The Living Years
“He can't have gone, he said. “Christ knows he can't have gone. He’s making a turn. Maybe he has been hooked before and he remembers something of it.” Then he felt the gentle to
uch on the line and he was happy.”
― Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
There were thirty-six pieces to Officer Richard Stevenson’s standard issue G17. He stripped it down and spread each one out onto the table.
slide, barrel, recoil spring assembly, firing pin, spacer sleeve . . .
In the back bedroom of the cabin, his father began to stir, hacking loudly. Richard paused to make sure it passed, then continued to dismantle. Ahead of him was a fireplace whose mantle now displayed a photo series dedicated to Richard’s life. His father insisted on bringing them all for their two-week stay at Bear Head State Park, and when Richard protested the logic of packing eight framed photos for such a short trip, his father brushed him aside, muttering something about how an old man didn’t need an explanation for wanting his ‘memories’ nearby. He arranged them almost as soon as they arrived, asking Richard every five seconds—“Ah! This one! Remember this one?” or "At home, did I have the bicycle to the left of your first birthday, or—no, that’s right. It was more towards the middle . . . ”
There was the picture of Richard holding the nine-pound bass he’d caught when he was eight, next to his senior photo—teeming with pimples and braces. Further down was the day he graduated from the academy, his father beaming as he shook his hand. They went to dinner after the ceremony, and he insisted Richard pull out his badge every time a pretty girl walked by the table. The final picture was a newspaper article his father had shoved into an 8” x 10” frame that detailed the shooting at Cuttle Creek Elementary. The photo had been snapped as Richard carried the little girl, Sophia from the school, the other parts of the article no one wanted to be reminded of folded under and tucked out of sight. He still remembered the feel of her little nails latched into his shoulder blades. The way her body trembled against the badge on his chest. She had peeked around his neck as he lifted her from the classroom she’d hid in alongside nine other bodies, her hot breath filling his ear as she whispered goodbye to her lifeless teacher on the floor.
At the bottom of the article were the words, ‘Hero Cop,’ with a sidebar next to his photo bullet-listing facts about his life and details of the moment he was forced to ‘take down the shooter.’ If he pulled it from the frame and unfolded the bottom, there would be a bright red ad from a cable company proclaiming, It’s your day today! A man in a button-down grinning into the camera. Richard splashed another ounce of McDowell’s into his morning Folgers. They had driven over three hours to Bear Head from his father’s home in Minneapolis, and he still couldn’t get away from that picture.
He finished dismantling and leaned away from the disarray of metal. Thirty-six pieces. Thirty-six pieces housing seventeen rounds of lead-encased cupronickel FMJs. He only needed one to kill the boy—the shooter. Richard rolled the firing pin safety back and forth between his fingers.
He fired three.
His father started to hack again. Five—six—seven times, no pause for a breath. Richard headed down the hallway toward his room, where he found him hunched over the side of his bed, cursing, one hand forced against his chest. His father gestured to the soiled sheets behind him. “I’m—” He coughed harshly. “I’m sorry.”
Richard tried to keep his expression relaxed so his father wouldn’t notice the anxiety he felt every time he found him this way. “No big deal, pops. C’mon. Let’s get you cleaned up.” He lifted his father’s arm over his shoulder. He was heavy still, despite his shrinking frame, and Richard could only shuffle with him down the hall, holding his breath and turning his head so as not to gag from the ripe odor and embarrass his father. Sometimes it would linger in his nostrils, and he would have to smash a bar of his father’s Irish Spring soap against his face just to remember the way he used to smell. Richard kicked open the bathroom door and eased him onto the toilet seat, switching on the faucet in the tub. Another fit of coughing wrenched his father’s body forward. Richard watched his grip on the counter tighten, his white knuckles jutting beneath his skin as though he were trying to keep himself from splitting apart. He resisted the urge to grab him, allowing his father the dignity of righting himself before moving back over to help him undress.
“All right, here we go.” He lifted off his T-shirt, his fingers sliding between the spaces in his father’s ribs as he held him so he could scoot out of his boxers. It never got easier. Having to undress his father like a child. No matter how many times he’d seen him naked in the last year, it was still awkward for them both. His father winced as he slowly lifted one leg and then the other into the warm water. Richard placed a towel behind his head, and his father shut his eyes, his lids twitching.
It’d been almost nine months since Richard got the call. About two months before the shooting at Cuttle Creek. His father collapsed inside a Target, and Richard rushed to the hospital, his squad lights flashing around him. Adenocarcinoma. 50/50—at best. His father faced the window the entire time the doctor spoke, while Richard tried to focus on the voice telling him the only person he loved was probably going to die. The cancer started in the stomach. They took his intestine to help—the big one. Soft foods and frequent bathroom visits for the rest of his life. A few rounds of poison to wrap up the job.
His father shifted in the tub, and water sloshed over the side. “Some privacy might be nice, you know. It’s not like I’m going to drown.”
“Right.” Richard pulled the curtain closed. “Sorry.”
