’s one from watching your dad realize he couldn’t taste anything. Another from counting those last few breaths. The biggest crack — practically a fissure in your heart — formed when you let the cork slip free, when you made Anna slap herself before you could rein your thoughts in again. Turning left out of the subdivision and onto the main road, heading home, you start trying to glue the cracks, to put everything back together.
The radio clicks on, starts scanning stations, and you know it’s your doing, your brain frantically searching for some kind of distraction. Irritated, you reach out with your hand and snap off the radio. “Get it together,” you say. And you wish you could heed your own advice. People lose fathers every day. You should be able to deal. You can manage pain. You can manage regret. Dammit, get it together.
The truth is a different matter, though. Loss isn’t something you can fight, not something to simply manage. In your chest, you feel it like gray worms working at your heart, burrowing in and ripping, spoiling it.
You decide to drown the bastards and drown your roiling thoughts right alongside them. A quick stop at a convenience store, and you grab a twelve-pack of cheap beer. Because of some strange Indiana law, they have to sell the beer warm. Doesn’t matter. You tuck the box under your arm before nestling it into the passenger seat. Warm beer will do the job just as well as the cold stuff.
It takes twenty minutes of driving for you to find a good spot, two gravel ruts that lead deep into the trees that stand guard over the Ohio River. Worrying someone might already be there — teenagers getting stoned, or clumsily figuring out each other’s bodies, maybe — gives you a momentary distraction from the grief, but it crumbles when you find yourself alone. The calm night doesn’t help your mood, just wraps you in near-total silence. Your footsteps don’t even make any noise as you approach the shoreline, tear open the cardboard box, and pop the tab on the first beer. The only sound is the lazy lapping of waves against the muddy bank. A sad metronome.
You stand while you drink the first beer, grimacing a little after each swallow. When you’re done, you set the empty on the ground and consider stomping it flat, crush it with your thoughts instead. The second goes the same way, but you sit down in the mud for the third and the fourth. Your head swims, and crushing cans grows more difficult. The fourth doesn’t smash flat, but crumples an inch at a time, twisting in on itself. Good. Another beer, and you can only dent the can a little. Even better.
Maybe you’re not proud of it, but you do this sometimes. It helps. Riding a good drunk keeps your brain foggy, keeps you from snapping your thoughts out like whips. Took you a long time to figure that out, and more than a few family members have suggested you might have a drinking problem. Sitting by the river, a dumb smile stretches your face, and you think they’re right. The truth is, you do have a drinking problem. If you don’t drink enough, you can be a real problem.
You can barely remember when you discovered your ability. It started with a slammed door, you sitting on your bed and petulantly thinking you just wanted to be alone. At first, you weren’t even sure it was your doing, but a few weeks of opening and shutting the bedroom door convinced you otherwise. Within months, you could use your thoughts on the dog, making him sit and trot and roll over. You hadn’t learned to be scared of it yet.
Beer number six, and the fog in your brain grows thicker. Above you, a tapestry of stars tilts back and forth, spins a little. You want to close your eyes, but you know that would just make things worse. Maybe you’ve overdone it a bit. Maybe you don’t care.
You don’t hear the footsteps until it’s too late, until they’re maybe a yard from your outstretched arm. The soft scuffle of boots in dirt snaps your eyes into something close to focus, and you wonder if drinking by the river is illegal until you see the two teenagers standing over you.
“Hey, man,” one of them says. He’s tall, thick like a linebacker or some other football guy. His blond hair looks like it needs a wash, and he wears a hooded sweatshirt that might be gray. The light and the beers make it hard to tell. His friend is a little thinner, his head shaved. The black curls of a tribal tattoo peek out from under a rock T-shirt. This one nods, hands deep in his pockets.
“Hi,” you say. Hopefully, you don’t sound too drunk. Bad enough you’ve been sprawled in the dirt. The crushed cans all around you probably don’t help, either.
“Just hanging out?” the blonde asks.
