On the drawbridge that crosses the Halifax River, we have to wait for a shrimp boat to pass, its nets raised, its deck littered with lines and the gleam of the thundering rain. My little sister, LuLu, leans out the back window of the VW bus and yells at the tanned deckhands to hurry up. They call her “sweet baby thing” and blow kisses. A shade past fourteen, my half-sister is more like a flat-chested ten-year-old, small like our mama, tough like her daddy. I tell her to put her head back in the window, the bridge is lowering.
“Shut up, Saul,” she says, but she listens when Rainey, who lives with us now, echoes the sentiment.
The waterway between the beach and New Smyrna’s oyster bars and chicken-and-biscuit joints is busy with fishermen coming home, most of the boats small and singular, no more reason for the bridge to raise. LuLu stretches out on the bench seat behind Rainey and me, the soles of her feet up on the windows, her hands drawing imaginary pictures in the air. On the radio the Rolling Stones’ intro to “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” starts up, and when Lu chirps her high-pitched imitation of the choirboys’ falsetto notes, Rainey turns around and tells her to please stop.
The evening sky closes in, the clouds an intense black smudge. We head out of New Smyrna, its main street crowded with bright umbrellas, parents in search of supper, a way out of the rain, their small kids pointing at shop windows crowded with beach floats and oversized balls. And crossing in front of us on skateboards, older kids with cut-offs and long, wet hair bleached from too many days in the sun. Kids like us, dressed like we all dress in 1972.
I light a cigarette and exhale toward the ceiling. Rainey glares at me, waves the smoke away from the passenger side and back in my direction. She doesn’t do anything that her mother does; smoking is one of those things. Lu, on the other hand, not wanting to be the baby, smokes like a chimney whenever she thinks no one is looking.
Soon, fields stretch out on either side of the road, and unlit billboards rise up, blank and massive, their messages unreadable through the downpour. The highway is dark and wet, and the night is heavy with the sound of rain, windshield wipers, and soaked asphalt under the tires. At the intersection where I have to head south, I take the curve too easily and the VW bus fishtails into the opposite lane. Rainey holds on to the dashboard handle—the “Jesus handle,” Mama calls it—and stares straight ahead, through the windshield wipers flipping from side to side, her eyes on the path of the high beams.
“Slow down,” she says. She leans back, raises her legs onto the seat, and wraps her arms around her knees. “It doesn’t make any difference how late we are because we’re already beyond late.”
It was Mama who sent us to New Smyrna, to have a day of it, some fun. LuLu and Rainey and me. “Act like teenagers, why don’t you? Quit moping around here.” Her only rule: home by supper. And now it’s well past supper.
Earlier in the day the beach was crowded, the ocean gray-green under thick white skies. The afternoon grazed over us in heavy breaths with wind and gathering clouds. When the rain finally came, it coursed down. Crazy walls of rain. We ran to the car, but it was too late. Our legs and towels were plastered with sand, LuLu shivering, Rainey complaining that her thighs were sticking to the vinyl seat.
Now LuLu has settled behind us on the bench seat, finally quiet, asleep under a damp towel. I glance back at her and Rainey says to keep my eyes on the road. Sometimes my baby sister seems younger than fourteen, especially when she’s curled up and dreaming, her fingers near her mouth. And Rainey, she seems older, more like sixteen than barely fifteen. She fidgets with her hair, braided and trailing over one shoulder, and then fools with the ties of her swimsuit top, the ones at the back of her neck. The ones I’ve fooled with too often. I glance at her and then back at the rain-drenched road. I’m the one with the driver’s license, so I get to drive the excuse-for-a-car, the Volkswagen camper that my stepfather, Royal, bought before he went camping in Vietnam nearly five years ago. He’s long since come back, but Mama kicked him out almost as soon as he’d set foot in the house. The VW was always meant for Mama, though she loathes its bright red walls and plaid seat covers and big family feel. But it stayed and Royal left, and Lu got caught in the middle with one parent here and another there.
Ahead are the signs for Lake Monroe and Lake Jesup and Lake Mary. I regret heading home, inland, to the part of Florida pocked with lakes and overgrown with orange groves. Across the sky is lightning, the horizontal kind that seems to strike sideways, reaching too far to find ground. The thunder is distant. Rainey counts to nine and then gives up. I think of lightning striking the beach, how a woman was killed at Cocoa last month, walking alone during a storm.