It had spread. In the lymph nodes now. More chemo. Less mobility. Odds of remission thirty-percent—at best. And yet, here they were. In the off-season of a deserted fishing camp with a wind chill factor of forty-two degrees. His father harassed him for weeks about visiting the lake after getting the last prognosis. Tried everything to convince him. Stifling his coughs whenever Richard was around. Concocting stories about energetic walks through the neighborhood when Richard came home from work. One night, he awoke to the image of his father at the foot of his bed in full fishing gear, whispering at him—“Richie! Richie!”
Richard squinted through the crust between his lashes and dug a nail into the tip of his thumb to be sure he wasn’t asleep. “Pops . . . what the hell—”
“I wanna go to the lake,” his father said, his voice scratchy.
He rose to his elbows. “What?”
“The lake. I want to go.” The street light strained through the blinds as his father waited, his khaki hat tilted slightly down his forehead.
Richard glanced at the clock. “Pops . . . you have stage three stomach cancer. You’re about to start another six rounds of chemo, and you want to drive right now, in the middle of the night, for three hours, to go sit in a boat inside a deserted lake—in April.”
His father remained motionless, a giant fishing rod held up beside him like a scepter.
Another week of arguing. More pitiful looks. Silent treatment at meal times. It wasn’t until the incident in Burnsville that Richard finally gave in. He and his partner, Gonzalez, got a domestic dispute call. They showed up. Kid crying on the porch. Wife in hysterics. The man wouldn’t stop screaming. Slammed his fist into the wall. Richard unholstered, shoved the gun in his face, ordered him to the ground, and shortly after, Richard’s chief insinuated now might be a good time for another vacation.
They agreed on one week, which somehow turned into two, after the lady who owned the cabin refused to rent for less than ten days. Ever since they got there, his father had been difficult. Slept less. Rocked outside on the porch after dark with nothing but a fleece blanket to protect him from the cold. Richard had to practically twist his arm to get him to drink a glass of water. And yet, at the same time, he was more at ease. More like himself. While Richard chased more and more cups of coffee with another pill from his bag beneath the sink.
He waited for his father to finish, his ragged gasps behind the curtain still audible beneath the pound of the water. They’d only gone on the boat once since arriving three days ago. No fish. No birds. No movement in the trees. They never saw another soul, the park and lake as cold and empty as everything else they’d left behind them.
~ ~ ~
“Richie? Pssst. Richie? You up?”
The early rays sifted onto the hardwood through the crack in the curtains. Another series of raps sounded against Richard’s door. His father had been wheezing outside his bedroom for the last minute, while Richard struggled to find the will to lift the layers of sheets and quilts from off his body. Today was their second outing on the lake. Another three-hour attempt to catch anything in the dead waters. He debated shutting his eyes and making his father wait a few moments longer. The whole thing felt pointless. These days everything did.
“Richie?” His father pushed through the door. “It’s almost seven...”
Richard tightened his teeth against a sharp exhale, then kicked off the covers, his knee cracking as he wordlessly passed his father and locked the bathroom door. The icy tile bit at the soles of his feet, and he turned the shower as close to scalding as he could manage.
He was five the first time they visited the lake. His mother had recently left. To a place where they only mailed postcards twice a year. The first week she went missing, he came home from kindergarten every day to plop himself in front of the window overlooking the driveway, sometimes waiting for hours to catch a glimpse of her broken headlight squinting toward home. After a month passed, his father packed him into their station wagon and drove for hours till they saw the sign for Bear Head State Park mounted in a pile of rocks. He never spoke of her. Not once the entire trip. Richard remembered the drive home after. His father’s deep voice bellowing out the open window—“Give me things that don’t get lost! Like a coin that won’t get tossed, rolling home to you . . .” It was the first time he’d smiled in weeks. After that, they started camping around Minnesota every year. All the way through Richard’s twenties. Kayaking in Duluth. Hiking in the North Shore. But throughout his life, Bear Head remained a constant. Anytime something was taken from them, they would go to the lake and remember how to breathe again. Lost jobs. Broken bones. Missing girlfriends. After the shooting, his father never offered for them to go. To him, Bear Head was for tragedies. What Richard had been forced to do, his father told his buddies at Shenanigan’s, slamming back a pint of Guinness, “was a goddamn public service.”
The hot water began to falter, but he stood under the lukewarm shower anyway, not ready yet to face the lake. It’d been years since they’d visited. He remembered his first time on the water, the June air sticking to the back of his neck and hands. They piled into the boat around sunrise, the mist swirling just above the surface of the lake, and Richard clutched the edge with his little fingers, convinced they’d wandered into a magic land of burning clouds and trees the color of the creek turtles he caught with his father in their backyard. It was April now. He was thirty-three years old. And the sun was smothered with gray.
He dragged himself from the shower and stepped in front of the fogged mirror. His father’s next chemo was in two weeks. The last dose left him writhing on the tile, so Richard asked off for two days now each cycle, just in case. He’d thought about taking three. One for dad. One for chemo. One for Richard. He remembered the last time he sat in the little room as the poison shot into his father’s body, the poison his father argued for weeks to forgo. The life in his eyes emptied as he peered at Richard from his metal chair, his red, glassy irises almost bleeding into the bags puffing under them. His skin had dissolved into paper. Dark bruises surfaced along his forearms like the cancer was trying to explode from his body. Richard took in his decaying figure, his cracked and swollen lips breathing in and out as he waited for the bag to empty, and thought about the boy—the shooter. How his mouth puckered open and close as he watched Richard from the floor, the blood exhaling from his body.
