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Everybody sees the ants, p.10
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       Everybody Sees the Ants, p.10

           A. S. King
 
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  I start to think of everything I can to get rid of it. Nader. Aunt Jodi. My mother. My grandmother’s funeral when I was seven. My granddad Harry. Jungle diseases. Amputations. None of it works, so I pray we have a few more minutes of driving before I have to stand up again.

  “Do ya?”

  I’m snapped out of my ugly-people-places-and-things visualization by Ginny asking this over and over. “Do ya? Do ya? Do ya?”

  “Do I what?”

  They all laugh like I just told a joke. I feel like I got away with something.

  “Shannon says you probably wanna do Ginny.”

  “Oh,” I say, nodding. “Uh—well. Not really.”

  They all laugh again. Ginny looks at me, hurt.

  “Well, I mean, I would if I thought about that kind of stuff, you know? But I’m—uh—not uh…” How do I tell a carful of girls that I’m a virgin?

  “He’s a virgin,” Ginny says.

  “I am not!” I say.

  “Oh boy! You are the biggest virgin I ever met,” the girl next to me says. She pats me on the knee. “It’s okay. We’re all virgins.”

  “Virgins who love to say vagina,” Ginny says.

  They chant it together. “Vagina! Vagina! Vagina!”

  In my life I’ve been cursed with crazy dreams about booby traps and prison camps and frog rain and amputees and talking tigers, and yet nothing I ever dreamed can compare to this.

  A half hour later I’m sitting on the ceramic-tiled floor of the local rec center, and in the next room my five new friends are rehearsing a play called The Vagina Monologues.

  When they told me the name of it, I wasn’t sure what to say. Luckily, I didn’t have to say anything. “It’s a play about how our vaginas are always controlled by men,” Ginny explained. “But we’re here to take back control.”

  One of the girls said, “Fuck yeah!”

  “Just sit here. We should be done in an hour,” Ginny said.

  “But—”

  “You can see the show next weekend with everyone else.”

  “So why’d you bring me along, then?”

  “It’s better than walking around the block ten times a night, isn’t it?” she says. “Or spying on people from your aunt’s patio.”

  At first I listened through the door, but between the traffic outside and the hum of the central air-conditioning, I missed every second word, so I gave up. All I know is that the play has something to do with vaginas—which, I have to admit, are beginning to interest me.

  By eleven fifteen, I am pissed off that they brought me here only to sit around and do nothing, and I feel trapped because I have no idea where I am and no idea how to get home. I feel like the stupid little kid again—just the way Nader makes me feel—so I prop myself into the corner and see if I can find Granddad.

  RESCUE MISSION #107—LAO RIVERBOAT

  I am in a PT boat drifting down the Nam Ou river. The water is muddy and reddish, and Granddad is sitting cross-legged in the bow. He is so skinny I can see every sinew under his skin. He is brown from the sun and white from malnutrition. He has open sores in various places. He is missing an arm this time.

  I am compact, squeezed into a corner in the stern of the boat, using the walls like a blanket. I am dwarfed by the cliffs on either side of the river. The river is so calm; there is nothing but peace here. How did everything become so quiet?

  I suddenly realize we are alone. There is no guard. I get up and pad over to Granddad Harry. I look down at myself and notice I am in better shape than any other dream so far. Even my hands are muscular.

  “Did we escape?” I am torn about what I want him to say.

  “In a way.”

  In a way?

  “Are we going home now?” I ask.

  “Not quite.”

  “Where are we going?”

  “To pick up your friends.”

  “I don’t have any friends.” Do I? I think about Lara and Danny back in Freddy. They aren’t really my friends.

  “Then we’re going to have a party. Dancing. Feasting. Laughing.”

  Of course, he’s delirious. That’s the problem with being trapped in the jungle for nearly forty years. A person can’t do that shit without going crazy.

  I suddenly hear distant yelling. It is my five new friends—nameless except Ginny and Shannon. They are standing on a jagged bit of rock at the river’s edge, smiling at us.

  “Over here!” Shannon says. She is waving her arms back and forth over her head.

