You can't do that
ears after, they were still words she did not speak aloud. It was an area of her mind and memory she’d surrounded in razor wire. She was too old to believe in things. She’d gone to school relentlessly. She’d sought explanations for the unexplainable and laughed unkindly at people who indulged in phrases like “the cosmos.”
She’d used her adult life as a strip of sandpaper to wear down any sense of wonder into a dull acceptance that things just were. They are. They always will be.
It hadn’t always been so. There was a time. She’d picked her nose and run through grassy fields and stayed up all night and invented secret names for things. She’d believed. And imagined. And dreamed. And spoke.
But now, she did not say those words. Abracadabra, Open Sesame, Shazaam. These were silly words for snake oil salesmen. But those words, she would not incant. She would not make room in her life for not knowing. She had given up on the power and magic of three words. Three small words that would open up the sky and cause green slime to fall.
Why? What was she afraid of?
I don’t know.
hen she opens the door her uncle is there. “Your doorbell’s broken,” he says, like it hasn’t been more than five years since the last time she saw him.
“I don’t have a doorbell."
“You really should get that looked at,” he says, pushing past her. She suddenly remembers the dishes piled everywhere, the laundry on the floor, the stains on the carpet. And then she remembers it isn’t the kind of thing he’d notice anyway. It’s all too obvious.
He stands in her front hallway, hands behind his back, bouncing on his toes. Wrapped in his grey trenchcoat like he hasn’t aged a day. It’s all so familiar that she reaches up to tug on her pigtails, before realizing she hacked them off years ago.
“How’s retirement?”She’s surprised the words come out as an attack.
He looks at her, as if the words she’s said have no meaning. “I’m always on duty.” Then he points at a photograph on the wall. “That man looks just like me.”
It was a picture of all of them with the Chief back when they were all working together. “That is you.”
“Don’t you think I know who I am?” He harrumphs a bit, trying to figure out if he should be offended.
There are pale shapes on the wallpaper where other frames had lived for years. The photos and degrees and awards, fellowships and doctorates. She’s torn it all down, one at a time. Like some kind of striptease of memory. This was the last thing left. One photograph. She doesn’t have the heart to take it down.
He’s still staring at the photo. “You were brilliant.” And his tone’s so soft she can’t quite be sure he’s talking about himself, or her.
“I’ll make some tea.”
“I can’t stay,” he says, wheeling toward the door and heading back outside.
She chases him down the front walk, weeds poking out from between the flagstones. Even now, as an adult, she has a tough time keeping up with his long strides.
The minivan is parked on the lawn. The red paint trim looks hopelessly dated, but at least it matches the rust spots. He’s rammed through her mailbox, a pile of flyers and magazines sprayed out over the lawn like a flock of dead birds.
He goes around to the trunk of the van. He starts fumbling through pockets. “Where did I put my—?”
“I’m sorry I never called,” she says, feeling guilty and angry at her guilt at the same time. He’s on his hands and knees searching in the grass. “I just…”
And she leaves it there. I just didn’t think you’d notice. And he doesn’t. He never did.
“Go go keychain!” he says, jumping to his feet and jabbing one finger in the air. They both wait several long moments. Nothing happens.
He kicks the bumper and the trunk opens with a puff of air.
Inside is an orange shape. Fur. Long ears. Stretched out stiff. There’s not even a smell. It takes her a moment to recognize it.
“He won’t wake up,” her uncle says.
Not it. Him. “No.”
“You were brilliant,” he says, turning to her. His words are so sincere this time, they sound like they’re welling up from her own mangled heart. You were. She sits down on the lawn.
He turns back to the dog. “Maybe you can wake him?”
“No.” She lies back in the grass, so long she almost disappears.
“Wowsers,” he says, bouncing on his toes again. “He must be really tired.”
She nods. The smell of earth. They’d bury him here. She just needs to rest awhile first.
As you wished
he’ll be back in a few hours, she says. He doesn’t even turn around. He just stays hunched on the stool, the rhythmic sound of the milk splashing into the pail. She repeats herself, as she always must now.
There’s a long pause, his rough hands frozen around Abby’s teat, more intimate than anything they’ve shared in the last ten years. He grunts. As you wish. And returns to his task. He still doesn’t turn around.
She walks out of the barn and heads down the hill through the pasture. Overgrown now, strangled with weed. Those three words, the same three words. Words that had been romantic when they were young. More than the typical I love yous most young lovers toss at each other. As you wish. It had meant, whatever you desire. Now the words were a bad caricature, like the scarecrow she passes at the edge of their field, dancing in the wind. Inconceivable. As you wish. I don’t care what you do.