“It’s 7:45, Richie! You fall in?”
His father called him from somewhere down the hall. Richard pulled out his leather bag from beneath the sink and rummaged inside for the Atvian amidst the other two bottles of rattling pink and orange cylinders. He cupped a palmful of water from the faucet and popped one of the little white pentagons, holding the bottle to the light and counting them again to make sure there was enough for the remaining nine days.
The shooting took place on a Tuesday. At 11:31 AM. Richard and Gonzalez were on route when the dispatcher called it in. Multiple shots fired. Several persons wounded. One shooter identified. Witnesses put him inside two minutes. He and his partner exchanged one look—half a second before switching on the sirens and slamming the gas.
An elementary school, the look said. They were going to an elementary school.
They made him take a month off after. See a shrink. Talk about his feelings. As if a couch and thirty days sitting on his ass was ever going to change the fact it was a fucking elementary school. Atvian was the first pill, followed quickly by a prescription for Estazolem. In the beginning, he only took them every once in a while. The days strangers recognized him and wanted to shake his hand, or to help with the nightmares cops weren’t supposed to get. After the final round of chemo, it was weekly, followed later by a third prescription for Paxil, and Gonzalez kicking him out of the driver’s seat whenever they set on route.
“Yeah. Coming.” He tossed the bag beneath the sink and walked into the kitchen where his father sat tying a lure.
"Ah. Man of the hour.” His father gestured toward the stove. “Left you some eggs.”
Richard ignored the food and switched the coffee pot to life instead. The filter hissed and spurted a puff of steam. He watched his father’s shaking fingers try to thread a knot. “You take your vitamins yet?”
He glanced up quickly. “Uh-huh.”
Richard grabbed the bottle of Vitamin D3 and shuffled the gels onto the table, counting them in stacks of two. “Pops. There are twelve here. There should only be ten.”
“Oh.” His father scratched the side of his splotchy chin and tried to chuckle, taking the pills from his hand without looking at him. “Sorry, son. Guess I forgot.”
“You’ve forgotten almost every day we’ve been here.” Richard plopped a glass of water onto the table. “This is important, dad. The inflammation’s never going to get better if you—”
“According to Dr. Ruiz, nothing is getting better period.”
“That’s not true,” he said slowly. “Thirty-five percent—”
“Fishing the Midwest was on earlier. Said bass should be better than Wednesday. Hope you’re ready!”
Richard gazed out the glass back door leading to the water. The wind raked the surface of the lake like the Japanese sand garden his psychiatrist kept on his desk. “I wanted to talk to you about that. Weather’s ‘sposed to get colder—”
“Guess I better bring my jacket then.” His father locked eyes, then set down the unfinished lure and pushed away from the table. “Be right back.”
Richard watched him hobble toward his room, his vision blurring.
He remembered coming home the day of the shooting. His father was a month into his first diagnosis. Spent most of his time asleep or dazed in front of the TV. Richard pushed through the front door, and there he was, standing inside the living room waiting for him.
“My son,” he said, eyes shining, and clasped a hand firmly on top of Richard’s shoulder.
After that, his father started to laugh more. Took longer walks. Cooked more meals. Spent his nights scrolling the internet, looking for anything with his son’s name. The fridge became a collage of clippings as he hung the stories with the same magnets that once held Richard’s drawings as a child. But Richard never read them. Not the articles. Not the letters. He avoided anything that turned the massacre of babies into an honors ceremony. Anytime something unofficial came in care of the department, his father would let the letter idle on the counter at home for days before reading it himself. They came from everywhere. Complete strangers thanking Richard for doing his duty. In the beginning, they even left flowers in front of his house. He remembered how his precinct had clapped for him the day he returned to his desk.
Hero. That’s what they called him. In the papers, on the internet, during the interviews. Cuttle Creek Elementary: Hero Cop Saves Child from School Massacre. Hero Cop Takes Down Deadly Shooter at Minnesotan Elementary. Hero Cop: Cuttle Creek’s Guardian Angel . . .
His father never understood why Richard refused to acknowledge them, but then again, he never tried. They never talked about it. Not once did his father ask about that day. How he felt. What he saw. Why he took the pills. He never talked about the shooting with his son any more than he talked about the cancer. Instead, Richard stood by silently, each new praise and distinction causing his father to stand a little straighter. Hold his chin a bit higher. While Richard continued his trips to the pharmacy to fill the bottles with the colorful pills. Anything to avoid the memory of all the bodies on the floor.
My son, he had said to him. Eyes shining.
“Ready?” His father grinned at him from the hallway, fishing vest in hand, and headed out whistling to the boat tied at the end of the dock. The vitamins he’d given him remained untouched.
Richard blinked hard to clear his head, then lifted the pole he’d left against the fireplace. A film of grime had already spread itself atop all the pictures on the mantle. He smeared a line of dust across the article from the shooting, then flicked it with his nail, knocking the frame onto its back.
~ ~ ~
“At least there’s a bite in the air.” His father attempted a laugh despite the cold that passed like a tremor through his lips and fingers.