  “Help!” Ginny says, her hair swaying behind her.

  Granddad uses a long stick to push the boat toward them. I don’t see until we get closer that two of the girls are completely naked. I am not aroused by this.

  As we secure the boat to the small wooden dock below the rocks, the boat becomes a ferry. It just grows. I look up and Granddad Harry’s arm is back. He’s wearing a Navy-type uniform, like he’s the ship’s captain. I see I’m also in sailor clothing, including shined shoes.

  As we help them aboard, they change, too. Ginny’s tattered black pajamas turn into a tight-fitting pink beaded ball gown. Shannon’s makeshift rice-sack dress transforms into a fluffy, frilly dress I can’t ever imagine her wearing. The crew-cut girls experience the same magic as they board.

  Old-time music, the kind Granny Janice used to listen to, plays through the ferry’s speakers, and I’m the first to sit down because I’ve never danced in my life.

  “Come on, Lucky! Dancing is the cure!” Granddad says.

  He has two girls—a crew cut and Shannon—and they move gracefully in circles, as if they’ve done this with one another a million times. It’s beautiful. Shannon’s dress is flowing behind her. Granddad is laughing so hard his face looks forty years younger.

  “Come on!” he says.

  I stand up and hold my hand out to Ginny and the other two crew cuts. We form a dancing circle, the same as the others. I don’t step on any toes. I don’t trip or stumble or fall. When the song is over, another big-band number comes on, and I continue to swirl and spin and move my feet. I feel free. I dip the girls. I spin them. I spin myself. I bow. I am a movie star.

  While we’re dancing, Ginny looks at me right in my eyes, and I realize she can see into my future. She can see who I will be, not just who I am.

  Then there is an explosion.

  Have you ever felt the concussion of a bomb landing nearby? It is like nothing else. It is the instant delivery of hell. It is like everyone you ever knew dying.

  • • •

  The rehearsal room door slams shut, right next to my head.

  I’m awake, and the girls are walking past me toward the main exit. When I look up, I see the girls are talking to me, but I’m nearly deaf from the explosion. I shake my head and swallow. Through the crackling in my ears, I hear Ginny say, “We’re hitting McDonald’s before they drop us off. You hungry?”

  “Yeah,” I say. An hour later the girls drop Ginny and me off at the playground and make a date for a dress rehearsal on Friday.

  They drive off, leaving the two of us alone in the dark playground. As Ginny walks across the soccer field, she lights a cigarette and tosses the spent match.

  “What was the driver’s name again?”

  “Karen.”

  “Karen,” I repeat, trying to separate her from the other two crew cuts, but I can’t.

  “The one with the nose ring is Maya. She’s Puerto Rican,” she says.

  “I didn’t even see her nose ring,” I say.

  “You sat across from her at McDonald’s for, like, twenty minutes, and you didn’t see her nose ring? Damn. You’re not real observant, are you?”

  At McDonald’s, all I could do was picture all five girls in their ball gowns, on the ferry on the Nam Ou river.

  “So Maya and Karen and Shannon and—uh…”

  “Annie.”

  “And Annie.”

  “Yeah. Her name is a sick joke. She has red hair and she was adopted. Get it?”

 
; I don’t get it. This must be obvious.

  “Little Orphan Annie?”

  “Oh. Yeah. That is a sick joke,” I say. “Is that why she shaves her head?”

  “What?” This isn’t an I didn’t hear you kind of “what.” This is a what the fuck did you just say to me? kind of “what.” I am instantly aware I said something wrong. “What did you just say?”

  “I meant—uh—does she shave her head because she doesn’t want anyone to see her red hair because her name’s Annie. But now that I said it—uh—out loud, I’m seeing how stupid that is.”

  “Why do you care so much about hair, anyway?”

  “I don’t.”

  “You don’t?”

  “No.”

  She takes a long drag and tosses the butt to the side of the road. “So you don’t like my hair?”

  “Your hair is awesome.”

  “Yeah, it is,” she says. “It’s the only part of me anyone cares about, though.”

