LAUREN RAMER - AGAINST ALL ENEMIES
Against All Enemies
It was a heavy June evening the night he came back into their lives.
“I don’t know,” Susie said as she cleared the dinner dishes.
“He’s my brother.” Sean leaned against the counter, watching his wife of fourteen years. Her silhouette remained remarkably undisturbed by the numerous pregnancies it had taken to carry their children to term.
Susie pursed her lips as she gazed over the kitchen sink into the backyard, subconsciously counting heads until she’d located all three. “I’m aware of that. But what if he’s changed?”
“How? You barely know him to begin with.”
“I know enough. The kids—”
“Will finally get to meet their uncle. It’ll be good for everybody.” He lowered his voice. “This is what a family’s supposed to do for each other, and I’m the only one he has left now.”
Susie scrubbed at a very clean plate and shook her head. “I could never do something like that.”
After over a decade in the army, and most of that time served overseas, Manny’s latest deployment ended a week ago. A gutted house welcomed his return. On the kitchen counter was a Post-it note from his wife, who’d found herself a man that came home every night. The palm-sized apology topped divorce papers bearing her signature and shocks of neon indicating all the places he needed to initial. When Sean’s calls to the house went unanswered for several days, he drove the five hours south and found Manny rank and shaggy, spent cigarettes smoldering on the carpet, his eyes gone blank as though she’d taken his sanity, too.
“Still,” Susie continued. “What about the kids? If he’s having some kind of breakdown, they don’t need to see that.”
“His wife just left him. I think he gets to be upset. Besides, I don’t think that neighbor of his is going to be much help. When I asked her to keep an eye on him, she kind of blew me off.”
When she didn’t respond, Sean turned off the faucet and folded her into his arms, inhaling the scent of rose shampoo as her hair tickled his chin. He kissed her lightly on the forehead. “It’ll be fine. Trust me.”
Sean picked up him up the next day and they drove back in a fog of silence punctuated with one-sided, nervous chatter. “Susie’s been on my case about getting the radio fixed, but I haven’t had time yet. Maybe tomorrow. Or you could take a look at it, if you want. I don’t know if you know how to do that but it might be worth a shot.”
At last, they turned into the subdivision. “Just about there,” Sean announced. “We’ve got you set up in the den. She was talking about a curtain for the stairs, but I don’t know if she got around to it. Here’s a key. Uh, no smoking in the house, obviously. Outside is fine, just don’t let her see you. All right. Well, this is it. What do you think?”
Manny nodded, eyes flickering over the modest split-level, the untamed yard, the bicycle sprawled at the top of the driveway. The rest of the street was more of the same, family homes and unfinished business.
“You good with all that? Susie’s…well, you know how she gets…or maybe you don’t, it’s been a while. Dammit!” Sean braked hard. “I’ve told him a million times not to leave his bike in the driveway. They never learn.” He reversed a few feet before cutting the engine. “Anyway, here we are."
Sean swung the duffle bag out of the trunk, leaving Manny to follow him with the trash bag containing the rest of his belongings. Sean had barely touched the doorknob when his youngest careened into the screen. “Daddy!” she squealed.
“Hey!” He smiled as she wrenched the door open, and reached out for a hug. She latched onto his forearm instead and dropped into a dangle.
“Whoa!” Sean curled his fist toward his shoulder. “Suse! Have you seen Emma? All I’ve got here is a monkey.”
The four-year-old giggled. “No, it’s me, Daddy!”
“Scratch that. It’s a ‘Me-monkey.’” Dropping the bag, Sean began to swing her back and forth. “It won’t let go! I think I’m going to be stuck with a Me-monkey on my arm forever!”
“No, Daddy, it’s me!”
“Hmm…I wonder if the Me-monkey is ticklish?”
“Was that a ‘yes’?’”
“I’m not sure now. Only one way to find out.” He tiptoed his fingers up her belly toward her exposed underarms. She flailed and screeched, but hung on.
“Sean!” Susie rushed out of the kitchen at the sound of her daughter’s gasps, a dish towel in one hand and a faint spattering of marinara on her forearm. “Emma, let go.”
“I’m not Emma, I’m a Me-monkey!”
“Emma, now. Thank you. Sean, you know how she gets.”
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
“Watch your tone, young lady. Go wash up for dinner.” She turned back to her husband. “Where’s your brother?”
“Right!” Sean moved aside. “Come on in, Manny. Didn’t mean to leave you out there. You remember Susie.”
Manny coughed up a wad of phlegm, thought better of it, and snorted it back down. “Yep.”
“Please, come in,” she managed. “Sean? I’ve got to finish dinner. Will you get him settled?”
“Sure thing.” Sean grabbed the duffle bag and led Manny down the half-dozen steps on their right. “Here you go. It’s not much, but it should work for now. Half-bath over there, and you can just shower upstairs. Those drawers should be empty, if you want to unpack. The couch here folds out into a bed. I think Susie already made it up for you. Looks like she still owes you those curtains.” He turned, and grimaced. “Your boots…”
Manny looked down, then back at the muddied pale carpet. “Shit.”
A boy in thick glasses peered down at them from the top step. His magnified eyes bulged with shock. “That’s a bad word.”
“Caleb, this is your Uncle Manny.”
“He said a bad word. He has to put a quarter in the jar.”
“I think I’ve got one.” Sean dug into his pocket and dropped a few lint-dusted coins into his son’s hand before slipping past him into the kitchen.
“That doesn’t count,” Caleb muttered, glaring at his uncle. “You’re the one who said it.”
Manny slipped a battered wallet out of his back pocket and handed over a crumpled ten-dollar bill.
“That’s like…forty quarters.”
Manny slept worse than usual that night. At thirty-seven, his nerves were already stripped to the wire. Though his army years had certainly intensified the process, he’d been alert since childhood. The wind leaning into an unsteady tree became his father’s footsteps down the hall. The shriek of nocturnal prey waxed human in its agony. It wasn’t until now that Manny realized he depended on those false alarms to milk the stress from his system. The sepulchral silence of the den kept him wide-eyed and restless, prickling with the anticipation of a certain interruption at an uncertain time while the undistracted racket built up in his head.