“What kind of idiot walks on the beach in a thunderstorm?” I say out loud without meaning to.
“My mother,” Rainey answers. “That kind.”
“Really?” I pass a pickup loaded with melons and going barely forty, the back end dented in on one side and the tailgate tied loose. I imagine the rope coming undone and the melons rolling out onto the highway.
“Really,” Rainey says.
Rainey has been living with us off and on since she was ten, sharing LuLu’s bedroom. My mama and Rainey’s mother, Eva, have some sort of agreement. Nearly four years ago, just weeks after receiving official word that her Army husband had gone missing, Eva dropped off crates of books and china, waved to her daughter and then kept on going, like she was out searching for something and a kid might slow her down. Checks came in the mail, postmarked West Palm Beach, Coral Gables, and Islamorada. But Eva stopped coming by. Excuses like better schools, friends your own age, that nice neighborhood came inside envelopes addressed to Rainey, Eva’s handwriting large and linear. Little packages came, too, with gifts inside. Rainey would open them and barely consider the contents—bracelets, earrings, tie-dyed dresses—and either give them away or put them back inside their boxes, a stash of secret things under her and LuLu’s canopy bed. She kept only one thing—the thin gold chain with the ruby that traced her throat. “My birthstone,” she told me, pushing my hands away when I tried to touch it.
Last summer when Rainey turned fourteen, her mother didn’t even send a card. Rainey grabbed under the bed for the little boxes and filled the kitchen trash with all but one. The one Eva hadn’t sent: made of cloth, light blue, hinged at one side. Inside, the MIA bracelet with her father’s name, rank, and date he’d gone missing. Like my father and my stepfather, he’d enlisted, but in the U.S. Army instead of the Marines. She told me how her father had sung to her, not in a wavering voice, but in one that burst open, loud and clear. She said he’d worn a buzz cut. All of our fathers had buzz cuts, but not all of them sang.
Rainey turns up the radio whenever Eric Clapton comes on. This time it’s “Layla,” and I wish she’d turn it back down. The way the guitar curves and Clapton’s voice strains around the instruments—he just tries too hard. Girls love him for that.
Rainey thinks the music I listen to is too sentimental—“all that Bernie Taupin stuff,” she once whispered, her face close to mine, her breath like licorice. She thinks I need to learn to like what she likes, what she is teaching LuLu to like. Music with an edge. What she means is music that’s one step past the blues. But she doesn’t understand that yet. What Eric Clapton did for Cream is fine, but I’m just not all that interested. Rainey seems to hear only the instruments, while I hear the words. Clapton’s desperate chorus circles around again, and then finally the ending, instrumental, which sends Rainey somewhere else. Rainey knows I still feel bad, for wanting her, for her ignoring me, for the rift I’ve created by being that much older, seventeen, a year away from being drafted. I leave the lyrics to themselves, like they’re lost chances—the begging and pleading and repeating better left to strangers on the radio.
By the time we head past Casselberry and Altamonte Springs down through Maitland, the rain has lightened, and I have to adjust the wipers, on again, off again, every few minutes. Mama would say I’ve taken the long way home, and she’d be right. I turn left onto Webster, a street which points back to the ocean, back where we’ve come from, and drive past the cemetery. Rainey stares out the window at the black streets. Not a light is on in the entire town. No street lamps, no porch lights, only dark squares of house windows.
Mama is certain to be searching out kitchen matches and hurricane candles, cursing quietly with no one else to hear. That we’re coming home late won’t help. She’ll most likely praise the Lord for gas stoves, then reheat supper and set out our plates, a tongue-lashing our only punishment. Since she pushed Royal out of the house, she’s gone from disappearing in her bedroom for days at a time to leaving us on our own for entire weekends. She shops before she leaves—a warning sign—the cabinets stocked with cans of beans and soup, boxes of saltines, the fridge loaded with sliced cheese, half a baked ham, soft drinks. We don’t ask where she goes, and we give her room when she returns. These days she sends us off, to the lake, to the beach—“anywhere there’s swimming and sun,” she says—like she needs to air the house of our all-day TV and laundry-covered floors.
LuLu stirs in the back seat and sits up just in time to see Mama standing in the driveway, all lit from the headlights.