  I don’t answer at first, until I realize she’s waiting for me to say something. I say, “Why do you think that?”

  “Jodi didn’t tell you about me?”

  “No. Should she have?” I ask.

  “Oh. Well, it’s not a big deal or anything, but I model.”

  I nod. Of course she does. Look at her.

  “But just my hair. My hair models. The rest of me rebels,” she says. I want to tell her that her face and her legs and her perfect hands are also model-worthy, but I figure it’s probably a bad thing to say.

  We come to the place where we have to split up. I have to somehow get into Jodi and Dave’s house undetected at two in the morning. Ginny has to turn into a backyard ninja. The last thing she says to me before she runs off is “I really want you to come to the show. Think you could swing it?”

  “When is it again?”

  “Next Friday and Saturday.”

  “Sure,” I say, and then she is gone.

  LUCKY LINDERMAN NEEDS SERIOUS HELP

  Before my shower the next morning, I stare at the scab in the mirror. It’s still the exact shape of West Virginia, but it’s healing and peeling at the edges, and with each application of aloe, I can feel parts of it getting ready to flake off. The worst and thickest part, right over my cheekbone, is the exact shape of the Monongahela National Forest, too. I swear—I am not making this up.

  In the shower, I think back to last night. Did I really go out with five girls? Five older girls? I retrieve their names. Ginny, of course. Shannon. And I remember Annie now, because of the story Ginny told me. The other two will have to be called Crew Cut in my head until further notice. The ants, who are lined up on the shower rail, say: Your memory sucks, Linderman.

  When I come out of the bathroom, I check my watch. It’s eleven thirty. This has got to be the latest I’ve slept in months. My muscles are still stiff, but it feels good to be stiff. I get dressed and stop at the mirror to apply more aloe, and I slowly flake off the edges of scab that seem to want to come off. When I’m done, it’s the shape of Michigan. The mitten-shaped part, anyway.

  I decide I should move my clothing to where Jodi wanted it—to get the good energy flowing in the room. I feel pretty positive today. I feel like a kid who has a friend. A kid who has a life.

  And then I walk into the living room to find three people I’ve never seen before sitting next to Mom and Aunt Jodi, whose eyebrows form a concerned frown, staring at me.

  I try to convince myself that these people are just visiting friends. But I learn through Jodi’s introductions that they are professionals Jodi has called in to help me. With that look on her face like someone peed on her granola, Mom makes the motion for me to sit down in the only chair left empty.

  After a week of forced fake-smiling, I let my face fall into its natural scowl. I feel like going animal on these people—picking more of the scab and eating it, and then blowing my nose into my sleeve. I feel like squatting on the coffee table and taking a shit on the latest People magazine just to give them the show they came for. Crazy Boy Saved by Local Woman. Future School Shooting Averted.

  “Do you always wear baggy clothes?” one asks.

  “Do you always sleep this late?”

  “Do you have trouble sleeping?”

  “Do you eat three meals a day?”

  “Are you bullied?”

  “When was the last time you remember being happy?”

  “Have you ever thought about suicide?”

  “Didn’t you get in trouble at school last year?”

  “What activities do you enjoy?”

  “Do you have a job? What chores do you do around your house?”

  “Why are you wearing that shirt? Do you support the POW/MIA cause?”

  I am a shitstorm of sniper fire. “I am the POW/MIA cause,” I say.

  “There’s no need to be hostile,” one of them says.

  I think Mom is smiling a little bit. She’s always known me as the gutless boy who said yes to everything. (Son of gutless woman who says yes to everything.)

  Jodi piles the last question onto the heap. “And where were you last night?”

  I almost tell them about Ginny, Shannon, Annie and the two crew cuts—about the word vagina—but I don’t want to get the girls in trouble. So I lie.

  “I walked to the playground and was looking at the stars, but I fell asleep. If you want, I can tell you what I dreamed about,” I say.

  Right when Jodi is about to answer, Mom says, “Lucky has a habit of falling asleep like that. He’s just a daydreamer. It happens all the time back home.”

  “Have you ever taken him to a doctor for it?”