He abandoned the pullout bed, which was no better than a flaccid Toy Story sheet draped over monkey bars, and folded it back into a couch. Its cushions were steeped in the smell of stale body odor and the dander of a long-departed cat, and at a solid six-foot-four, he wouldn’t fit there anyway. He spread a blanket on the floor and stretched out under the window, which he opened despite Susie’s earlier reminder about the AC.
Cold air fled into the balmy dark. An owl chortled. Crickets flirted. A light breeze cascaded over leaves. The tension in his shoulders eased its grip by a finger. His mind began to drift.
He and Sean had never been typical brothers. From the moment their mother came home from the hospital, this time with a baby carrier at her side like an afterthought, her eyes still masked in the fading butterfly of a broken nose, five-year-old Manny knew things were about to change. She was halfway to the bedroom before the baby’s squalling reminded her to bring him along.
Manny could still remember how casually his father condemned them all, the decay of black coffee on his breath. “That thing sounds just like your mom when she cries.” A week later, the county coroner carted his mother away in a bag, and Manny realized if he didn’t protect the baby, no one would. He took his first blow soon afterwards, one that could’ve used stitches and ruined a dish towel instead. The baby got to keep crying.
By Sean’s senior year of high school, he had every bone intact, decent grades, and a girl he worshipped. Manny was happy for him until two weeks after graduation, when Sean married Susie Bridges in a courthouse ceremony and she made it clear to Manny that he was no longer needed. Lost, he enlisted.
He met Tanya Redding at a bar after his second tour of duty and married her six weeks later, infatuated with the first woman who seemed to genuinely care about him. The first time he was deployed as a married man, Tanya comforted herself by telling him to look at the moon whenever he missed her and know she’d be doing the same. He saw no reason to point out he’d be several time zones away where daytime came at night.
As the years slipped by, Tanya lost patience with the frequent relocation and Manny’s long absences of indeterminate measure. Their time together between deployments became its own hopeless war zone, all raw edges and resentment over issues long-festered in isolation. He hated her now, deeply, for what she’d done to him, almost as much as he hated his mother for leaving the way she had. Quitters, the both of them. Cowards.
And by Manny’s definition, cowards didn’t survive. The few people who did were those handfuls of coal that absorbed all that pressure and became pressure themselves, unbreakable. Not cowards. Otherwise, what would that make him?
Manny had never felt more alone in his life. His deployment was nearly over anyway, but he suspected the incident expedited matters. He was still tethered to an IV when he found out they meant to send him home by the end of the week. They assured him that he wasn’t being discharged or suspended or otherwise dismissed for damaging reasons, and the paperwork confirmed this. There was something rushed and close-mouthed about the whole process that he didn’t trust, but his hands were tied. He knew there was a good chance any further inquiry would create the paper trail spelling the end of his career.
Stateside, he returned to the house that was no longer a home, expecting a wife who was no longer his, and now he was living with a family of strangers. All that, he could’ve handled, but on top of what happened, it was too much. Every attempt to pass time with some meaningless distraction tripped a wire in his brain, throwing him back to that day he desperately needed to forget. Mere details – the twitch of a stranger’s lips, a particular sound from the television, the smell of a flat iron left plugged in – dominoed every alarm in his being, blasting the air from his chest and taking him out at the knees, pain jetting through that mangled crater in his shoulder like it was happening all over again, and he’d stagger outside and light up with large trembling fingers and gasp through the cigarette as if he could suddenly breathe no other way.
“Inside or outside?” Susie snapped that first afternoon. “I’m sorry, but you’re letting all the cool air out. It’s like I tell the kids.”
He picked outside.
The following morning, Manny immediately took up post on the back porch with a fresh pack of Camels, a Sudoku book he’d found on the back of the toilet, and a can of Coke. Susie protested when Sean came home the previous evening with a case of soda for his brother. “What’s wrong with coffee?”
Sean shrugged. “He doesn’t drink coffee.”
“Well, the kids don’t drink soda.”
“Good thing it’s not for the kids, then.”
In the morning, she offered him coffee anyway. “Soda is so bad for your teeth.”
Manny had the backyard to himself for less than an hour before the kids were loosed “to enjoy the weather while it lasts.” Emma ran toward the swing set, and the oldest boy — Jason? Joshua? — slowly trailed after her, eyes glued to his phone. Caleb hovered.
Manny lit up immediately.
“You’re not supposed to smoke cigarettes.”
Manny exhaled and flicked ash into the empty Coke can. “You’re not supposed to smoke cigarettes.”
“But you’re not supposed to, either.”
“Because they’re bad for your health and your wallet.”
“Your mom tell you that?”
Caleb nodded importantly.
“Well, she’s right. They are bad for you. But you know what’s worse?”
“Being a narc.”
“What’s a narc?”
“Ask your mom when you tell her what I’m up to.” Manny dug a quarter out of his pocket. “For your jar.”
“Is that the n-word?”
Manny snorted. “No. But she isn’t gonna like this one, either.”
Caleb disappeared into the house, and Manny turned back to his Sudoku. He’d never been much for numbers, but words set him off easily these days.
He didn’t have time to finish one box before Emma scampered over to investigate. Sun-bronzed curls haloed out from a wispy ponytail. Dirt smudged her button nose and upper lip. She got right in his face. “I’m bored.”
He grunted and jetted smoke out of his nostrils. It didn’t bother her like he thought it would. “So?”
“What are you doing?”
“What’s it look like?”
“I dunno. Why does Caleb get to go inside but not me?”
“Because he’s a narc.”
“What’s a narc?”
“Oh. Okay.” She wormed her way onto his lap with warm, sticky limbs. “I want one.”
She pointed to his cigarette.
A smile tugged at his chapped lips. “F—uh, no.”
“Because these are just for adults.”
“Because…well, they make your teeth fall out, for one. You don’t want to lose all your teeth, do you?”
“Caleb’s teeth fall out and then the tooth fairy leaves a dollar under his pillow and then he can buy whatever he wants with it.”
“Yeah, well, the tooth fairy only likes pretty teeth.”