“She’s probably got the leather belt out,” Lu says, her voice soft, her tone mean. “Forty lashes for you, Rain-Rain. Fifty or more for Saul.”
“Always exaggerating,” Rainey says over her shoulder. “Like she’s ever done that.”
“Just not to you.” LuLu leans forward and swipes at Rainey’s unraveling braid and along her shoulders and arms.
“Quit it, crazy,” Rainey says, and wards off Lu’s half-assed swats.
I shut off the engine and then the headlights, and Mama disappears for a second, then reappears, a dark glimpse of herself, still standing there, waiting for us. Her arms at her sides, not crossed one on top of the other in her usual way, she now motions for us to come inside. “Supper” is the only thing she says. She moves into the house in front of us, the screen door bouncing.
Rainey says, “See?”
Lu only looks past Rainey, her eyes wide, her mouth a straight line, then drags her dirty beach towel out of the VW bus and along the wet drive.
We are all three still damp and caked with sand, which Mama won’t know until the morning when she walks barefoot into the kitchen and feels the soft grit under her toes.
Later, after supper, Rainey leaves a bowl of strawberries by my bedroom door. It’s nearly one in the morning, and I hear her set the bowl down and I know it’s the same one as before. A shallow yellow bowl with handles, the one she took from the crate marked kitchenware in our garage. The same crate her mother packed with teacups and tissue paper before finding a way to leave and not come back.
The berries are bright and small—like rubies, like Rainey’s mouth. And when I take one and press it against my lips, I wish for her mouth more than the crush of fruit, the stain it will leave. Eventually, she will kiss me again. And eventually she will wander into the basement rec room of a boy named Timothy, just because his eyes are huge and she’s curious about his silence and the size of his hands. Soon enough, I will lose her, to so many others, and she will come back, and I’ll lose her again. But for this moment, I know none of this.
For now she is here, on the other side of the hall, whispering things to my sister. And for now I have this bowl of berries, one leaning against another and another, their scarlet syrup circling into the bottom of the bowl.
I can tell it’s morning because they’re yelling.
“Cut it out!” Rainey is shouting at LuLu, and Lu is silent.
Rainey rushes into the hallway between our rooms. My door is halfway open and from the edge of my bed I can see her. She’s wearing a sundress, the straps falling off her shoulders. Thin straps, like the red twine around the package in the top of my closet. The small square package, rescued nearly four years ago from a shelf in a military warehouse, with my father’s personal effects inside.
Rainey stops and stands there in the new quiet, looking at something. She seems to follow the floorboards, the strips of light falling across them, to the empty yellow bowl next to my bed. And then she’s in the doorway, pushing the door wider, looking straight at me. Her eyes are the strangest color, a pale blue-green that sometimes darkens.
My stereo is turned low, playing the song that always makes me think of her. From across the room she smiles like she knows I would meet her halfway. Wherever she wants. It’s never for sure, though. I can never tell with her what is for sure. And then that’s what makes me love her, makes me wish for another afternoon at the lake.
She sits down on my bed. The space between us is narrow and full of breath and rumpled sheets. She is wearing the MIA bracelet, the one that’s stamped with her father’s name and date of disappearance, and she traces her fingers back and forth over the engraved letters and numbers. I know there will be hell if Mama catches us. Screaming and hell. Me in shorts and no shirt, and Rainey with her dress straps falling down, both of us sitting on my bed.
“Why does LuLu always have to act so crazy?” she says.
“I don’t know, Rain. She’s just like that. Full volume, all up in your face.”
She smiles. “She’s not just like that.” Her hand presses down on the mattress between us. “She’s just LuLu.”
“Sure,” I say. I feel the space between us. Only inches. The space between me and Lu feels more vast, even though we’re related. Different fathers, same mother.
“You always listen to this album,” Rainey says. “Over and over and over.” Her fingers lay flat against the sheets. No rings. Not like other girls. Bare fingers. Bare feet. Bare ankles. She laughs.
Around her throat, a sliver of gold, a teardrop ruby in the hollow. The necklace from her mother.
“Saul,” she says.
My name in her mouth.
And then a door slamming open. LuLu. She is just like a rabbit the way she jumps around.
“Hey!” she cries. She’s high. “What are you two doing in here?” Joyride high.
Rainey stays on the bed, trying not to blink and gathering fistfuls of sheets. LuLu pounces onto the bed, pushing between us, her hands slapping at my chest.