“Yeah. Guess you could say it’s been a real bitch of an evening.”
Tribal chuckles a little, scuffles his booted feet in the dirt. “Heard that.”
The blonde throws a nod at the cardboard box beside you. “Don’t suppose you got enough of those to share?”
You give him a foggy smile. “Yeah, sure.” With a clumsy hand, you reach into the box and retrieve a can, toss it to him. You start to do the same for Tribal, but he reaches out, wants it handed to him. Fair enough. So you lean forward, warm can in your fingers.
A sudden nervous jolt hits you, variables adding up in a way you don’t like, but his fingers close around your wrist before you can think to do anything. You try to jerk free, but his grip is angry iron. His other hand jerks free of his pocket. He holds something you can’t identify with your blurred vision.
When he pushes a button, it all makes sense. The spray hits you full in the face, and fire replaces your eyes. You scream as the pepper spray burns its way through you, but then your scream collapses into a choke as the fire hits your throat and lungs.
He lets go of your wrist, and you writhe on the shore, hands over your face, howling. The pain is everything. It sears away grief and thoughts and the rest of the world. Only when the first kick catches you hard in the ribs does it ease the slightest bit. If you could breathe, the boot in your side would knock the air from you. Instead, it just makes you curl into a tight ball. You fight to cover your stinging ribs and burning skull. A punch sneaks through, crashing into your ear, and again you howl. Stars erupt behind your eyelids.
The pair beat you mercilessly. You lose track of the kicks and punches, and even the agony searing your eyes and lungs melts away some, leaving you sinking in a dull, throbbing pain. The blows finally stop, and you hear a voice through the wash of static that’s filled your head.
“Shit, man! Grab his wallet!”
Frantic hands take hold of you, roll you onto your stomach. You can’t fight back. Twisting your head to one side so you won’t suffocate in the dirt takes all your will. Those hands fumble at you, and you feel your wallet disappear. As a hand explores another pocket, snagging your car keys, a pair of realizations strikes you. One, you were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. A pair of assholes went looking for trouble and found you. Two, the beating has burned away the fog. You can think straight.
For a single instant, you consider corking your thoughts. Instead, you lash out. Hard. Reaching through pain and confusion and air, you grab hold of your attackers. One of them makes a sharp clucking sound, but then there’s only silence and the lapping waves and the receding static in your ears.
Clamping your eyes shut, you grind the heels of your hands against them. Something between a growl and a whine pushes through your teeth, arcing into a roar as you attack.
You hear punches and kicks and growls and grunts as you paw at your eyes, fighting to see. A single scream is cut short, replaced by the hard whoosh of air as a fist collides with a gut. Something jingles as it hits the ground, and you hope it’s your keys. A whine of pain twists into a roar of hatred. Something slams against a tree and then splashes into the river’s shallows. Gasps and growls and barking cries swell into a chorus of violence, and then a single, agonized wail pierces everything, lancing the night like a hot pin.
The shriek clears the last of the fog, and you bottle up your thoughts in the same moment you manage to open your eyes and see. Everything goes cold. You forget the burning of your eyes and lungs and stare at the two men standing in the Ohio.
Tribal stares, too. Horror freezes his face, his entire body. Only his thumbs move, digging deeper into the blonde’s eyes. You don’t remember making him do it, but you know you lashed out, that you wanted them to hurt each other, to pay. Now, you just want the wailing to stop. It’s too loud, slicing through the night, and you need quiet.
You send out your thoughts again, grabbing hold of Tribal, and he shoves his friend beneath the water. The blonde struggles, thrashing in the shallows, but you slip a thought his way, and he stops resisting.
It takes longer than expected, and Tribal whines and whimpers through all of it. He wants to scream, you can tell, but you don’t let him. Even with your blurred vision, you can see his jaw muscles lock as you keep his teeth clamped together. Three minutes pass, and bubbles stop reaching the water’s surface. Just to be sure, you make Tribal hold his friend under for another five.