“Sure she does. See these?” He flashed his own set, crooked and graying like headstones. “Nobody’s coming for these.”
“Because they’re ugly. I told you.”
She squirmed. “But the tooth fairy–”
He grunted as some impossibly sharp part of her found his bad shoulder, and she stopped mid-sentence, startled. Something like pain rippled through him. He slid her off his lap. “There is no tooth fairy, all right? Your mom’s the one puts the dollar there.”
Her jaw dropped. He expected her to start crying and run off, but she simply stared at him in wonder. He fumbled for a cigarette, and dropped the lighter. “And while we’re on the subject, Santa Claus isn’t real, either.”
“He is, too,” she protested. “We sawed him at the mall. I told him all my Christmas presents.”
“Nothing but an old perv that wants to stuff his stocking. Hand me that lighter.”
It took her a minute to absorb this. “What’s a perv?”
“Santa Claus.” He lit up.
Silence settled between them again. Cicadas hissed over the hum of air conditioning units. Beyond the cypress hedge and balding spread of oak trees, bulldozers and backhoes carved and clanked away at the land recently cleared for a new housing development.
“I’m bored,” Emma announced.
“Sure you can."
“Jonathon won’t push me.”
“You don’t need him. Just pump your legs.”
She shot him a look, as though he’d just suggested she tuck herself into bed. Then her face brightened. “You can push me!”
“No I can’t.”
“Yes you can!” She grabbed his hand and tugged at it pathetically. “Please, please, please!”
He scowled at her, but slowly rose, joints creaking to life. “Five minutes.” Delighted, Emma raced ahead of him to the swing set. She wriggled into the unoccupied swing, short legs arcing within inches of her brother’s loosely-gripped phone.
Jonathon bristled. “Watch it.”
Manny ignored him. “You ready? I’m gonna give you a push to get you started, and then you gotta pump your legs.” He pulled back the plastic-encased chains and let go. Emma shrieked and giggled and flailed her legs. Manny stepped back and let the swing slow to a stop.
“Pump your legs this time.” He gave her a second push, then retreated to the porch, her laughter bubbling behind him. He pulled his lawn chair up to the little patio table, fresh cigarette dangling from his lips, and removed from his pocket the deck of cards he’d carried with him every day since boot camp and laid out a game of Solitaire.
Emma promptly trotted up the porch steps, Jonathon drifting behind. “I wanna play,” she announced, climbing into a chair across the table.
“This isn’t a two-player game.”
“I want to play Go-Fish.” She beamed.
Manny sighed. “Fine.” He glanced at his nephew. “What about you?”
“Go-Fish is for babies,” he scoffed, heading for the house.
“We can’t go in yet,” Emma said.
“I have to charge my phone, dummy.” He yanked the door shut behind him, succeeding the second time as his heel caught in the jamb at first.
Amused, Manny turned to his niece. “I know a game that’s more fun than Go-Fish. You got any money?”
“Of course you don’t,” he muttered. “You’re what, three?”
“Four.” She held up five fat fingers for inspection, then retracted one.
“Four, then. Now I want you to go inside, and get the Lucky Charms, okay? Just bring the whole box on out here.”
“Those are only for Special Breakfast.”
“What’s…never mind. I don’t wanna know.” He got the box himself and dumped some onto the patio table. “Help me sort— No, don’t eat ‘em yet.”
“This is a dumb game.”
“We’re setting up the game.”
“What is it?”
He tapped ash into the Coke can and shuffled the deck. “This first one’s called Texas Hold’em.”
That night, Manny stretched out in the den feeling unsettled. He’d burned through an unprecedented three packs, but for all the panic, nothing went wrong. Of course, these weren’t just random children. They were his brother’s kids, white and suburban and sheltered to a fault. They weren’t allowed to use Super Soakers or watch PG movies that Susie hadn’t prescreened. Nine-year-old Caleb still believed in the token holiday mascots, or at least he had until Emma corrected him at dinner.
But as June’s daily observations melted into July’s, Manny began to relax.
Jonathon, just shy of thirteen, did nothing but sulk. When he wasn’t texting, he communicated primarily with monosyllabic grunts that drove his mother crazy. His hair hung down over his eyes, provoking a twitch every ten seconds to clear his vision. His straight nose and sharp jawline suggested he’d be handsome one day, after the acne dissipated and he learned how to stand up straight, though his looks wouldn’t matter if he didn’t start using the deodorant Sean placed strategically around the house.
Caleb didn’t fit in with the other outcasts. He worried constantly, obeyed blindly, and reported any noncompliance without fail. His owlish appearance suggested intelligence, but he gave himself away in social situations that merited adaptation over rigid thinking. Amused, Manny sometimes toyed with his nephew’s inflexible policing. He helped himself to unscheduled food, left the toilet seat up, slurped at the dregs of his Cheerios, and belched unapologetically. He spent the ten dollars’ advance he’d given Caleb within the first week of his stay.
Sometimes, Manny found himself smiling.
But that’s how they got you. They scrambled your head with your heart, confusing what you knew you had to do with what you knew you could never do. All it took was that half-second of hesitation when a child wandered into your camp, his thin frame weighed down with too many layers in the sun-white heat, and you froze because what kind of monster guns down a kid?
He couldn’t afford to make a call like that again.
The third of July began like any other day. Manny woke up stiff and gasping at the tail of a nightmare. He waited until Susie left for her morning jog and the coffeemaker sputtered to a stop before venturing upstairs. Sean stood barefoot in his boxers, rubbing crust out of his eyes as he poured coffee. “Morning,” Sean yawned, phlegm catching in his throat. He handed Manny a can of Coke. They drank in silence as Sean half-listened to the morning news from the countertop television.
Mug drained, Sean excused himself to get ready for work, and Manny slunk back down to the den. His head ached over those few hours’ sleep, rotted with dreams. He folded up his blanket, then forgot where to put it. He had to put his shirt on three times to get it right-side out. He couldn’t find his lighter, and then he couldn’t find his Camels, and then it was too late to go upstairs. Susie was back from her run, making breakfast for the kids, and if their paths crossed he’d be forced to join them. Manny backed down the stairs and sank onto the bottom step to wait. He overheard Susie reminding Sean on his way out to get groceries, and his dismissive, “I know, I know. Love you!” as he raced out of the house, late as usual.