  Mom holds her face in a relaxed smile, even though I know she’s dying to burst out in peals of laughter. “For what?”

  “For this sleep disorder.”

  “Disorder?” she says, and then swats it away with her hand and a smirk. “I don’t think so. I think he’s a perfectly normal teenager.”

  “I can check him out if you’d like,” the only man present says. I assume he’s a doctor. I hope so. I’ve never had a complete stranger offer to “check me out” before.

  “No, really. He’s fine,” Mom says.

  “He’s not fine if he’s staying out all hours of the night!” Jodi says. “I think Elsa’s right. I think he has a disorder!”

  I sit forward and say, “I may be weird, but at least I’m not a drug addict, like you are.”

  The adults are stunned. The ants give me a standing ovation.

  “Is he always this rude?” Elsa asks Aunt Jodi.

  Mom says, “Lucky’s never been rude. Not even when he should be.”

  Jodi sucks her teeth.

  “What?” Mom asks.

  “I got all these people here to help him, and you don’t even care!” Jodi throws her hands up in the air.

  “Who asked you to? And who said he needs help? He’s a good kid! And what do you know about kids, anyway?”

  Jodi turns purple. Like, beet-purple. “How dare you!”

  Mom rolls her eyes.

  “If this is the kind of treatment I get for opening my home to you in your time of need, then—”

  Mom interrupts and smiles at the three bystanders. “I had to beg my brother to get her to say yes.” She turns to Jodi. “And you’ve treated us like nothing but a burden since we got here.”

  I am already in the guest room, packing. It’s some sort of reflex. I know I can’t go anywhere, but I’m packing anyway. The door is open, so the conversation trickles in… just without me.

  “I suppose trying to do the right thing isn’t enough for some people,” Jodi says, and then she bursts into a quiet sob.

  After a few seconds Mom says, “You shouldn’t have sprung this on us without asking. Lucky’s fine. And you’ll be fine, too, once your friends leave and you can go and pop all those pills you need.”

  When Mom and I are in the guest room with the door closed, I hear Jodi defending her pill use to her friends. “It’s not like I’
m freebasing cocaine, you know. My doctor told me I need them for my nerves.” She adds, “What my sister-in-law didn’t tell you is that she’s probably half the problem. Spends more time in my pool than with her own son.” I smile at Mom, who is not smiling. She’s sitting on the bed, wringing her hands.

  “You shouldn’t feel bad,” I say.

  “And yet I do.”

  “We can just go to a hotel.”

  “Dave won’t let us stay at a hotel.”

  I sit next to her. “Dave isn’t our boss.”

  “Hotels are expensive.”

  “Not as expensive as living with Frau Nutcase on Planet Moody.”

  She laughs a little.

  “Seriously,” I say. “I’m considering getting hooked on her pills just to survive two more weeks of this. I’ll pay the hotel out of my lawn-mowing money if you want. I have two thousand dollars.”

  She sighs. “We can’t. Dave’s my brother. We’ll just have to work it out once those weirdos leave.”

  “Creepy.”

  “Yeah,” she agrees. Then she turns to me and says, “Lucky?”

  “Yeah?”

  “What did you mean when you said you are the POW/MIA cause?”

  I think about it. “I dunno.”

  “No, really. You can tell me.”

  “Really. I don’t know what I meant,” I say. “I guess I meant—uh—I was born with a POW/MIA patch on my skin or something, you know?”

  “Do you want me to get Dad to…”

  “No,” I answer before she can finish the thought. “I like it. I believe in it. I know in my gut that Granddad Harry is still there.”

  “You do?”

  “Don’t you?” I ask.

  She thinks and nibbles on her lower lip. “I’m not as sure as you are,” she says. “How can you be so sure, anyway?”

  “I just am.”

  “I worry about you,” she stutters. “Those nightmares you have. The things I find in your room.” I can’t believe she has finally said something about this. It’s like she’s been a silent accomplice to me all this time, without a word. Still, I can’t tell her.

  “No need to worry about me. I’m fine. Promise.”

 
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