When you finally have Tribal let go, the blonde’s body doesn’t float to the surface. You wait, keeping the teenager still, and try to make decisions. Time goes fast and then slow and back again. You see Tribal blink, and you can tell he’s shaking, wanting more than anything to escape or disappear. Maybe he just wants to take it all back. Only he can’t take it back, and neither can you.
Knowing you can’t undo this, that you have to see it through to the end, is an awful weight, and it fills your chest, makes breathing a chore. Your face screws into a tight knot, and you search for any other way out. There is none, though. You have to do this.
A sudden realization jabs you hard in the brain, and you search the ground for your wallet. Seeing in the dark is hard, even harder with your damaged eyes, but you find the leather square in the mud and check it. Whatever cash you had is gone, but your credit cards are where you left them, same as your license and anything else that can identify you. It’s a tiny mercy, but it counts. Your keys you find near the water’s edge. They go in your pocket.
You look back to Tribal, see him knee-deep in the river. Maybe he’s shivering, or maybe he’s trying to break free of your grip. In the darkness, you can’t tell.
“I’m sorry,” you say. “Really, I am.”
Is there a brighter flash of panic in his eyes? It doesn’t matter. You have him, and you can’t let him go. You can manipulate things — manipulate people — but you can’t erase memories.
“I’m . . . dammit. I’m so sorry.”
You turn Tribal away from you. Again, he whines, and it’s the only sound you can think of that’s worse than your father’s last breaths. As quickly as you dare, you walk him into the deeper waters. In a few seconds, he’s waist-deep. Then the water laps at his chest. His whimpering climbs an octave, and you press your hands to your ears. It doesn’t help, and you hear his terrified note until it’s replaced by bubbles and sputtering.
His head disappears under the dark water, but you keep moving him forward. When he bobs up, his back breaking the surface, you tuck his head and make him breathe deep. In that instant, he almost breaks free. A single arm splashes out of the water and comes down again, but you clench your thoughts like a fist, and he goes still.
You watch him drift in the river’s current, too close to the shore to gain speed. By the time he’s out of your grip, his body is limp. You’ve felt his brain stop resisting, his thoughts first struggling against yours before giving in and then disappearing entirely. He’s gone, and now you need to get gone, too.
Swallowing the panic, you scoop up your empties and cram them back into the cardboard case. The sting slowly recedes from your eyes, and the beer fog creeps back in. Seeing straight proves an almost impossible challenge. As you stumble back to your car and leave the scene, creeping past a mud-splashed pickup they must have driven, you think about everything that can place you there: tire tracks and footsteps, no doubt a dozen other things you can’t even imagine. One hand on your heart as though it might slow the galloping thing, you tell yourself there’s nothing really tying you to their deaths. You didn’t touch them. They touched the hell out of you, but you didn’t even lift a finger in return.
• • • •
The drive home passes in a blur. You don’t remember much except a desperate fight to drive carefully. If a cop pulls you over . . . well, you don’t want to think about it. Too many questions, and you’re in no condition to answer them.
Parking the car outside your apartment feels like a minor miracle. You know there’s shore dirt on the seat you’ll need to clean, but it can wait. Right now, you want nothing more than to get inside and pour milk over your eyes before taking a shower. The rest will come in time, no matter how awful it may prove to be.
Thank Christ there’s still milk in the carton. It bathes your face and eyes, soothing you almost completely, and in that moment you think you’ve never felt anything better.
“Thank you, Jesus,” you say, and then you fill your kitchen with nervous laughter.
• • • •
Your stepmother decides to have your father’s body cremated. It helps, because it pushes back the memorial by a week, giving out-of-town family a chance to travel, and you a chance to not look like a pepper spray victim. Other than cleaning the car and running to the corner store for beer, you stay locked in your apartment, ordering pizza and watching the local news, waiting for the shoe to drop.
