Fiction by Ashley Kunsa
She left him in the car. It was the first time.
It’s not the first time the daycare’s called, late, citing some housekeeping dilemma (the hot water, faulty wiring), explaining she’ll need to make other arrangements when no other arrangements exist. Her mother a full hour east, her brother farther. Annie working 8–5 in town. And Dylan? Not an option. Though he begs and begs, insists things will be different, though he lists the virtues only a family can provide. Not again. She can’t.
But if she shows up at the Burger ’n Shake-Shake with the car seat banging her hip, slightly feverish baby whimpering, Hank will spy her in the parking lot and drop a meaty arm across the back door, bar her even from entering. First and only, he said last month when Sweet Angels closed mid-morning because of a CO leak in the basement and he had to cover her tables while she ran to pick up a newly teething Brian then returned to finish out the lunch rush. She was working the smoking section that day, only decent shift all week because Hank’s bitch of a wife kept putting her on the patio afternoons, where no one wanted to bake in the mugginess of an eighty-five-degree day.
And he was a sweet angel that day, Brian was, snoozing in his seat atop the ice cream freezer while Krystal served barbeque burgers and ham and cheese clubs then rolled silverware for the dinner crowd. That child could sleep through anything, so long as you didn’t need him to. The night, though, that was a different story.
The night was a different story with Dylan. In the daytime, sure, he was solid as he’d ever been, setting the mousetraps when her deadbeat landlord disappeared for months at a time or running to the IGA for a package of chicken thighs. In the daytime, yes, but the night: that was something else altogether.
Lord knows she had tried, and if it had only been a matter of knowing a body, of a body coming home, there was no question about the way his hips, leaner than before—as lean now, almost, as hers—the way they rode down and into hers, the way his chest pressed against hers, her breasts still soft and small then. It was different, yes—there was an edge to his body now, to the way he came at all things, the way he made love, entered a room, a conversation. A certain intensity he brought to life since coming back from the desert. Night would come on and the air would change and he would pace and rage and pace, and when she would ask him, he said, always, Yes.
Did something terrible happen?
Was it your fault?
But you were only trying to protect them?
Yes, yes, yes, and on and on they went like that, him making circles around her apartment, around whatever was filing him down from the inside, until one or the both of them had to break out of the space of those four walls.
On each of the four walls of the hospital room, Annie had taped pictures: Krystal as a sunbathing teen, a zombie bride on Halloween; Dylan and Annie as tow-headed children banging pots in the front seat of their father’s station wagon; Krystal, belly just beginning to bloom, on the couch with a pillow across her eyes, one Dylan snapped while she slept.
This way, Annie said, wherever the baby looked when he swam into the cold and cowardly world, he would see love.
The day was hot. She cracked the windows to let the air in.
That day was hot, like all the days, but the night, Dylan said, it came on like a fever, the sweat cooling on their faces, their forearms, as they crouched around the dead man, blood soaking the front of his dishdasha, his cheeks dusted with sand, like a woman’s.
She saw the way the memories distorted Dylan, disfigured the very bones of his face. She cradled her changing shape in her hands and prayed: Please let this be a girl.
God, please don’t let this girl hit me, she prays, foot marrying the brake.
Behind her, the impatient quack of a horn, obscenities hollered through the heavy air from the window of a purple minivan. In the rearview, she catches sight of the teen-aged passenger, thrusting both middle fingers in her direction. And then, Brian’s fuzzy head, his car seat facing the rear. The van gone, suddenly the car fills with his sleep noises.
His sleep-noises had comforted her, the snoring a soft snuffle that came only after too many beers or when his nose was stuffed up.
She waited for his rest, like everything else, to be wrecked by the war. But when a night finally gave way to the agony that had defined it, Dylan slept without incident, and instead it was the baby who waged entire battles while his eyes were closed, thrashing the bedclothes and writhing, no matter how many times her tongue traced the words of “Hush Little Baby” or “Golden Slumbers.” He found no peace unless riding in the car or cradled against her breast. And when, rocking him in the chair that had belonged to Aunt Eda, she could no longer fight the fatigue weighting her brain, horrible dreams visited her. And so she did not sleep.