At last, chairs scraped across the tile and spoons pinged off empty bowls. A stampede of footfalls echoed over his head. “Use toothpaste, Emma! I know when you’re just wetting the brush.” He waited until they began their morning chores before venturing upstairs. His stomach growled.
Susie stood at the sink, scrubbing dried oatmeal out of large pot. She stiffened when she heard him open the fridge. “I thought you don’t eat in the morning.”
“Well, I guess when you just play with your dinner instead of eating it, you get hungry.” The pot banged loudly against the sink as she attacked a stubborn splotch of oatmeal. “I would have saved you some, but—”
“It’s fine.” He poured a bowl of cereal, and emptied the milk carton. He carefully returned it to the fridge door so she’d see, later, that they needed more.
Jonathon cut through the kitchen on his way to the front door, thumbs flying over his phone. A sheen of grease parceled out his hair.
Susie shut off the faucet and faced him, wiping her hands on a dish towel. “Hold up. Where do you think you’re going?”
“It’s been all of ten minutes. Don’t tell me you’re done already.”
“It’s not rocket science.”
She arched an eyebrow. “Tell you what. If that bathroom is spotless, you can go. If it isn’t, I get your phone for the rest of the day, and you can see Kurt some other day. Now, are you sure you’re done?”
Jonathon muttered something under his breath and skulked back upstairs, slamming the bathroom door behind him.
Susie shook her head, lips pressed together. “I don’t know what’s going on with him lately. He used to be the sweetest little boy.”
Manny wasn’t sure if he was supposed to say something to that. He stared down at his cereal, the Cheerios bloated and bobbing in their pool of milk.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “This isn’t your problem.”
He debated. “I can say something to him, if you want.”
“Oh gosh, no, it’s fine. His father’s the one who needs to do that. Thank you, though.” She frowned at the backyard.
Manny followed her gaze. Dandelions winked through thick tangles of emerald grass. “Gettin’ long,” he said.
“Oh, I know.”
He set his bowl on the counter. “Mower’s in the garage?”
Before Susie could respond, Caleb burst into the kitchen, cheeks flushed and furious. “Mom!”
“What’s a narc?”
“What? Where did you hear that word?”
“Emma called me one!” He hiccuped back tears. “She said it means me!”
Susie’s jaw slackened for a moment. “Emma!” She shouted. “Get down here right now!”
Manny slipped into the garage. He found the lawnmower, speckled with grass clippings and low on fuel, and topped off the tank before pushing it out into the sodden morning heat. He took a minute to smoke a cigarette, his first of the day, then perched a fresh one between his lips and yanked the power cord. The machine sputtered to life.
Ten minutes into the front yard, his tee was plastered with sweat. He peeled it off and tossed it onto a nearby shrub. His aim was still clumsy. Kaleidoscopic scar tissue hugged the top of his shoulder and curved up the base of his neck where the shrapnel carved off a slice of his silhouette. Echoes of smaller fragments stippled the right side of his face, most of the scars lost in his beard. He was lucky it missed his eyes, they said.
The grass bled sharp and green, its simple scent mingling with the odors of sweat, exhaust, and sun-softened blacktop. Manny kept his surroundings in relentless check, nervous as the mower chewed up all the white noise. A soldier needs his senses. He frequently cut the motor under the pretext of picking a rock out of the grass or flinging some yard toy aside, listening as he did. By the time he finished both yards and returned the lawnmower to the garage, the house was clean, the younger children were settled on the couch in front of the television, and Jonathon was nowhere to be seen. Manny fumbled around in the fridge for a bottle he’d seen stashed behind a cloudy Tupperware, his vision gone aquamarine in the sudden dim, and he downed the beer in a single gulp, too spent to care what Susie might say if she caught him. He ached for another. He’d have to grab a six-pack next time he went out for cigarettes.
Manny retreated to the porch. His hands shook as he reached into his shirt pocket only to realize he wasn’t wearing a shirt at all. It was baked onto a shrub in the front yard. He retrieved it, then realized they were in his pants pocket the whole time. Exasperated, he threw the shirt back onto the bush and returned to the porch. The first cigarette didn’t help at all. By the fourth, he was able to close his eyes for a moment and drink in the sounds of the fading afternoon.
He flinched. Emma stood at his elbow, her plump feet pale and bare against the weathered wood.
“Where’s your shoes?” he muttered.
“Weren’t you just watching TV?”
“Caleb picked a dumb show.” Her eyes lit up. “I wanna swing!”
“Go ahead.” He stubbed the butt out on the chair’s arm, and dropped it into the can, except the can was gone. The porch looked swept, too. Manny gritted his teeth.
“Pump your legs.”
“Yeah, well, it gets easier the more you do it.”
“Why can’t you push me?”
He lit up and took a long drag before responding. “Because you need to learn how to do things yourself.”
She squirmed closer. “Please, Uncle Manny?” She smelled like crackers and apple shampoo. Her breath in his face was sickly sweet. He recoiled. “Not now.”
“Please? Pretty please?” Her face drooped into a practiced pout.
He coughed up a wad of phlegm and spat it over the porch rail. She didn’t so much as blink. “Fine,” he grumbled. “Five minutes."
“Yay!” she shrieked, bobbing up and down on her toes as he struggled up out of the lawn chair. “What’s that?” She pointed. He followed her finger to the mangled flesh of his shoulder.
“Nothing.” He should’ve put that shirt back on.
“Yeah, well, we can’t all be pretty like you.” Manny heard himself telling her to go pick out a swing, that he’d be there in just a second. She darted across the yard, her laughter fading through the maze of his brain as he felt the searing pain of that moment all over again
that scrap slicing through fabric and skin
the hot spray of peppered metal a sudden swarm over his face
the blast hurling him into a puddle of dirt gone scarlet as though he were just another pebble
air gone to ash
that ringing so loud you thought you’d only hear feedback the rest of your life
the relief as it ebbed away
the horror when the sound it restored was agony, refined
“Last one there’s a rotten egg!” Emma shouted.