They’d been sitting on the lake for almost an hour, not even a nibble breaking through the monotony. Richard blew on his hands and switched his rod to the holder attached to the boat. They sky was overcast, the same wall of clouds that hovered over Minnesota eight months out of every year. It cast a pall over the water, adding to the blankness around them. The boat they’d rented was similar to the Tracker his father plopped him into as a child, when his small neck rubbed against the yellow vest that shot up to his chin. He remembered how his father taught him to cast, right shoulder dropping as he swung back the line, then shooting forward—the red-and-white bobber plunking into the murkiness below. Richard had held the rod with both hands and leaned over the edge as little ripples occasionally popped up around him. There was nothing like the jolt in his stomach from the sudden tug of the line. The tingling anticipation waiting . . . waiting until the bobber dropped beneath the surface—then jerking back and pulling it in as fast as his tiny hand could spin. His father would shout encouragements behind him, letting his son have all the glory, only helping to unhook the wriggling scales from the lure. Every now and then the silver wonder would get away, and his father would suggest new tips for the next round. Sometimes they would just sit in the boat and rock. Just him and his dad on the lake. Far away from a world where kids shot up elementaries.
His father fell into a coughing fit that caused the boat to toss. Richard moved toward him, but he waved him off. He passed his father a water and thought about the time they hiked Eagle Mountain. Richard had fallen to the ground, panting as soon they reached the top, while his father leaned over him laughing, his six-foot-two figure blocking out the sun. He remembered how pink his cheeks had been. How his breath danced through the air. Richard watched his father’s sagging neck gulp the water down. Now his lungs sounded like they were trying to scrape themselves to pieces.
After his mother left, his father was forced to supplement their income by working overnight as a janitor at the local high school. Richard got some crap for it growing up. Locker-shoving. Cat calling in the hallways. But it never bothered him. Not once. Whenever he looked at his father, all he saw was a man who sacrificed everything for him. Every day, no matter what little break he got between his first shift and the next, he would settle into the faded blue sofa inside the den and help his boy with his homework. After Richard decided to join the force, his father emptied his savings to put him through the Academy. When they received the first diagnosis, Richard left his downtown apartment to help take care of him. He’d been living alone, away from his father for the last fifteen years—a woman around every now and then. One even lasted eleven months before walking out the door. “Trust issues,” she diagnosed him as she shoved the last of her CDs into an old Nike shoebox. Good for cop. Bad for boyfriend. His dad though, had always been there. Always.
His father twisted his torso to cast another line across the water. It went farther than the last, and he gave his son a wink. The rich green forest from Richard’s childhood was lifeless now thanks to the April chill. The trees’ scraggly arms stretched out at him from shore. His father turned suddenly, eyes wide as he pointed a shaking finger at Richard’s pole. The line teased slightly beneath the water. Richard slid over and wrapped a firm grip around the rod. There was a hard tug. The line moved out a bit more—then jerked taut through his hands.
“Get him!” His father tilted over the edge of the boat. “That’s it! That’s it! Keep it steady. You got him! You got ‘em!”
The rod hunched harder, and Richard tightened his grip even more. He braced his boots against the bottom of the boat and spun the reel faster.
“You . . . got him!” His father tried to catch his breath, his khaki hat nearly falling off his head as a flash of silver wriggled just beneath the surface.
Richard yanked the rod back and flung the fish into the open. It flailed violently as he pulled it close, its spiked dorsal stabbing the air.
“I’ll get the bucket!”
His father rummaged behind him for the cooler as Richard examined the bass against the lingering winter sky. It was small—two pounds, maybe three, with a crimson streak running down its scales. Its body stilled as he plunged his fingers into its jaw and wrapped his thumb under the cold metal inside. The hook wedged itself deep into the soft, pink tissue, and he struggled to pull it free. Beside him, his father hoisted the cooler, wheezing a bit from the effort. The bass’ gills pulsed inside Richard’s hands. A decay of algae oozed off its body. Its mouth gasped open—then closed. Open—then closed. A clouded blue eye groped across his face.
The bodies were there as soon as his unit moved into the elementary. A girl, near the water fountain. A man, one hand pressed against the door like he’d been trying to push through. Multiple wounds to the chest and stomach—both gone. But none of it prepared him for later. After he killed the boy—the shooter. When they began to clear the classrooms. When he met the woman on the floor. Allyson. She’d hid in the same room as Sophia after taking a bullet to her calve. He’d found her slumped against the door when he tried to push inside, a female body in her arms around her age, with dark curls and a chest wound long since bled out through her shirt. The child cowered behind Allyson’s red hair. Her vacant eyes blinked up at him.
“All the babies are gone,” the woman said.
And that was when he saw them. On the other side of the classroom. Clustered together in a corner on the floor. A big banner pinned to the wall behind them--Miss Gina’s Fantabulous First-Graders!
Richard yanked out the hook and flung the fish back into the lake. Its silver body stalled for a moment inside the water.
“What the hell did’ya do that for?” His father held the open cooler and gazed mournfully at the empty space on Richard’s line. A couple pieces of ice had fallen out onto his boots.
Richard ignored him and shoved his hands into his jacket as a gust of wind whipped through the trees, the silver light plunging further beneath the surface.