“You,” she says to me, leaning closer, breathing in my face. “You, Saul, are practically naked!”
“You wish,” Rainey says.
“I do,” she says back. “I do!” She laughs and nearly falls on the floor. “And I know you do, Rainey. Don’t you?”
“Right,” Rainey says.
The flat sound of her voice hits me hard. I don’t know if it’s for LuLu, this act. They each have an act. I know Lu’s already. How she’s mad at everyone and wants to make us all disappear, and each tiny pill she swallows is supposed to do the trick. Lu’s act is loud and clear. But Rainey’s isn’t.
Lu turns up the volume on the stereo. There is a slow moment of the needle against the vinyl, scratching at the space between songs. And then, too loudly, the lone piano and the voice. Rainey glances from me to the turntable and walks away, and LuLu is still jumping up and down on my bed.
“LuLu and Saul!” Mama is in the hallway. “I will not have all this racket in my house. Do you understand me?”
LuLu sinks onto the bed, knees first.
“Yes, Mama,” she says.
I can tell she’s trying not to laugh. Her mouth meets my shoulder, and I can feel her starting up. She stops herself by falling over and smashing her face into my pillow. I lean over her to turn the stereo down.
“Yes, Mama?” she says, her voice muffled.
“You and Rainey clean up that room of yours today. Before you go anywhere, young lady.”
I turn to face Mama, but she’s already gone. Her bedroom door shuts with a click. This morning Mama makes herself scarce, only showing up to put out our small fires.
LuLu still has her head against the pillow, her legs tucked underneath her. Across the room on my dresser are open rolls of Life Savers—peppermint, the kind Lu likes to nab. Blue marbles, some pennies, a black comb. Mama’s words echo in my head—clean up that room. These days, she rarely comes into mine, so I guess she doesn’t care about the clothes lying on the floor, or whether the dresser drawers are closed like she wants them, or how many towels are thrown over the foot of my bed.
I want Royal to come back and take charge of Mama and Lu and the meds he left behind. It’s been almost two years since Mama asked him to leave, the door yawning wide, the vials of painkillers buried in a bedroom drawer. I want him to take Lu to his lake house where they can work on carpentry projects with tools and two-by-fours, where they can fish with cane poles, where he can keep her out of trouble.
I nudge Lu and she groans.
“Stop,” she says.
“Get off my bed.” I push her this time.
She lifts her head off the pillow and stares at me. “Make me.”
I grab her by the wrist and pull.
“All right, all right. I give up.” She jumps off the bed and smiles. “Asshole,” she says from the doorway and then runs down the hall.
When I was ten years old, I wasn’t very tall and my father—the full six feet, five inches of him—towered over everyone. Isaac Finch Edwards. Mama called him handsome. Tall, dark, and handsome. All Mama’s friends did, too. “So handsome, that Isaac Edwards,” they said. In their church pews, down grocery aisles, at the lake. Back then Mama still acted like she owned him. Even though they’d long since been divorced. Even though she’d been married to another man for seven years. Even though she had another child to worry about.
He came over that night like he was timing it. Like he knew just when Royal and LuLu had stepped out the door to get a quart of vanilla ice cream. Mama had made a peach pie, which sat cooling on the kitchen counter, the top crust latticed and golden. When my father came in through the kitchen door, I guess Mama thought it was Royal and Lu. I heard my father’s voice, a drawer open, the sound of a plate being scraped. And then I heard my father calling me again and again.
“Goddamn it, son,” he called. “Get out here now.”
It wasn’t the first time I hid from him. I was under the bed and breathing dust.
“Isaac,” Mama said. “Leave him be.”
“Get out of my face, woman,” he shouted. “Don’t tell me what to do.”
“Isaac.” And then the slap. And then the bare silence and the crying. Always the crying.
He reached under the bed and pulled me out. Later, between his tours in Vietnam when he knew Royal was still overseas, he’d come by the house and pull cans of Schlitz, one after the other, out of the fridge, the silver ring tops left on the kitchen counter. His hand cradled and then crushed each can into a flat disk. His hand could have circled my forearm at least twice.
He didn’t have any words for me. Words were not his thing.
The belt burned when it first landed. My shirt ripped, and I leaned over and gave him my back. It wasn’t the first time he’d found me.