Only if you’re lucky, Manny thought. Except then all you do is rot.
Shadows woke across the lawn. Manny, showered and shirted, played half-hearted card games with his niece and nephew. The abrupt groan of the garage door signaled Sean’s return, and Manny dropped his hand, relieved. The kids abandoned their cards and raced inside. “Close that door!” Susie yelled, and it slammed shut.
Manny patted his pockets for a smoke and came up empty. He swore. The kitchen window slid open a few feet away.
“Sean, I have the air on.”
“Hi, honey, how was work?”
A sigh. “Hi, honey. The money you worked so hard for today is going out the window.” The fridge door rattled. Another sigh. “Do you need help?”
A beer hissed. Manny’s mouth watered. “Since when do drink?”
“Not help with that. With the groceries…You did remember to go grocery shopping, right?”
“How am I supposed to marinate the chicken without the marinade? How do you expect me to —”
“Babe, I’m sorry. Honest mistake. I’ll go back out right now.”
“I’m late for work.” The clink of keys. “Manny mowed the lawn for you, by the way.” The window slammed shut.
Manny waited until he heard the car get to the end of the street before venturing inside. Sean looked up from the mail. “Hey.”
“Beer?” Sean handed over a Budweiser and shook his head. “Work’s been so crazy lately. It’s like the last thing I want to do when I get home is more work. Looks great, by the way.”
“The lawn. I know you heard us talking. Susie’s just been so…well, you know. I don’t what her deal is lately. I forget to do one thing, and it’s the end of the world. And with the party tomorrow, she –”
“Party?” He froze, beer halfway to his mouth.
“Yeah,” Sean said impatiently. “Every year we do this big cookout for Fourth of July. Everyone comes. Neighbors, coworkers, some of the kids’ friends. I thought you knew.”
Manny’s chest tightened. “Nope.”
“Really? I swear she would’ve mentioned it. She gets so worked up, trying to make everything perfect, and I forget to pick up the stuff she forgot on the first trip, so now I’ve got to go back out and find green onions and more barbecue sauce and a million other things.” Sean drained the last of his beer and swallowed a belch. “I’ll just pack up the kids…unless…you think you could watch them for a few minutes? It’ll be way faster if I go alone. And if you could make them dinner, that would be awesome. There’s mac ‘n’ cheese in the pantry. Just throw down a box or two.”
“Come on, it’ll be fine. You guys hang out all day anyway. What’s twenty more minutes?”
“I’d rather just go to the store for you.”
Sean chuckled, keys in hand. “Trust me. It’s easier this way. I’ll be back before you know it, okay? Thirty minutes, tops.”
Sean darted outside before Manny could respond. The kids looked up from the television as he drifted through the doorway.
“I’m hungry,” Caleb announced.
“Me, too,” Emma said. “I want pancakes.”
“No, chicken nuggets!”
He should’ve asked Sean to pick up a carton of Camels while he was at the store. He should’ve said a lot of things. A party! Here, tomorrow, his sanctuary overcrowded with civilians, unvetted, unconcerned, unaware of their own movements. His heart quickened. He needed a cigarette. He needed to think.
Manny took a short breath. “Your dad said mac’ n cheese.” He went back into the kitchen and set a pot of water on the stove. He found a box of macaroni in the pantry and dumped it into the water, plucking the foil packet of powdered cheese sauce from the pot before the water soaked completely through. Emma was calling to him.
“What?” he called back.
“Emma only eats the SpongeBob ones!”
Manny rolled his eyes. “They taste the same.”
“No, they don’t!” Emma shouted, and ran into the kitchen. She saw the front of the empty box and thrust out her lower lip in protest. “Those aren’t SpongeBob.”
“They taste the same.” He slammed the lid down.
“They’re all SpongeBob anyway. These are just…” Baby sponges, he’d meant to think, or pant legs, but his mind skipped a groove and a more gruesome word rose up, unbidden, images splattering before his eyes as though he were back in the desert that very moment.
“What?” Emma prompted.
“Nothin’. Get back in there. It’s not ready yet.” His mouth tasted horrible and dry like cotton steeped in cadaverous bile. He downed a glass of water, then started another beer. His temples ached. He needed a damn cigarette.
An idea struck him. “Hey!” he called. “Where’s the phone?” He’d just call Sean’s cell! The lid shuddered as pasta water foamed out, hissing down onto the stovetop. Manny knocked the lid off and stirred the water back down. “Caleb?” He dropped the slotted spoon beside the pot and went into the living room, muting the television when they didn’t respond.
“Where’s the phone?” he repeated.
“The – the phone! For the house. Don’t you have a landline?”
Emma cocked her head. “What’s a lanlime?”
“We don’t have a phone,” Caleb said. “Only Mom and Dad and Jonathon. I don’t get one until I’m eleven.”
Manny’s heart sank.
He retreated to the den and began digging through his dirty clothes, hoping he’d stashed a cigarette in a pocket and forgotten about it. He’d just started in on the clothes he hadn’t worn yet when half a dozen loud popping sounds ricocheted through the air.
He dropped, hands over his head. Nothing. He scanned the den — window open, nothing out of place — and cleared it.
“Kids!” he hissed, knowing they couldn’t hear him but unable to stop himself. He crawled up into the living room, eyes wild and searching, and rounded the couch where his niece and nephew sat and tugged at their ankles, one finger to his lips. Come on, he mouthed.
Emma kicked her foot away. “Hey!”
“What are you doing?” Caleb asked.
Manny shushed them as loud as he dared. “Come on,” he repeated, getting to his feet. Emma opened her mouth, and he scooped her up quickly, smothering her words in his shirt. He towed Caleb off the couch with such force the boy yelped, and hustled them upstairs.
A distinctive shriek sliced through the air, growing louder as it closed in. Manny pushed the kids to the floor and curled over their small, trembling bodies, his stomach twisted inside out.
The shell missed the house. He tugged the kids up and into the master bedroom. “Hurry!”