~ ~ ~
Slide, barrel, recoil spring assembly, firing pin, spacer sleeve, firing pin spring, spring clips, firing pin safety . . .
Richard dismantled his gun at the table as Alex Trebek’s voice drifted toward him from the living room. His father had grumbled about the lost fish their entire dinner, until Richard eventually walked away and shut himself in the shower for over an hour. When he came out, his father was watching Jeopardy on the grainy television and drinking a glass of Richard’s McDowell’s he’d swiped from the cabinet.
“What the hell are you doing?” Richard had reached for the glass, but his father threw back another swig before he could grab it.
“I’m on vacation. Leave me alone.”
“Pops . . . ” He rubbed his eyes with his thumbs. “You know you can’t do that. Dr. Ruiz—”
“Dr. Ruiz needs to learn how to live a little.”
“Apparently, so do you.” Richard held out his hand again for the glass.
His father studied him a moment, then relinquished the drink and turned back to Trebek and the contestants on screen. “What is the Prohibition,” he answered the TV. “I always knew God had jokes.”
Richard had sighed and dumped the glass in the overflowing sink of dishes, before settling down to his weapon, which he’d been assembling and dismantling for the last twenty minutes.
trigger pin, trigger housing pin (short and long), follower, magazine spring, magazine insert, magazine floor plate, magazine tube . . .
It calmed him. Taking it apart. Seeing the pieces disjointed and reduced to fragments. He would do it over and over. Side effect of trauma, his doctor explained as he ripped off the newest prescription from his pad. Obsessive-compulsive behavioral patterns triggered as coping mechanisms for loss of control.
“Who is Anton Chekhov.”
“Pops.” Richard glanced at the back of his father’s head peeking over the sofa. “Hey pops. I don’t think we should go out tomorrow. Weather’s looking pretty grim. S’posed to get worse.
“What is the theory of relativity.”
He grunted and switched the volume higher. “It was fine today. We survived. We’re going.”
Richard left the gun on the table and walked in front of the TV. “I’m sorry, do you want to get better?”
His father craned his neck around him to try and see the screen.
“Or do you enjoy not being able to take a shit without bloodying up the water.”
He set down the remote slowly. “Richie . . . ” There was something sharp beneath his tone. “I need Bear Head.”
“You’re at Bear Head.”
His father clenched the cushion. “You’ve barely let me out as is! I need the lake. I want to feel the slick of a bass between my fingers! And furthermore, I would like to enjoy a bloody drink every now and then without you coming over to yank it away!”
Richard dug his nails into his fists, waiting for the fire in his palms to calm the one behind his forehead. He wanted to slap him. He wanted to scream. He wanted to fall weeping into his arms, until the man promised to never leave him.
He walked back to the table.
slide cover plate, rear sight, back straps, frame . . .
“Look . . . ” His father sighed and twisted around. “Why don’t we stay a little longer? Talk the woman into giving us a few extra days. Wait for the front to pass. A compromise.”
“You know that’s not a possibility.”
Richard snapped the gun into place. “Because of chemo, that’s why.”
“I don’t care.”
His father exhaled loudly and slid down the couch till he could no longer be seen. The audience in the show clapped as a contestant answered the daily double. The woman smiled widely, her finger still poised over the trigger.
NBC had shot a TV special that aired after the shooting. Sixty minutes of interviews with families of the victims and photographs of the shooter when he was younger. They tried to get him for a segment—the hero cop who saved the children, but he never returned the calls. His father recorded it, and Richard watched it one day, replaying the interview with the shooter’s mother over and over. He studied the way her eyes swiveled around, as if she was trying to remember how she got there.
Shooter brought down by local police officer Richard A. Stevenson. That’s what the article said. The one atop his father’s mantle. There were sixteen deaths that day. Sixteen bodies zipped in bags. But the article only listed fifteen. Fifteen victims at Cuttle Creek Elementary. Fifteen lives lost to violence. And then there, at the very bottom--Shooter brought down by local police officer Richard A. Stevenson.
Not shot in the chest.
Not three holes in his body bleeding onto the floor.
Richard was one of the lucky ones. In the nine years he’d spent on the force, he’d only had to fire twice. Both times to wound. Both suspects making it out of the hospital. He’d always known there was a chance it could happen. He’d trained for it. He was prepared.
An elementary school . . . That’s what the look said. The one between him and his partner. They were going to an elementary school.
No amount of training could prepare him for that. For the woman, and the kids on the floor, and the teenager with seventy-five rounds of ammo, three weapons, and no bullets in the gun he raised right before he forced Richard to shoot him to the ground. He poured over the reports after he was identified. Christopher J. Cook. Nineteen years old. Barely out of high school. Richard stood with the body a long time, before Gonzalez forced him to leave the room. They covered him with a sheet like all the others, the AR-15 he’d dropped still there with a number five propped up beside it. Empty. He’d raised his arm at Richard with an empty gun, dozens of bullets dangling around his waist. He wanted to die.
Richard stepped behind the couch and touched his father’s shoulder.
“Three hours is all I’m asking, Richie.” His father tilted his head back to look at him. “Three hours.”