“You come when I call you,” he said.
He turned the belt around and used the metal end.
“You hear me?” he yelled.
The buckle bit into my side. I knew from all the other times there was nothing I could do, and so I did nothing but take it, while Mama lay on the floor and cried.
Afterward, when Royal and Lu came back, the kitchen was empty, the pie on the counter, the latticing broken and one piece missing. Mama had locked the bathroom door, and she bathed me. I pretended not to wince, and Mama promised things she shouldn’t, like we’d leave and she’d never let him hurt me again. But even then I knew if she’d really meant it, we would already be gone. Driving away in the middle of the night, the headlights showing us the dark, long road. And Royal swore that we didn’t have to go anywhere, that he’d kill Isaac if he ever showed his face again. I blinked against the sound of his voice. Unlike my mother’s, bruised and hollow, his was edged with certainty.
Lu is outside in the orange grove, sitting up in a tree and smoking the cigarettes she steals from the 7-Eleven. She has a little black duck call in her other hand, and between drags she presses it to her lips. It no longer makes a sound, and I know it’s stolen, too.
I’ve even caught her taking things from our mama’s dresser drawers, including the pills Royal left behind.
“Don’t you think Royal needs those?” I asked her back in December, when school was out and she was beyond bored.
She was lying sprawled across the shag carpet in her room, the Stones turned up loud, shaking the plastic bottle to the beat of “Gimme Shelter.”
She eyed me and said, “My daddy would’ve taken them if he needed them. He’s not dumb. Unlike your questions.”
“Maybe we should take them to him, instead of you taking them yourself.” I tried to twist the little brown bottle from her fist, but she only held on tighter and laughed.
I thought about telling Mama, but knew that soon enough the pills would run out. Besides, I almost liked Lu high. Too bad she kept on with all that little sister crap.
Rainey was careful and avoided Lu when she was messed up. The pills would appear and Rainey would disappear. Not that she thought she was too pure. She just said she didn’t want to join in. She didn’t need anything to quiet or rouse her. She was like that already, the way she listened. Lu should’ve taken lessons.
Through the blinds I watch my half-sister smoking in the orange tree and feel the day press down. Everything is heavier now—my thoughts, the weight of my sheets at night, the spring heat, the yellow bowl in my hand, the strawberries against my tongue, the endless body counts, the box tied with thin red twine sitting on the shelf in my closet.
I think of the twine and the straps of Rainey’s sundress, and I remember the time Rainey went out in the canoe with me. We paddled for a while, and then drifted. I pulled her into the curve of the canoe, and she lay next to me, quiet, her eyes closed. We said nothing: there were only the sounds of lake water lapping against the sides of the canoe, of our breathing. Skin, warmth, and then a sad exhalation. The smell of metal was all around us—metal and mildew. And I remember her hair brushing my face and the taste of her tears.
I close the blinds and leave my room. The morning has disappeared into one of those nothing afternoons. A long Sunday afternoon meant for wasting. The sky has a blue-white wash to it, and the air is warm. I walk down to the lake and lie on the dock. I smoke and look out at the cypresses, the boathouses, the sky. The lake surface is like glass.
There isn’t a single canoe out there. I think about flipping over the old aluminum one that rests on the lawn. I know it will smell of damp green things, and the oars will have to be taken down from the shed. But the day is calm, and I don’t want to ruin it.
A few nights ago, I went out alone. I listened for voices moving over the lake from the shore, and I rested the oars whenever a conversation drifted out to me. The Lingstrums talking. Lillian and Jack Walbright laughing until Lillian threw her glass and Jack slapped her. A night heron’s calls. The Walbrights’ dog, Lyman, barking once. The darkness settled, and an uneven sky dipped down. I raised the oar. Long strokes.And then just the sound of the water. Nothing else.
Later as I paddled toward the dock, I saw Rainey and LuLu, swimming, diving, holding their breath, linking arms and floating together in the moonlight.
Bombs fell elsewhere. Children were burned alive. Villages disappeared overnight. But here, two girls swam together, and there were only distant sounds—an outboard motor, Lyman’s barking, and here—right here—two girls treading water.
Now, the lake is still. The smoke from my cigarette rises, the whiteness nearly matching the sky. A large white bird takes off, and a stand of brown cattails shifts. A bare foot nudges me.