Every step along the sidewalk, she could see the car.
She could see the car from the smoking section, or when she used the customers’ restroom, and sometimes it was everything in her not to yank off her apron, permanently stained with bacon grease and French’s mustard, and flip Hank the bird on her way out the door. She’d fling her pad across the counter for extra flair. At least that’s how she imagined it in her head.
How she would have imagined it in her head and how it happens are nothing alike. The bells tinkling on the door. Britney Spears cooing on the radio. The scraggled man blowing steam from a super-sized coffee, sweet stink of day-old donuts drifting from the warmer. Last bottle of infant Tylenol in her fist, she steps toward the counter, and there—nine feet, ten feet away—face soft as butter, a little extra at the chin, stubby hair teetering on orange, a hand, gloveless and freckled, flipping a pair of scratch-off tickets back and forth.
A boy, just a boy: his other hand gripping a gun so small it looks like a toy.
He’s just a boy, Annie had said, a dozen times, ten dozen, while that bleak desert landscape scrolled across the television in front of them. Everything looking like everything else. Every action sounding just like the one before it. How to make sense of where Dylan fit into all this?
Last week, Annie brought lemonade to the carport while her husband nosed around under the hood of Krystal’s beater.
My brother been to see him? Annie asked, nodding at Brian, who gummed a plastic key. When Krystal didn’t answer but instead nudged the baby’s wrist chub, Annie took her lemonade in four slow gulps. Around them, the late afternoon swelled with the shrill of cicadas. God knows the man has his faults, she said. But he loves that kid. A boy needs his father.
As Krystal clicked Brian’s car seat into place, Annie laid a gentle hand on her arm. Just try to remember how things were before. Before he went over there.
And Krystal said these were things she would try to remember.
Things she will remember: pale hair on the arm of the man who falls to the floor next to her, thick as fur; his overturned coffee, flowing away from them in a burning river; Once there was a way to get back home, sleep pretty darling, do not cry; Dylan calling her name, as if from very far away, but only from the kitchen, and when she turned, her surprise at finding his hands cupping her elbows, the shock at once delightful and chilling; a photo he’d sent early on, the impossibly blue water at the port of Umm Qasr; how Brian’s baby-flesh ripples at the ankles, inside his thighs, his knees, where arm connects to shoulder, forgotten places, places so perfectly unremarkable.
She could see the car from a window that looked onto the street from the front of the UniMart.
Over the bed, a window looked onto the road, where street lamps threw a net of light across the pavement. For days they’d been waiting on rain to quench the buckled dirt where the landlord’s begonias had begged and begged, but that night the storm passed over Canassa and all the little towns surrounding and broke fifty miles west, just over the border with Ohio.
She found Dylan there, at the window, glazed eyes locked on the road, staring at—nothing.
We were broke down outside Basra. Little road off the Highway of Death, he said, and she was so struck by the sound of his voice in that quiet space that she said, What?
That’s what they called it. It was bad. The Humvee was broke down. Fargo was fucking around under the hood while we waited for ground support. Me and Bird Man were supposed to clear the area.
It was an honest mistake, she said.
And he said, Yes, then told her about the bombed-out sections of road winding down the hill, how you never knew if the destruction was from us or them, how he couldn’t understand it then, blowing up your own country, but now, now that he’d come back, he understood it well.
Bird got some no-gos from the Wizard, but me, I’d been getting shit for sleep, he said, and he described the house, or what had been a house, the only structure in sight, how, looking down from the truck where they were playing spades, Dylan heard nothing, saw no movement, no light, nothing besides a pair of chickens clucking around in the ashen debris fronting what had once been another building.
A car appeared then at the top of the hill, shimmering in the late-day heat, moving too fast, and Bird grabbed his weapon and started toward the half-a-house, Dylan behind him. We should’ve cleared it. And when Bird climbed into the wreckage of what might have been a kitchen, a shadow rose, and Dylan put that shadow into the sand, into that filthy sand, forever.