He brushed a few wisps of hair on top of his father’s head. The bags under his eyes had deepened. Richard finally sighed and nodded, moving back to his gun. A contestant buzzed again on the TV. A two-hundred-dollar question:
“Who is Dylan Thomas,” his father answered softly.
~ ~ ~
“We should go back.”
The weather on the lake was worse than Richard expected, the wind ripping through their parkas and knocking the boat back and forth like one of those rides at the fair. Whatever color remained in his father’s cheeks had morphed to a subtle tinge of green. Richard rifled through his pockets and pulled out his last two remaining Hot Hands, then passed them to his father, who ripped them open greedily.
“Dad. We need to go back.”
“This . . . is . . . the best weather.” His teeth chattered as he reached for the canister behind him and plucked one of the live worms they’d bought from a tackle shop in town. It wiggled between his tight pinch as he stabbed it through the hook.
It didn’t take long for a bite. Richard tried to help his father reel, but he shrank away from him, waving him off.
“Naw, let me do it! Let me do it!” His father’s breath shortened, the blood vessels in his forehead bursting from the strain and slap of the wind. Finally, the bass broke loose from the water, a small two-pounder with a torn fin. He dumped it triumphantly into the bucket.
“Good.” Richard tried to smile. “Now can we go back, please?”
His father’s lashes fluttered. He leaned closer to the bucket, breathing heavy.
His father squeezed his abdomen, his thumb digging into the crease of his zipper, then lurched over the side of the boat and retched, nearly falling into the lake. Richard grabbed his collar and held him back, but the vomiting continued, the surface of the dark, turbulent water thickening with every spasm. Somehow, even under the layers of shirts and jackets, Richard could feel his father’s spine contract. He moved his hand side to side along the back of his neck, his soft white hairs sliding beneath his palm. At last, it was over, and his father collapsed into the boat. “Thanks, son,” he muttered and smeared his lips across the sleeve of his parka. The smell of the fish in the open cooler blended with the vomit on his father’s jacket. Richard swallowed his own acid and moved to rev the motor to shore.
Plenty of people offered up words of encouragement after the diagnosis. Twenty percent decline in death rates in the last two decades. Positive mind equals positive body! They would clip out articles on alternative medicine and survival stories of little grandmothers in Wales and place them in Richard’s hands. There were others, the more cynical of the bunch, who talked about government cover-ups and population control, and he would entertain their theories for as long as they wished to rant about them.
“It’s normal to wonder why,” his psychiatrist assured him. “Why you? Why your father?”
He remembered the talk shows after the shooting. Interviews of people sitting on stage in their two little chairs, tossing back and forth—hypothesizing. Why, why, why, why.
“Why would someone do something like this?” they would ask. “What can we do to prevent this from happening?” “How can the world be full of such monsters?” But he knew better. After years of pulling babies from garbage cans and listening to twelve-year old girls beaten and raped by their stepfathers, Richard knew one thing for certain. It was the world that created the monsters. He would sit in his squad car and watch them. Flicking off a driver that hit the gas a few seconds too late. Screaming at the drive-thru attendant for a misheard order. He would laugh to himself as he watched the news at night with his dad, thinking of his friends and their conspiracies about leukemia cures hidden away in a chamber.
Guns, knives, bombs. Human beings had already invented plenty of ways of destroying each other’s bodies. They didn’t need cancer.
“I’m sorry, Richie.” His father fanned himself with his hat despite the visible cold exhaling from his mouth. “I think it’s fine now.”
Richard kept his eyes trained on the bow as it cut through the dark water, his back toward his father.
~ ~ ~
A fog formed overnight. Spread itself across the windows so that Richard had to keep wiping the glass every few seconds to see clearly. He’d gone to bed early after the disaster on the lake, popping a pink from his little bag. There were only eleven left. He was losing track. Could have sworn he’d only taken five since arriving. His father coughed roughly the entire night, causing Richard to jolt awake sometimes to a spinning room, straining to hear him, before allowing the Estazolem to plummet him back into unconsciousness. As much as Richard hated the sound of his father’s broken lungs, the silence scared him more.
His father scuffled into the living room in his slippers, fishing vest in hand. “My fingers aren’t as nimble today. Help me out?” He held the vest out to him.
The fog reformed itself across the pane. Richard rubbed it with his fist. “Sorry pops. We’re not going.”
He moved to the overflowing sink of dishes and pretended to scrub the inside of a mug with one of the untouched sponges the landlady left them almost a week ago. “I’m sorry, but we’re done. The lake is over.”
“This is about yesterday, isn’t it?”
He turned the faucet over hard.
"What? You worried the cold’ll kill me? Pretty sure that’s the cancer’s job.”
Richard dropped the mug in the sink and whipped around. “Stop it.”
“I said, stop it okay! You’re not going, and that’s the end of it!”
His father opened his mouth to respond, then doubled over hacking.
“You see?” he moved to help him. “You need to get back in bed. C’mon.”
He pushed him away and tried to catch his breath. When the fit passed, he straightened as best he could and set his vest onto the couch. The water pounded into the sink behind them. “Richard. It is not your job to save me.”
A gust knocked the rocker on the porch onto its back. “Stop it,” he whispered. “Just stop.”