“My glasses,” Caleb choked, blinking helplessly. “They fell —”
“Leave ‘em.” Manny threw open the closet and pushed the kids inside. “Wait here. Get on the floor, hands over your head, okay? Don’t move until I come get you.” He shut the doors without waiting for a response.
Flattened against the wall, Manny inched toward the picture window overlooking the backyard. He detected nothing out of the ordinary among the lengthening shadows. No flurry of footsteps, no shimmer of a gun barrel. The sun drooped over the treeline. Rabbits flickered in the magician’s dusk. Manny waited, breath caught in his lungs.
He dropped as another round screamed through the air. It expired. He peered out the window again, frantically scanning the horizon, and this time, he saw that telltale smudge against the sky, faint but there all the same. the smoke, a faint sky-smudge off to the left.
The automatic went off again.
The gunfire was louder this time. They were closing in.
He had to get the kids out of here before it was too late.
He scrambled over to the closet. Just as his fingers closed over a doorknob, he heard a loud slam! downstairs. He froze.
They were in.
For a moment, Manny couldn’t move. His brain wouldn’t let him. But his body urged him on, heart hammering for all it was worth, lungs begging for air, every muscle tensed as if fettered within the skin. And he realized that this time, he had to move, had to do something. His body knew what would happen if he hesitated again.
He let go.
Quickly, he moved to the bedroom door, ears pricked, and cracked it open. The hall stretched dark and empty. He advanced. Three steps out of the bedroom, something crunched under his foot. Manny winced, certain the sound would draw the enemy straight to him, but no one came. Very slowly, he drew his foot back, revealing a crushed little pair of glasses.
Downstairs, a second door groaned open and caught in its frame, signaling entry of the garage through the kitchen. Manny quickened. The boys’ bedroom door stood ajar, propped open by a baseball bag. He tore at the zipper, praying for a bat. Instead, he came up with some airy, Little League aluminum piece that felt about as useful as a fairy wand. But until he found something else, it would have to do.
He crept down the stairs, sweat stroking his temples. The living room was clear. The television cut from a carpet jingle back to its program, volume dropping. A faint hissing sound wafted in from the kitchen, where he discovered scorched pasta and the stench of something far worse.
Heat like a hurricane. Ears ringing, quicksand lungs. Screens of smoke over a silent horror film colored red and raw. And then the volume broke on high.
He’d seen the boy slink into camp like a stray dog. He’d noticed the jacket over the vest, as though the heat was mere mirage. He could swear he’d glimpsed the phone in that thin brown hand. And yet he’d hesitated, unable to gun down a child, unable to wrap his mind around the horrendous thing that was about to happen.
Something heavy fell in the garage. Manny checked his grip on the bat and faced the door.
Another clumsy thud on the other side.
His hand flickered before resting on the knob. The second he felt it twist, he wrenched the door open.
Unchecked sweat and gasoline swarmed before the dark outline of a boy, vest pockets bulging, thumb hovering over the dim glow of a detonator.
He felt the bat connect, heard the body drop. The phone hit the concrete. He dropped the bat and raced upstairs to the closet.
“Can we come out now?” Caleb asked. “Emma farted.”
He pulled them to their feet, realizing how stupid he’d just been. IEDs were unpredictable, built by amateurs from unstable materials. Just because the detonator hit the ground without setting off the bomb, it might’ve knocked the wrong wire loose or set off a sensor that would blow them all to popcorn any second now.
“Move out!” he ordered, towing the kids behind him.
“But I’m hungry,” Emma whined, and plopped down in the middle of the hall.
Caleb panicked. “You burned it. The smoke detector didn’t even go off!”
Manny turned back to scoop up his niece. Caleb bolted downstairs to investigate. “Don’t go in there!” Manny shouted.
Emma squirmed in his arms. “What’s on your face?” she asked.
“Nothing.” He shouldered off his cheek. His shirt came away flecked red and gray. It wasn’t just on his face; it was all over him. “Caleb!”
Starch-water ghosts puddled over the stovetop. The serving spoon writhed in the fire, its claw reduced to a molten blue stump. Manny set Emma down and ran over to the stove. “Fire!” Caleb shouted, and dropped to the floor. “Stop, drop, and roll!”
“You’re not on fire,” Manny growled. He turned off the gas and hosed the stovetop down with the faucet’s pitiful extension. He saw the bat, slick and dented, half a second before Caleb rolled over its crown.
Manny pulled him off the bat, kicked it away, and tugged him out of the kitchen, sweeping Emma up along the way. They spilled out into the backyard, Emma’s face hot against his neck, Caleb whimpering at his side. He quickly assessed the yard. Mosquito clouds, cricket-song, chloroform heat. No visible enemy presence. One exit with cover, two without. Just inside, the vest kept time.
They bolted toward the corner gap in the cypress hedge. Beyond that, he knew, stood the sparsely wooded border of Oak Ridge Estates, From the Low 300s, Coming Soon! As they squeezed through the clutch of evergreen, both children sobbing, another round of gunfire ripped into the dusk just over there and Manny broke, panicked heart gone rabid.
Sean pulled into the driveway much later than promised, hungry and irritable after scouring three different grocery stores for the items on his wife’s list. He hit the garage door opener clipped overhead, cursing when the light didn’t come on. He vaguely recalled Susie asking him to replace the batteries a week ago — no, the bulb. The batteries were for something else. Bleary eyes fixed on the tennis ball suspended from the ceiling, he coasted into the garage. Just short of his target, Sean felt the passenger’s side lift and settle.
“Dammit!” White knuckled, he shifted gears and eased off the rake or bicycle or whatever it was the kids had left laying around for him to run over. He let the car idle and got out to inspect the damage, steeling himself for a punctured tire or scraped bumper, or worse.
Never before had his imagination failed him so miserably.
There, in a fishing vest crammed with forbidden fireworks, thin forearm patterned with grit, shaggy head haloed in blood, lay his firstborn, who wasn’t screaming like he should be.
Time stopped. Sean dropped beside his son’s motionless body and flung back the vest and began pumping the very still chest. Jonathon’s head lolled to the side. A glimmer of white cut through the blood-heavy hair, and there, under rose-petaled bone, he saw the gray gone to pulp.