Moments later, once the car had veered away to the west and the shouting stopped, they crouched around a crumpled man, red bubbling and spreading across the dirty white of his dishdasha. His final breaths hissed from the hole Dylan’s round had made in his chest. His hands were empty.
It was worse, he told her, than even his worst dreams.
The worst dreams were of Brian drowning, suffocating in her milk, and what little rest she did claim was plagued by them. She dreamt of falling asleep while he lay latched to her breast, the milk streaming out uncontrollably, engulfing him, flooding his tiny lungs.
Words stream out of the boy’s mouth uncontrollably: broken system one percent he leans forward to shout something at the cashier capitalist oligarchs whose hands are splayed over her face like a caricature of fear goddamn greed only it’s not, it’s real corrupted thieving cocksuckers and Krystal sees, dividing the space between his upper lip, the faintest whisper of a scar motherless crooks some geometric error of biology.
It takes only a dozen seconds to break into a car.
It takes only a fist to the throat to knock an opponent to the ground. Dylan taught her that. Eye gouge, knee stomp—he insisted she learn to protect herself and their boy. Same with the Ruger, the one he made her swear to keep in her purse always, the one she pushed into Annie’s hands because she wouldn’t have something like that in the house with a baby.
And here she is now, protecting no one, her face mashed against the filthy tile, her heart in the car. The boy paces up the aisle don’t you know I still believe he whips that little gun back and forth, and a quick jab burns between her shoulder blades that you will be here the toe of his boot forcing her down, down and give me a sign and oh how they kill her, her breasts hit me, baby, one more time smashed into the floor, the throb of those giant things pressing into the ground.
They were killing her bank account, these short shifts, but as long as Brian was nursing, this was how it had to be. She’d tried pumping to relieve the ache, but the very first time, the new busboy walked into the employee bathroom while a flange was drawing her nipple out to superhuman length and shrieked, Holy fucking titties, as he backed up into a line cook. She screamed and groped around for her shirt, which was sitting hatefully across the room on the sink, both men’s eyes trained on the creatures hanging nearly to her belly.
These breasts terrified her. She was small and, besides a water bra, had never carried more than a few ounces up top. But these were things to drown you, things you could not throw overboard in time of emergency. And yet at night, sometimes she would consider the way they renewed and renewed themselves, how they continued to sustain the life she had sustained within her those many months. Brian asleep against her, her fingers drawing her leaden eyelids apart, she would lay there and marvel at them.
Sometimes, while he slept, she would lay there and marvel at their similarities—her waist, narrow and boyish, his hands, brief and tan like hers, though his nails were bitten to nothing—and how surprised she was not to need a man large and gaping in his manliness, but, instead, to feel content and happy curled along the q of his body, him growing hard then going soft against her back. There was enough between them to lay out on a table and serve dinner with, bring out the pie and coffee, enough to have the whole family over, to last years and years, like her parents had. If only she could decipher the balm for what was chewing him up.
In the car, it may have gotten as hot as one hundred degrees.
In the car, he would sleep, or when the radio above the toaster played, he’d bounce in the bouncer on the table, then doze, maybe, while The Animals or Creedence jammed behind him. Then when Annie came with a six-pack, Krystal drinking only one because she didn’t want to affect her milk, but sitting with Annie through the other five while she bitched about the pharmaceutical pricks who waltzed in and out of the psychiatrist’s office where she answered phones, one suit after another, this one pushing Lexapro, another one Vilbryd, another Seroquil.
What’s that noise? Annie had said the night Brian turned one month old.
You’re buzzed, Krystal said and lay her head on her arms, but Annie crossed the living room and jimmied open the old wooden window—Golden slumbers fill your eyes, smiles await you when you rise—Dylan on the porch with the tape recorder he’d stolen from the music room their senior year—sleep pretty darling, do not cry—and though Krystal had warned him to stay away, her heart rose and fell with every line—and I will sing you a lullaby.