His father fixed his dark eyes onto his son. Another burst of wind throttled the screen door. He sighed and shook his head. “I love you Richie,” he said, his voice low. “But sometimes you can be a real dickhead.” With that, he dragged himself back down the hallway, the bedroom door thudding shut behind him.
Richard trudged toward the sink and watched the water ricochet off the dishes before switching it off. A gnat swarmed over a smear of mustard on one of the plates. He grabbed a sponge and swatted it away, then squeezed a glob of Dawn onto the plate and began to scrub, harder and harder, the crusted crumbs along the rim refusing to budge. He chucked the plate back into the sink, a small section of china chipping against the edge of a knife that’d been tossed inside. He snatched up the steel and stared down his blurred reflection.
They gave him an award after. Medal of Valor. The mayor hung it around his neck, cameras flashing everywhere. A bright and shiny metal. For shooting down a teenager.
You had no choice, the others told him. Self-defense, they called it. You helped save so many lives. But all he saw when he looked at the article in the long row across the mantle—were all the faces of everyone he didn’t.
Everyone he couldn’t.
Richard pounded the cabinet above him. The wine goblets rattled inside. He knocked against it again, and again, the clatter of glass rising sharply. Down the hall, his father’s door reopened. The sound of his labored breathing fell into the hallway. But he never came outside.
~ ~ ~
There were only seven. Richard dropped to his knees and dumped the entire bottle of Estazolem onto the toilet cover and counted again, shifting the pills—separating—making sure. There’d been eleven the day before. Eleven. He’d counted them. He’d held them inside his palm . . .
Richard shoved the cylinders back into the bottle and burst into the living room, hurling the bottle into his father’s lap. The pills thrashed around inside. “What the hell is this!”
His father’s arms stiffened. On the TV in front of him was another news special. There’d been a shooting in the South. A middle school. That’s what he’d been watching. It’d been almost a year, and they’d done it again, attempting to honor the victims by hiring actors to engage in a dramatic reenactment of the shooter’s rampage through the school. A man ducked behind a wall as a monotone voice narrated his fear for the viewer, his own voice silent. Someone mentioned Cuttle Creek, then the Comic-Con incident in Cali as comparison stats of the last three shootings appeared on screen.
Richard yanked the bottle off his father’s thigh and jostled the pills in front of his face. “There should be fourteen pills here, Dad! And now there’s only seven! Where the hell are the other pills!”
His father’s expression was calm, but the hand resting on the remote twitched beside him. “Richie . . . ”
His father stalled, wringing his fingers. The terrified faces continued across the screen as he struggled to his feet and shuffled toward the fishing vest he’d hung on the back door. Someone screamed. An actress pretending to run away. Richard could barely see her, the dizziness in his head swirling through his throat and chest as his father reached into one of the vest’s pockets and reemerged with a handful of the bright, pink cylinders that looked almost red against his faded skin.
Richard’s voice was quiet. “Why. Do you have. My sleeping pills. Inside your vest?”
“Richie, please . . .
His father straightened and raised his chin, standing straighter than Richard could remember since the cancer. “Richie . . .why do you think we’re here?” Outside, the clouds gathered deep along the edges of the trees. “Why do you think I wanted to come?”
There were pictures of the Cali shooter on TV. Then the image switched to Cuttle Creek—and it was his shooter. Building a sandcastle. Couldn’t have been older than three. The lens zoomed closer and focused on his eyes, as if somewhere in that face would be the answer for why anyone would murder fifteen people at an elementary school. Why he brought over a hundred rounds of ammo and didn’t use half of it. Why he stared blankly as Richard screamed for him to put his weapon down. Why he raised an empty gun.
Richard gazed at the pills inside his father’s trembling hand, then back into his steady eyes.
He had wanted death. And all Richard had been able to do—was let him.
“No.” He strode toward his father and wrapped his fingers around his wrist, forcing the pills from his palm. “You will not do this to me.”
"Richard. I don’t want to die in a cell.”
He blinked and turned toward his father, shifting the pills into his other hand, then seized his father’s pole, stepped outside into the bitter air, cast his arm back as far as he could—the way his father taught him so many years ago—and chucked the rod into the lake. When he finally brought himself to turn back around, his father had disappeared from the room. His vest left lying on the floor.
~ ~ ~
They were eating lunch when the first drops of blood plopped from his father’s nose into his bone broth. It was only seconds before the rest came pouring, dripping onto his father’s flannel and later Richard’s hands where he cupped them under in their race to the bathroom.
Since his discovery of his father’s plan with the missing pills, his father had not spoken to him once in two days. Richard stopped taking them himself, waking every couple of hours with a cold sweat and throbbing head to check on him like a patient in a ward. He never left him alone for long. Kept his gun closer than usual. They barely looked at each other, the accidental brush of shoulder as one scooted past the other in the hallway the only real contact they’d made in days. Now he knelt behind his father on the bathroom floor, arms locked around his chest as he held a wet washcloth beneath his nostrils. His father sobbed muffled apologies into the cotton, gripping Richard’s forearm.