She gathers her skirts as she hops the old cow fence, broken here where rustlers made off with most of the herd last fall. When they’d first returned to the farm it had seemed like some magical game. The swashbuckler and the princess, playing farmboy and maid again. But games always end. They were good at impressions, but never at the real thing.
She pushes through the old orchard. Fat dead apples litter the ground like small bodies. Babies. There’d been three miscarriages. She finds the trail and climbs the hill to the woodcutter’s cabin. She goes around back first and fills a bucket from the pump.
She doesn’t knock. Knowing he’ll be there. Where else would he go. When his friend, the giant, died, he showed up and they’d taken him in. Given him work to do. Which he never did.
It’s dark inside. The smell of bad cider and urine. She feels her way over to the shutter and bangs it open.
He groans. Curled up naked on the floor like an autumn leaf after the colour had passed out of it. His long beautiful hair was mostly gone now. He wasn’t ugly. But at one time, he’d been beautiful. Weren’t they all. At one time he’d had a passion, a fire inside him. More fever than fire. One that could burn you if you stood too close. But then he killed the man that killed his father and now he was prepared to die.
Weren’t they all.
She lets her skirts drop to the floor. It hardly makes a noise, and he doesn’t open his eyes.
Like a hood ornament
e watches the kids go by on skateboards and scooters, bicycle and training wheels, only the bravest stopping to peer through the untamed rosebushes at the peeling paint and crumbling brick that he calls a home. He drops the curtain. How quickly heroes become monsters.
He’s about to head back to the kitchen to pop a TV dinner in the microwave when he hears the shatter of glass behind him. He turns to see a rock rolling across the floor and the busted maw of his front window. By the time he gets to the curtain, the culprits are gone. He picks up the rock. Nothing special about it. Just a rock, a careless thing.
He pads down the hallway, the shag carpet underfoot thick like the silence in this old place. The basement door creaks with the ghosts of thousand bad horror movies, reminding him to remind that damn woman to bring some WD-40 the next time she’s in. He takes the stairs one at a time now, with his damn hip. Still aches sixty years after the crash.
It’s where he left it, there on his workbench, covered in an old painter’s tarp. Once, everyone from the Nazis and the mafia to the Feds wanted what’s under there. Hell, even Howard Hughes came calling, first with a carload of cash and then a carload of thugs.
He pulls the tarp off like a magician with a bad trick. Metal fins polished to a shine, leather straps oiled and soft to the touch, the faint whiff of fuel lingering in the air. It’s heavy for him now, but he slings it over his shoulders like a large baby. Or a bomb.
He lost the helmet. Betty backed the car over it a few dozen times when she found out he was still flying on the sly. He gave up the air shows after that. Then he gave up flying altogether. But it was too late. They were already too far gone.
She always told him the helmet made him look like a hood ornament anyway.
It’s harder going back up, it always is. The pack’s only about twenty pounds, but he’s dragging a lot more than that behind him up the stairs. He pushes out through the torn screen door into the backyard. The grass still dead from the leak at the chemical plant all those years back. He leans a ladder up against the house and peers up at the curling shingles. He always hated heights, funny being a flyboy, but it was different on solid ground.
It takes him a while, but he makes it to the roof. It’s only a bungalow but he can still see the better part of the neighbourhood. Almost unrecognizable now. Most of the old places either bulldozed for condominiums or covered up in that crap they spray on like cotton candy.
He straps in tight, the pack snug against his back, and straightens up as best he can. He inches down to the edge of the roof. He runs his thumb over the ignition.
He could go back downstairs. Back to the same old. Back to that pantheon of TV dinners.
He doesn’t even feel his thumb twitch.
He’s already fifty feet up before he remembers how to control the damn thing. And then it all comes back and the years burn off in the roar of the exhaust.
He pulls a loop-de-loop and zooms back down for a pass over his neighbourhood. Any minute those kids’ll come running out into the backyards, pointing and cheering. Who is that? Superman? Their parents will nod knowingly, their own childhood twinkling inside them.
He makes another pass, the sun dying low over the hills. They’ll be calling the newspapers now. Helicopters and crews on the way.
The tank’s starting to sputter as he turns around for a third time, this time flying low, brushing trees. Nobody. The backyards are silent.
Even if they came out, those kids, what would they see? An old man stuck in a future long past. Hovercrafts, UFOs and jetpacks. The world moves on. Heroes become monsters.
Not monsters. No. Even worse. Forgotten.
The silence is everywhere now. He’s floating on it. He stretches out his arms like a superhero. Blue sky above, green lawn below. He’s never felt so light. Like he doesn’t even exist.
Remember when you were a minipop, and you saw that film, you know, the one you loved that never had a sequel? Well, let's say it did. And it was just like you imagined it, only a little bit worse.