The seconds tick by like whole armies moving; every time a boot rises or falls, the sound in her head swims, galoshes through puddles. Her neck burns, and her breasts pulse, her milk letting down first on the left, then the right, her body ripening toward exhaustion, the fatigue, sweet and deep, drifting through her bones so that what she sees is a version of herself in junior high PE, when her arms and legs had abandoned her and she could not force one more squat thrust even though it meant berating by Mr. Keegan, and she collapsed face down. And just in that instant, the one where she surrenders, where everything goes to soft gray and she lets the ache fill her out like water in the lungs of the drowned, in that moment on the UniMart floor when Krystal starts to let go, her eyes catch the man to her right, waving his fingers at her, and in her ears, the sharp clip of a siren.
Dylan pacing from kitchen to living room and back again, waving his arms, trying to tell her about sacrifice and commitment and cowardice and how he’d never hurt a cell in the baby’s system, yours neither, which she knew—didn’t she?—he loved them, her and the baby, who hadn’t yet swum into the world but still floated safe inside her, safe for another month—he couldn’t even imagine hurting them—but all that anger, all that rage, it was real, it was in there, and a thing doesn’t stay walled away forever just because you ask it to.
No one noticed him in the car.
No one noticed him in the car, or, if they did, they didn’t bother telling her.
Fucking-a, Dylan, she said when she tossed her apron into the passenger side and it landed in his lap. The fuck you doing here.
I need to see him, Krys.
He’s with my mom.
He’s at Sweet Angels.
No, he’s not.
I saw you there this morning.
Wait, you’re stalking us now?
Stalking my own kid! Christ. Let me take you out to Red Lobster, hold my son before he gets grown.
Krystal. He looked wired, almost skeletal, the clavicles bulging under his dingy t-shirt, and his voice had that manic urgency to it, the one that might’ve been drugs or maybe just three days of no sleep chased with paranoia. But then she saw it: he was crying.
The boy’s crying now, eyes flicking from the black menace in his hand to the people at his feet, the cashier, to what Krystal understands must be a police car, or many police cars, beyond the glass, and what she feels in this moment, more than the fear, more than the anxiety and guilt and exhaustion competing to swallow her, more than anything, is a kind of understanding.
What she felt, more than anxiety or fear or even exhaustion, more than anything in the moment before Brian loosed his first cry into the world, was courage. It rushed upon her, unexpected.
So much to worry about and prepare for. So many things you could not stop from happening. But here she was, ready to be brave.
When she got to the car, the child was just awakening.
He was just awakening, the smell of Pabst still on him, and she curled against him under the sheet and told him about the baby.
Should we keep it? she asked, afraid for his answer, whatever it would be.
Of course, he said and raised himself on his elbows. Yes. Yes, of course.
Yes, yes, yes, she had said when Dylan asked her, ringless, down on both knees, in front of the fudge shop, Yes, yes, yes, and she’d meant it, never meant anything more than that, the day after he got home. But that was before she understood how so much inside of him had darkened, how a person could be infected by anger, by guilt. Before she bore responsibility for someone else’s little life. Yes, yes, yes. Could she mean it again? Could she walk with him against the current of choices that could not be unmade, take him in, hold his body against hers, be the family he had begged her to be?
In the backseat, she unbuckles Brian and pulls him into her lap, holds his body against hers, the sweat drying on her skin, the smell of her milk sweet on her shirt. He nuzzles at her, whimpering, all instinct and grace. In her hand, still the infant Tylenol, its box crushed. Around them sirens spin and people pass. She lifts her boy to her breast and rocks him, his skin plump and red, his eyes wide onto the world, the day still hot and high above them, and she waits to give her statement.
© Ashley Kunsa
[This piece was selected by Sarah Broderick. Read Ashley’s interview]
Ashley Kunsa’s short fiction, nonfiction, and poetry appear in more than two dozen journals, including Sycamore Review, Pembroke Magazine, The Los Angeles Review, and Summerset Review. She is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, MT, and currently at work on a novel. Visit her online at www.ashleykunsa.com.