The fathers made off with the night. The dark, the stars, the galaxies. The moon even had chain marks from where the fathers had tried to pull it down with a 4×4 truck like an ornery stump. It hadn’t given. The moon was a node of bone still sticking out of the fractured morning.
Walking to the north end of the island, smoke trailed out of the green mountains to the south. Other children hadn’t noticed. Eyes ahead, coastal winds pushing their footsteps toward school, they too must have noticed the signs of their father’s departures at home.
“Fuckers,” I thought.
“Little bastards! All of you! I would’ve left all of you, too, if I was younger!” yelled Old Man Morgan from his front porch, shoulders shaking with laughter.
Some children looked, then kept walking. I stopped. I glared at him until his shoulders stopped shaking and he glared back, stony-eyed.
He knew what I was thinking. He recognized the ghosts in my eyes.
“It’s a shame Ricky Bowen’s father won’t be around… What’s an island without a sheriff?”
Without giving an answer, Old Man Morgan looked to the smoke out of the south, jaw tight, eyes watery with worry.
“Good luck sleeping with no night, you old fuck!” I shouted, mimicking the old man’s gross laugh from earlier.
When I was small, my father took me hunting on the mainland. We didn’t have a dog, because my father hated dogs, so he sent me sprinting into the brush to scare up game.
Blurs of white, brown and tawny feathers would explode from underfoot, rocketing past my waving arms into the marble skies above, before my father pulled the trigger. I would watch the birds tumble back to earth, feathered confetti, mangled clockwork, bags of blood. Sometimes the wind blew them back toward me and I would catch them against my chest like a football. They would flap in my arms, eyes wide, bloody newborns.
Moving my right wrist in a circle, cracking the joint, the way my father wrung the necks of wounded birds, I said to Jim, “Let’s kill him.”
“Old man Morgan.”
“You heard him. He called us bastards. Every single one of us—bastards.”
“He was just being stupid.”
“So are you. If you end up on the wrong side of this thing, I’m not going to help you. I may have to kill you too.”
“What are you talking about?!”
“You’ll see. You don’t smell that? Smoke. Fire. Something new is coming.”
Eyes wide, Jim looked as if he had something to say, but said nothing.
When my father shot me, I lay still in tall grass, bleeding, eyes full of marble skies, the right side of my body on fire. He said it was an accident. Said something about the pheasant zigging instead of zagging. Said the wind must’ve carried the buckshot off course.
When he turned his back to take a swig of bourbon to steel himself, I couldn’t tell if his shoulders were shaking from crying or laughter.
“Shhhh…” I hissed at the others, our shoulders silently wrestling with laughter.
The sky was still bone-white at midnight. No sign of night anywhere, except the trail of smoke out of the south. Every so often a match head of flame burst from the treetops, then hid again beneath the thick, green canopy.
All throughout dinner, our mothers acted as if the smoke that made us wheeze and cough must be hay fever. When I told my mother that the mountains were on fire, she said, “The whole world is on fire at any given moment. Don’t worry about it.” When I asked where was father, she said, “Working late.”
“Now,” I said, and threw the first handful of gravel like buckshot at Old Man Morgan’s front window. It scattered loudly and a curtain moved.
Another handful of gravel thrown by Jim slammed against the side of his house.
Another handful of gravel shot down out of the Sutton’s tree next door on Old Man Morgan’s rooftop.
Another against his back door.
Another against his front door.
Everywhere. Gravel flurried like hailstones. Kids laughing on all sides.
I yelled, “Who’s the bastard now, old man?!”
Old Man Morgan crashed through the screen door on the front door, shaking with fury, tears in his voice, “You sons of bitchin’ bastards! You sons of bitchin’ bastards!”
I stepped forward, handful of sin, and threw a fastball. My fist-sized rock nailed Old Man Morgan straight in the chest. The wind shot out of him, bringing him to his knees, gasping, unable to regain his breath.
My father carried me a mile back to the car, holding me like a bloody newborn against his chest. Eyes closed, I breathed in his body odor, his bourbon-sweet breath. I wanted to live in that moment, to be part of his body, to never touch the ground again, to never feel the burden of gravity.
But then he unceremoniously dumped me, face-first, on the hood of the car.
When Old Man Morgan came to, we had strapped him to his kitchen table like a dead deer to the hood of a car. One by one, everyone got their shots in. Punches to the face, the stomach, the testicles. At first his eyes were full of tears and pain, groaning with each new impact, but then something deadened, turned steel, became an abandoned tenement.
Surrounded by ghosts of himself as a boy, Old Man Morgan tunneled further down within, alone, a planet hiding life.
Even though I felt the cold car hood against my bare chest, felt the sting of tweezers digging into my skin, plucking out lead BBs, heard my father’s grunting, swearing and labored breathing, I pretended I was dead.
I was not there. I was a planet, a comet, a galaxy holding its breath whenever the telescopes turned its way.
“Knock it off, dammit!”
I slapped Old Man Morgan back to earth. He groaned when the burden of gravity weighed on his chest and dared him to breathe.
Everyone was gone. I sent them home. Even Jim, who was now crying about his part in all of this.
Before Jim left, I told him that he was good, that I was proud of him, that he’d done all that I asked of him and I couldn’t ask for anything more than that.
Jim quietly accepted it as if spoken by his own father, and walked home a hunched figure, alone in a bloodless night.
Old Man Morgan blinked repeatedly, before staring into my eyes and I into his. We didn’t say anything for a long time. He looked like hell. Bruised, bloody. He looked like I felt, and I think he knew it.
“Why do you hate us?” I asked, unexpectedly bursting into tears.
“You know why.”
My face contorting with pain and rage, I choked out, throat tight, knotted, chest spasming, “Yeah. I guess I do.”
I bent over his strapped-down body, laid my wet cheek against his badly bruised chest and listened to his old heart, a telegraph message from his father to mine to my future son, calming my emotions.
I let out long, deep breaths, matching his, before asking, “You think they’ll ever come back?”
Old Man Morgan said, “I don’t think so.”
I kissed his cheek, then his forehead. The room felt hot, as if the fire had finally crawled out of the mountains, taken over the entire town, taken every piece of our lives, everything we had ever known, ever hated and destroyed it in order to start over, in order to find a new way of being.
“What do we do now?”
When we got to town, my father bought gauze and other first aid supplies from a country store. In the backseat of his car, his hands were hot and gentle. He took time cutting surgical pads to size, rolling gauze and securing it all with medical tape.
When he was done, he asked me to move around a little. The right side of my body was still pain and fire. I was half of a mummy, because I was half-dead, now, I thought. Like the earth’s poles: one half six months of day, the other half six months of night. While one half of my life had fallen into shade, the other half would be spent waiting for my father to finish what he had started.