Rainey stands there. Her long beach-brown calves stretch up, and I follow them to the hem of her dress and farther. Underneath, the pink bikini underwear she wears. I reach up and touch the inside of her thigh.
She stands there, looking out at the lake. Barely breathing.
“LuLu went in your room this afternoon,” she says.
I let my hand fall down to her ankle.
“Lu doesn’t go in my room when I’m not around.”
“Sure she does.” She looks down at me. “She goes in there all the time.”
“Well, she never messes with anything.” And then I remember the peppermint Life Savers.
“Today she was looking for something. And she seemed bent on finding whatever it was.”
I imagine my sister, her short blond hair flying, searching drawers, pushing marbles and pennies onto the floor. But I can’t imagine what she might search for.
Rainey kneels next to me and traces my forearm with one finger.
In the closet are my father’s dress blues, the white cap on the shelf above. After he died, the Marine Corps didn’t know where to send his belongings, but finally found the one address that made sense. Mama probably thought she’d thrown away every last thing. I found the box, though, and saved it. The pack with all of his personal effects: whatever he hadn’t been wearing that day, including photos—of Mama, and another of a girl, someone from over there. Nothing much saved from nothing much of a man.
Rainey takes my hand inside of hers. “What was she looking for, Saul?”
On the closet shelf with the cap are his belt, shoes and all. And the pistol. Not my father’s, my stepfather’s. A Browning semi-automatic Royal gave Mama before he shipped out for Vietnam. Insurance against Isaac, in case he came back when Royal wasn’t around. Black and heavy, far too large for Mama’s hands. She never touched it, afraid to. Had me empty the chamber into the kitchen trash, each bullet thudding against orange rinds and coffee grounds, and asked me to put the pistol away. And so I did. In the farthest, highest corner of my closet, up high, out of sight. And it was still sitting up there, inside the box with my father’s things.
Rainey winds her fingers through mine and holds our hands to her mouth. “Hmmm?” she asks. I feel the vibration of her question and the warmth of her breath.
Even if Lu kept on looking, she wouldn’t find the rounds. Why the hell had we kept this sidearm anyway? Someone in the field could have used it. Royal could’ve taken it back. We didn’t need it.
I don’t want to think about Lu going through my things, through my father’s things. I let go of Rainey’s hand, and she stays next to me; she stays there and just lets me be.
There was the time when I thought about the gun. I was thirteen and trying to make sense of things. Like the box secured with the red twine, the pistol inside, the absence of rounds. October 1968—the one-year marker of Royal’s departure, the one-month marker of my father’s death. November came, and then December. The months when no one seemed to give a shit and the nightly news told us as much. Hueys evacuating the dead and wounded; Walter Cronkite announcing serious setbacks for the U.S. due to losses in Khe Sanh; old Vietnamese women as small as children leaning over and praying; children running and screaming along dirt roads; villages set on fire, the smoke like a thousand blackbirds beating their wings against the glass of the TV.
All winter I slept with the Browning under my pillow and I dreamt of bullets. Bullets, a beach, lines of men. I walked LuLu and Rainey to their grade school, and then I walked on to the junior high. A boy from my class sold me the bullets from his father’s gun. And an extra box, just because. Same sidearm, standard issue. I paid a month’s allowance, then panicked and buried the rounds in the orange grove. Forty-five calibers each, waiting.
At night I’d take the empty pistol out and hold it against my own temple. To see what it felt like. I’d imagine the crimped safety lever undone, the trigger pulled and then released. My bedroom door, closed and locked. LuLu and Rainey running down the hall, shouting and laughing. And the click.
My father almost made it through his second tour in Vietnam. Grenade, rocket fire, mortar power—whatever killed him killed him. We weren’t told the details. Captain Edwards died for his country. That’s all they said.
When Rainey and I get home, we find Lu standing in front of the full-length mirror in her room, wearing nothing but my father’s white dress cap, waving the Browning around like it’s the latest boy in town. Lu is fucking looped, and Mama’s gone.
“Jesus, Lu,” I say. “Give me that.” I look away, embarrassed to see her naked.
Rainey stands back in the hallway outside the bedroom, looking over my shoulder.
“Make me.” Lu is tiny and bare and points the gun at my chest.
“Give it to me,” I say. I force myself to look at her, make my gaze steady.