“It’s okay, Pops! It’s okay! It’s okay . . . ” He rocked him, his cheek smashed against the top of his father’s ear as he turned his face away from the blood, and the tears, and the sting of his father’s nails thrusting into his arm. When the blood finally clotted, he pulled the cloth away and grabbed some toilet paper, wiping around his father’s face.
“There, you see? You’re okay. It’s over . . . ”
His father hung limp in his arms.
He said nothing, chin slumped to his chest. His nails still plunged into Richard’s skin. Richard remembered the way Sophia’s grip had felt against him. Body trembling, then going stiff as the children in the hallway filed past them, their little hands locked around the others while a voice instructed them forward--
“Everyone look at your buddy in front of you, okay? Only your buddy. It’s going to be all right, everyone. Okay? Just keep your eyes on your buddy. Only your buddy . . . ”
“Dad . . .” Richard whispered, tearing his arm away. “Dad, are you okay?
“Help me to my bed, please,” his father said quietly.
Richard eased him against the wall and wandered into his room for a clean shirt. A series of little pink trenches had emerged across his forearm from his father’s nails. When he returned to the bathroom, his father was lying on the tile—arms and knees curled into his chest, mouth gaping as if to scream. Yet he was silent. Richard stopped short, then rushed toward him, lifting him up and helping him to his bed, where his father continued to weep without sound, yanking the comforter to hide his face as he turned his back to his son.
Richard blinked past the spots dotting his vision. “Just . . . just you sleep now . . .” He backed away and groped against the wall towards the kitchen where the broth they’d abandoned still rested on the table. Three red drops swirled around the middle.
Richard yanked his coat from the chair, pushed through the sliding door, down the steps, past the lake, into the forest, as far as he could stumble, and screamed—just like his father—only long, loud gasps of air he couldn’t control anymore. He clawed at the ground, pieces of molted dirt and leaves grinding into the stain of his father’s blood on his hands.
“My son,” his father said to him, the day he came home from the shooting. My son.
~ ~ ~
Richard stood outside the door to his father’s bedroom and listened to the breath struggling to break free from his body. He was finally asleep. The bones in his spine jutted out from where the comforter had slid off his shoulder. Dark green bruises multiplied across his back.
She wouldn’t let the body go. The woman on the floor. Even after the paramedics came to attend to her and the child in the classroom, even after CSI began covering everything in sheets, she had clung to that body in her arms. Eyes vacant, limbs slack. Nothing moving save her hand latched to the other’s chest, as her fingers pressed deeper into the woman’s wound, her nails filling with blood.
“This was Gina,” she’d said, her lips close to the woman’s ear. “… I love her.”
Richard cracked the door, then walked into the living room toward the mantle and picked up the photo from the shooting. The little girl’s laces were untied. It was barely visible in the picture, but he remembered the feel of them slapping free against his thighs. “Close your eyes,” he said to her as he coaxed her past the bodies in the hall, her nose pressed into the soft folds of his neck. “Can you hear that funny rumble in my throat whenever I talk? Press your ear against my neck and listen to that rumble. Just keep listening to that funny sound.” She hugged his collar as they stepped into the glaring sun. A helicopter churned, while the bomb squad, paramedics, and officers ran about the premises. Her mother arrived within minutes, hysterical and crying as she clutched her child. She kissed his shoulder over and over, but he said nothing. Just watched the woman with red hair being lifted into an ambulance nearby.
His father had rehung his vest on the back doorknob. Richard lifted it off. He’d bought it for him. For his sixty-first birthday. Right before their last trip to the lake. They’d caught nothing that entire weekend. Spent most of their time throwing back cans of Yuengling and listening to the creak of the pier by the water. His father had hooked his thumbs into the pockets of his brand-new fishing vest, the two of them rocking side by side on the back porch. “My son,” he grinned at him. Eyes shining.
Richard buried his face into the vest, muffling his grief as he wept, his forehead pressed against the chilled glass door leading to the lake. He wept inside his father’s vest for a long time, until he found the strength to wrap it across his arm, grab his bottle of sleeping pills, and pour out the exact amount he knew his father would need. He flushed the rest down the toilet, then moved to wash the blood from his hands, taking his time to scrub each crease carefully, before slipping the pills he’d gathered back into his father’s vest and sinking to his knees.
~ ~ ~
Richard held his fishing rod in one hand and the vest in the other as he hovered over his father in the bed. “Hey,” he called loudly and tossed the vest onto his lap.
His father jolted and rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand, looking at the vest then Richard as if trying to remember where they’d both come from. “What is this?”
“According to Field and Stream, the best bitin’ time is now. We’re late leaving as is. I suggest you suit up.”
Outside the wind’s howl crept through the cracks in the cabin’s foundation. His father fiddled with the buttons. “Are you sure?” he asked quietly, avoiding his son’s face.
“We can get a new pole at the shop where you got the crawlers. There’s a few models might be fun to try. I’ll make something warm.” He turned before he could respond, distracting himself in the kitchen with the coffee maker till his father emerged from his room and opened the back door. The air’s frigid breath burst against Richard’s face, causing his eyes to water even more. A delicate mist balanced above the lake. Just like the one he remembered as a child. His father began to hum, low at first, the tune rising higher till it became a light whistle, fading fast beneath the wail of the wind--
like a coin that won’t get tossed, rolling home to you.