Within ten minutes, Kimbark Street was flooded red and blue. It took four officers to pry the child’s body from his father’s arms. The neighbor who’d called it in told police said she’d seen two children with him earlier, running through the strip of scraggly trees at the edge of her backyard. She hadn’t seen the little girl since. Incoherent, Sean promptly found himself confined to an interrogation room.
Susie made the twenty-minute drive in twelve, numb with terror. “We need you to come down to the station as soon as possible,” they’d said on the phone, and then wouldn’t tell her why. They waited until she arrived, braced and bloodless, and then a calm man in a suit informed her with excruciating simplicity that her son was dead, her daughter was missing, and her husband was covered in someone else’s blood.
“We don’t have much to go on yet, but we’re doing everything we can to find your daughter…Susie? Can I call you Susie? We need to ask you a few questions…” His mouth moved in slow-motion as everything around her blurred, and then suddenly snapped into focus.
“You said my son,” she cut in, voice crumbling at his name. “Caleb?”
“He couldn’t tell us.”
“Your husband,” the suit said quickly. “He couldn’t tell us. He was in a real state when we picked him up. But Caleb is your son’s name?”
“Yes. And Jonathon, but he was at a friend’s house when I left. Have you called them yet? Is he here?”
The suit looked surprised. “Wait, you have two sons? And a daughter.”
Rage flooded her veins. A different suit stepped in. “Mrs. Krauss? I’m Detective Grove. I’m so sorry for your loss. Would you mind if we go sit down, and you can fill us in?”
“No, before I go anywhere with you, someone needs to tell me what the hell is going on!” She struggled. Where was Emma? Whose blood was all over Sean? Did Jonathon know yet? How did Caleb die? Were they sure? Instead, she heard herself ask, “Where’s Manny?”
The first suit frowned.
“Oh, god.” She staggered. “You have to find my brother-in-law.”
He lost track of time as night spread her black wings, taunting every frantic step with twisted ankles and squared off lots of trip-wire as he searched for cover, disoriented in the darkness. Sporadic blasts continued all around them. Far off, sirens began to wail. He made for the farther half of development, away from the finished houses with their blank glass eyes, and into a maze of backhoes and lumber and half-dug foundations. He herded the kids down into someone’s eventual basement and crowded them into a corner, planting himself between their shaking bodies and whatever form the enemy took next.
Susie couldn’t look at him.
“Manny would never hurt a child,” Sean insisted for the umpteenth time.
“Who else could have done that?” Her words trembled. “Because I know it wasn’t you.”
“Suse, I know my brother. It wasn’t him. Not when…”
“When what, Sean?” She spoke to her fists as they worked over her knees.
“When…he got beat on all the time, when we were kids. He’d never turn around and dish it out like that.”
“You don’t know that.”
She blinked, and he was crouched in front of her, gripping her shoulders. Trying to make her look. “He. Didn’t. Do it.”
“So what, then?” She wrenched out of his grasp. The desk sergeant glanced over. Susie grimaced and lowered her voice. “How else do you explain that?”
“Maybe someone broke in.”
“Maybe someone broke in,” she repeated. Quiet rage iced each syllable. “No, Sean. No one broke in. He did it. I know he did. You’re not around to see him, just sitting there all day on the porch like a damn dog, watching them. And then you just left them alone with him!”
Tendons twitched along the backs of his hands. “How could you say that? Just look at me, would you? Susie.”
“His blood!” she thundered. “You are covered in my son’s blood! How dare you ask me to look at that!”
Detective Grove approached. The desk sergeant looked relieved. “Mr. and Mrs. Krauss? We found them.”
“You found the kids?” Susie cried.
Sean leapt up. “Are they okay? Manny’s with them, right?”
“The kids are pretty shook up, but they’ll be okay.” He led them to the break room, where a female officer sat with the children. Caleb, blank-eyed, was cocooned in a shock blanket, an untouched bag of pretzels in front of him. Emma’d let her own blanket slide to the floor as she rooted through a packet of mini cracker sandwiches from the vending machine. She looked up as the door opened.
“Daddy!” she shrieked, and threw her arms out as he swept her up.
“Hey, monkey,” he murmured, kissing her all over like he hadn’t done since she was a baby. He buried his face in her corn-silk hair. She smelled of cigarette smoke. His stomach twisted. “Detective?”
Susie knelt at her son’s side and hugged him so tightly she was afraid she’d hurt him. “Caleb?” She relaxed her grip, stroking the hair out of his unfocused eyes. “Sweetie? It’s okay, you’re going to be okay. Mommy’s here now.”
Sean peered over Emma’s matted hair into his son’s pale, empty face. “Caleb? It’s Mommy and Daddy. Can you hear me?” Sean swallowed. “How long has he been like this?”
“We really can’t say. He hasn’t said a word since we found them.”
Susie glared through a fresh stream of tears at Detective Grove. “But I thought you said they were okay.”
“Well like I said, he’s in shock, but it’s pretty typical, given the circumstances.”
The woman, Officer Joiner, spoke up. “The medics did notice some bruising on Caleb’s right arm. It’s probably nothing serious, but it’d be a good idea to get him checked out. Emma as well, just to be safe.”
“Of course,” Susie murmured, gently prying Caleb’s arm out from under the blanket. She stifled a sob when she saw the discoloration.
Sean stiffened. “Where did you find them?”
“That new residential development about a mile away from the house. Oak Something. He had them tucked into a corner of one of the foundations.”
Susie’s eyes narrowed. “‘He.’ You mean Manny?”
“We actually can’t confirm that yet…”
“What do you mean, you can’t confirm it?” Sean asked. “You didn’t catch his name?” He tried to put Emma down. Sensing this, she clung on. “Where is he? I want to see him.”
“Mr. Krauss, I’m so sorry, but…”
“But what? You’re not done grilling him yet?” Sean bristled. “You know what? No! It doesn’t matter. I want to talk to him right now.”
“Mr. Krauss, I’m so sorry, but he left us with no choice.”