Sure enough, your attackers are mentioned on Tuesday. You’re on your fourth cold one when you hear the anchor say, “Two Indiana teens were declared missing today,” and your stomach coils. An instant later, the blonde and Tribal appear on your television screen, their names posted beneath. The blonde, you learn, was Ray Tarver, while Tribal went by Edward Jenkins. Local guys, both of them, but you’d already figured that, same as you figure it’s only a matter of time before one or both of them is found. The fact that their truck hasn’t already been spotted surprises you more than a little. Or maybe it has been found, and the authorities are just keeping it under wraps. Doesn’t matter. You pound another three beers to flush out the guilt, and they wash away the questions.
Stumbling to the bathroom, you tell yourself it doesn’t matter, not one bit. No one will find your fingerprints on them, just some footprints and tire tracks in the area. You didn’t keep anything of theirs, and if the police insist you get checked out by a doctor for some reason, it will only show that you got the crap kicked out of you. You’re in the clear, you tell yourself, but you’re not sure you believe it . . .
. . . Not one bit.
• • • •
The police find the truck the next day. A search of the area finds Tarver’s body about two hundred yards downstream. His gouged eyes make for particularly gruesome and ratings-grabbing news. You’re not sure why the police let that little detail slip, but it lodges the sound of his screams back in your head. A few more beers quiet them down, and you wonder how long you can stay drunk. As if to prove a point, you try to squash your latest empty. No dice. Doesn’t matter how much you concentrate, the aluminum refuses to so much as crinkle.
Every footstep terrifies you. When you hear someone climbing the steps outside, you convince yourself a knock on the door will follow, a man in uniform waiting to ask questions to which you haven’t rehearsed the answers nearly enough. He’ll know you’re lying, take you in for questioning. Charge you.
But the footsteps always move past, either climbing to the third floor or continuing down the landing to another unit. You release a breath you didn’t realize you’d been holding, then grab another beer. Your face sags, eyelids drooping. When you get up to take a piss, you stumble into first one wall and then another. Whatever. It keeps you from thinking. Keeps you from hurting anybody.
You can’t be drunk at your dad’s funeral, though. Buzzed, sure, but you need to be able to function. Anything less would be pathetic. Somewhere beneath all the fear and guilt — Jesus, there’s so much guilt, like a black sludge filling you to bursting — you still feel a tiny pool of self-respect.
So you shower and shave, brush your teeth and put on deodorant. You spend a little too long in front of your closet, trying to decide what to wear. The funeral is really little more than a memorial in your father’s back yard, but it’s not a place for a tee-shirt and jeans. Gray slacks and a black dress shirt. Your hands only tremble a little as you work the buttons one after the other. They tremble less when you tie your shoes. By the time you’re ready to leave, you look more or less like a normal person. You even think driving won’t be much of a problem.
• • • •
A blue sky drapes the day, and the grass in your father’s back yard is a pleasant and healthy green. That bird is back, trilling away. Everything looks right. The world remains a good place.
You approach your family with your hands in your pockets, only removing them when it’s time to deliver a series of hugs. Your stepmother first, then your sister. Then your brother and his wife.
“You doing okay, man?” your brother asks. “Haven’t heard from you all week.”
“I decided to play hermit,” you say.
“I get that. I needed some time, too.”
And then it’s Anna’s turn. She smiles a sad smile, and you almost think she’s forgotten about what you did a week prior — dismissed it as something she imagined, maybe — but then she flinches when you lean down to give her a hug. The reaction isn’t so strong anyone else notices, but it stabs you right in the chest. You shouldn’t have done it. After having your ability (even after the past week, you don’t know whether to call it a gift or a curse) for so long, you should know better.
“I’m sorry,” you whisper. She nods against your shoulder.
When you pull away, she’s crying. Everybody is, and you can’t blame them. It’s real now. Your father is gone and never coming back. All that grief, those gray worms digging deeper and deeper. It’s too real, and it’s all too much.
You can’t help yourself. For an instant, you try, but sadness and stress grease the cork.
Your thoughts escape, and one by one, your family’s mouths ratchet upward.