She traces the barrel between her small breasts. I watch her and realize how gone she is. Mama is missing and I wish for once she wasn’t. And then I remember the bullets. I turn down the hall past Rainey and slam the back door open. At the edge of the backyard where the citrus grove begins, where I buried them, there’s a mass of dirt and a hole. She must have watched me bury them from her bedroom window. I should have known. She is always watching.
“LuLu!” I scream, running, skidding down the hall. Rainey’s sitting on the floor now, and I slide against the wall to get around her to the bedroom door and Lu.
She’s sitting on her bed, lifting dark pennies and dirty bullets and letting them rain down like beads onto her quilt.
“LuLu, please?” I can’t breathe.
She holds the pistol out to me, like it’s a gift. And I take it like it’s just that, like it’s the best thing she’s ever given me.
“Saul,” she says. My little naked, blond-headed baby sister. She lifts her arms over her head and releases a rush of pennies and ammo into the air. And it all comes flying down, landing everywhere, bouncing against the bed, our feet, the floor.
“Lu,” I say. “What the fuck?
“You shouldn’t hide things.”
“You shouldn’t take things.”
She picks up a handful of .45s like she’s going to throw them, casting her arm backward. “You shouldn’t either,” she says, looking straight into the hall at Rainey. “You know, just a little something for nothing. Right, Rainey?”
“Please give me those.” I hold my hands out.
“No,” Lu says. “I get to keep these.” She lets them fall again, and they clatter together with a hard metal sound that scares me.
“They’re not yours.”
“No, they’re not.” She winces. “But I’m still keeping them.”
“What else did you take?”
“You are such an asshole, Saul.” She sits up on her knees, and the bullets roll around them.
“Don’t act like you care.”
“Looking for you most likely.”
The back door slams.
“Oh,” says LuLu. “Better go see what’s wrong with Rainey. You don’t want her to be upset. That’ll ruin things for you.”
“What the hell is your problem?”
“You are! You fucking are!” And she cries then. She curls into a little knot and cries.
I cover her up with a blanket and wait. I sit on the edge of the bed and check to make sure the Browning isn’t loaded. And then, when she finally calms down, I reach around her legs and scoop up the bullets. She is still so small. She reminds me of the Vietnamese children on the news, naked and crying and not knowing what will come next.
There is no going back to my room, blinds closed. To a bowl of strawberries left by the door. And I don’t want to be in charge of what’s left at the end of a day that started out so quiet. I feel the load of the bullets in my pocket and try to imagine what my father knew in the last moments of his last day. Was the sun shining down, reflecting off the waves of the South China Sea? Did the stripes across his sleeve feel like accountability, like the weight of someone else’s life? Did he see me in the slant of light, the glimmer of the raised rifle, across the beach that day in Qui Nhon?
Outside, I try to find Rainey. The backyard is empty, and the sun is starting to fall below the lowest trees. Soon it will be dark. Soon it will be pitch black, with stars that go on and on—endless, hopeless little stars. I remember how yesterday the sky was covered in clouds, the road wet and black and dredged with rain, and how we took the long way home, driving west, then south, circling back east in the direction of the beach, like we were starting all over again.
Rainey will come back, long before summer flocks of blackbirds weigh down the orange trees and before the boy named Timothy smiles from across a crowded classroom. And so will Mama and Royal, and, yes, even Eva. One at a time. For now though, it’s too hard to think, to know that I can’t leave. That I have to stay here for Lu. At least until she wakes up. Until I’ve sunk every last pill and bullet in the depths of the lake. Until I can get through another nothing-for-nothing Sunday. Until all the nothings finally become something.
Karin C. Davidson is originally from the Gulf Coast. Her stories have appeared in The Los Angeles Review, Passages North, Post Road, Iron Horse Literary Review, New Delta Review, storySouth, and elsewhere. Her awards include a 2015 residency at The Studios of Key West, a 2014 Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award, a 2012 Orlando Prize for Short Fiction, the 2012 Waasmode Short Fiction Prize, and a 2012 Peter Taylor Fellowship. Her fiction has been nominated for Pushcart and Best of the Net, as well as shortlisted in several writing competitions, including the Jaimy Gordon Fiction Prize, the Faulkner-Wisdom Writing Competition, and the Bridport Prize. She has an MFA from Lesley University and is the Interviews Editor for Newfound Journal. Her writing can be found at karincdavidson.com.