Sean paled. Officer Joiner continued. “The children’s safety was our first priority, and when he refused to cooperate…it became a safety matter for everyone involved. Manny died today, Sean. I’m so sorry.”
He blinked. “What?”
The detective restated it all.
“You killed him? Just like…” He gestured uselessly, unable to conjure a word for this.
“He killed our son, Sean.”
He whirled on her. “So Manny’s life is worth less? Is that what you’re saying? And we don’t even know that! They haven’t told us what happened yet! You weren’t there, and neither was he!” He thrust a finger in Detective Grove’s direction. “What about an intruder? No one’s looked into that yet. Manny was just trying to protect the kids, and that’s why they ran off. You should be out there looking for the sonofabitch who’s actually responsible our son’s—for what happened to him!” He didn’t realize he was shouting until he felt Emma cringing away.
“Mr. Krauss, I’d be happy to go over all the details with you first thing tomorrow, if you’d like. But for right now, I suggest you all go get some rest. Obviously, the house needs to be processed. Do you have friends you can stay with? Or maybe there’s a hotel nearby where we can reach you?”
“Sure,” Sean fumed. “We’ll do that. We’ll go fucking rest while you figure out how to tell the press you gunned down an innocent man!”
They drove in silence to a motel at the edge of town where they checked into a room with two double beds. Sean asked for a cot as well, and remembered only after it arrived that they were now a family of four. He rolled it back to the main office before Susie had a chance to see it, and returned to the room to find her locked in the bathroom with the kids.
“Suse! What are you doing?” He banged against the cheap pressed wood. “Susie!”
The lock rattled. She threw the door open, one hand guarding the knob, and hissed, “Cleaning them up!”
“Let me help.”
Her eyes flashed. “Clean yourself up.” She slammed the door and locked it again, and this time she didn’t open it when he knocked.
Sean slid down the wall. He heard the bath running, Susie’s voice low and shaky under its torrent. He imagined Caleb propped up on the toilet, Emma on the edge of the tub, his wife dabbing the sweat and dirt away with a washcloth. She’d search their tender bodies for scrapes and bruises, and choke back tears when she found them.
At last, they emerged. She let him carry Caleb to one of the double beds while she followed with Emma. Susie climbed into bed between them, resting a hand across each drooping forehead. The kids were asleep within seconds.
Sean shifted his weight with the intention of joining his family, but Susie gave him that look again, eyes glittering in the dark. When he ignored it, she hissed, “No.”
“That’s not fair.”
“Your brother,” she said slowly, “murdered my son. That’s unfair.”
He sank onto the opposite bed, springs creaking. “We don’t know that. We don’t know what happened.”
“I know I left the kids with you, and you left them with him, and now Jonathon’s dead! What else do you need to know?”
The blood drained from his face. “You’re blaming me for this? Oh my god, you are. Unbelievable! As if I’d put my own son’s life in danger! No, that’s not – you don’t get to do that, Susie.”
For the next few hours, his family slept on the edge of frightened wakefulness, and he stared out the window, alone, as the ebony sky faded blue. When he couldn’t take it anymore, he put his car keys on the nightstand and slipped out into a day still crusted with sleep.
Slowly, he walked, crossing the city from one end to the other as if the tunnel in his head was all around him. He arrived at the city morgue an hour before it opened. Sean took a seat on the concrete steps of the main entrance and watched with revulsion as a man walking his dog smiled and nodded, as though life itself hadn’t just imploded. He began pacing in front of the doors, replaying the night in the hopes of recalling some overlooked detail that could lead to the identity of his son’s real killer. So absorbed, Sean failed to notice the doors being unlocked.
A gradual trickle of pedestrians clutching lawn chairs and blankets roused Sean from his stupor, and he made his way inside. He inquired after the Krauss body, and was informed a viewing would have to wait, as the boy’s autopsy was incomplete. “No.” He willed away his son’s blank eyes and bloodied head. “The other Krauss.”
The technician admitted him to a cold, harshly lit room. Sean twitched back the sheet from a corpse draped in his brother’s likeness. It had the same heavy jaws and crooked nose, the same cavernous eyes gone stiff in their sockets. There was the two-inch scar at his hairline, a gift from their father, and their mother’s full lower lip, brittle with cold. His Adam’s apple rose from his throat like a shark’s fin, and here Sean noticed an unfamiliar mess of scar tissue trailing out 20from under the sheet’s edge. He pulled it down but went too far, his gaze quickly torn from the shoulder to a chest studded with multiple entrance wounds.
He gagged and spun away, throwing his hands over his mouth to keep his insides off the floor. Blindly, he staggered into the hallway and slid down the wall to the floor, and even then, he felt the ground teetering, half dissolving, as he struggled to get his bearings.
There had to be some mistake.
A man doesn’t wake up one summer morning and then go on to see the sun rise again on a world suddenly emptied of the man’s boy and of the boy who raised the man. He doesn’t just come home from the grocery store one evening to find his son inexplicably beaten to death, and then discover that so-called protectors gunned down the man’s brother with not one but three bullets, just shot him in the dirt like a dog.
He tried to think of what Susie would do, but she’d made her choice. To side with the cops was to side against him, to condemn the brother who’d raised him as an unfit guardian, and to blame Sean for making a judgment call he’d make again every time. It was absurd! She’d never liked Manny, and now she’d have something to point to, even though it was all a lie.
But no. He wouldn’t let that happen.
He’d set it all straight. He’d go down there, talk to the cops, tell them just what kind of person Manny was. He’d make them go back to the house and start looking for clues, evidence, anything objective, and get them to use that to generate a suspect list instead of the other way around. He'd make them do their jobs the right way, starting now.
On his way to the police station, Sean didn’t notice the cascade of American flags draped from doorways and porch rails, and marched right past street signs and lampposts bound in ribbon. He ignored the candy wrappers crushed into the gutters, and flowed through the exodus of parade spectators with the spatial awareness of a ghost. For all he could see, this was no ordinary Independence Day, but the advent of war.
1/3/2020 12:41:13 pm
Written very well. I can see all the characters and situations clearly.
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