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Everybody sees the ants, p.16
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       Everybody Sees the Ants, p.16

           A. S. King
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  Granddad and I flow quickly through the window and land on frog rapids, riding them with no boat. A minute later Granddad and I are on the muddy shore, his legs a mess of fractured bone, clots, yellow fatty stuff and other colorful sinew. Mine are inexplicably perfect—not even a scratch.

  “How have you lived this long?” I ask.

  “My time’s not up, I guess.”

  “No, I mean, how do you survive this?”

  “I just do,” he says. “When they torture me, they show they’re weak. When I survive, I show them I’m stronger.”

  “My life is mine,” I say. “Not the man’s.”

  “Exactly,” he says while rearranging his tibia to line up with the rest of his leg. “You’re stronger.” He bends his knee a few times to make sure he’s all fixed up. “Can I ask you a question?”


  “Why do you keep coming here?”

  I can’t understand why he’s asking me this. It makes me angry that he has to.

  “You know,” I say.

  “Tell me anyway.”

  I sigh. “I’m here to rescue you. To bring you back.”


  “Jesus! Because you shouldn’t be here! You shouldn’t be here!” I say. “And Granny Janice told me to. Because we need you.”

  “So you were sent here. That’s why you’re here?”


  “So what if I tell you to go away? Don’t come back?”

  “I wouldn’t do it,” I answer. “I have as much reason to be here as you do.”

  “Son? Do you really believe you can drag me out of this place through your dreams?”

  I don’t say anything. He pats me on the shoulder and hands me a stick of chewing gum that he pulls from his ear, as a magician would with a quarter. He produces a piece of gum from his other ear and unwraps it and pops it into his mouth.

  “Think about it for me, will you?” he says.

  • • •

  When I wake up, I’m still smiling that goofy smile Ginny said was cute. And I’m holding a stick of chewing gum, and I think about it like he asked me to, but I don’t really know what to think. Is he asking me to give up my life’s mission? Or is he telling me that this isn’t my life’s mission?


  Mom, Jodi and I have been in the car for a half hour. Jodi drives too slowly and gets freaked out if anyone behind her gets too close.

  “Get off my ass!” she says. “Oh! You want to play? Because I can go slower!”

  Mom is watching the desert crawl by out the passenger’s-side window and is probably dreaming of the laps she’ll do when we get home. I’m lying across the backseat in case any of the people behind us decide to shoot Aunt Jodi for driving like a crazy person. You never know.

  We pull into the dirt parking lot of an old gold-mining town—now a tourist attraction—and Jodi says, “Here we are!”

  The three of us spend the next hour wandering the place, even though it’s more than a hundred degrees outside. Jodi gets a picture of me (sweating) behind the bars of the small-town jail. We sit and talk for a while with the sheriff, who totally notices that my scab is the shape of Iowa. Behind him, costumed floozies play poker. We have a root beer in the saloon and wait for the hourly gunfight to start. Though it’s totally touristy and lame in ways, it does make me think about what this place must have been like back in 1890.

  “Imagine that,” Mom says.

  “Yeah,” I answer. “Crazy to think that’s the way things were.” Of course, things are still kinda the same. I mean, there are probably more shoot-outs now than there were then.

  After the gunfight is over, we put a few bucks in the donation hat and walk up to the brothel. Jodi, Mom and I stand outside while the faux hookers invite us in. We go to the blacksmith next door instead. When we get to the top of the town, Jodi goes into the little white chapel while Mom and I sit down and share a bottle of water.

  “You okay, Mom?”


  “No. I mean, are you okay? To go back?” I ask.

  She nods. “Can’t wait to see your dad. I miss him.”

  “That’s good,” I say. I can’t figure out what there is to miss, but that’s between them.

  “I hope you know I had to do this for myself. It wasn’t really anything to do with you,” she says. “I mean, it does have to do with you, but it’s not your fault.”

  “I know.” I say. I watch as the ants act out a gunfight with tiny pistols in the dirt at our feet. I envy how much fun they have sometimes.

  “All those years…” She starts to cry a little. “I wanted to call the principal or the superintendent. Once, that time when you had the bruised nipples from the twisty-nipple things—”

  “Titty twisters.”

  “Yeah.” She shakes her head and bites on her bottom lip. “That time. I wanted to call the police, I was so mad.”

  “I heard that fight,” I say.

  “It’s not that he wants you to suffer. He just doesn’t know what to do about it, so he thinks there is nothing to do about it.”

  I nod.

  “I mean, we tried! Remember that time we got him suspended?”

  “The pencil,” I say. Nader stabbed me in the arm with a pencil in fourth grade. After he came back from suspension, he punched me in the ear so hard I couldn’t hear right for a week. His father threatened the school district. Said if Nader got “unfairly suspended” again, he’d sue.

  “And then your father thought up the plan. Thought he was a genius.”

  The sun is baking us into human raisins. If Aunt Jodi doesn’t hurry up, we will be two piles of dust.

  “Reverse psychology, he told me. Maybe if we don’t say anything, they’ll just leave him alone. And I fell for it because I was sick of arguing.” She looks at me, the direct sun making her face look older. “But look at everything you lost because I was sick of fighting with a stupid man over his stupid idea.”

  “It’s okay, Mom.”

  “It’s not okay. I’m your mother.”

  “Yeah, but I stopped telling you guys stuff a long time ago. I stopped telling anybody,” I say. “Anyway, we’re here now.”

  She looks at her watch and over toward the chapel. “We’re here, all right. Why, I don’t know. This was probably the worst place to bring you!”

  “Not really. I feel better.”


  “Yeah. Dave taught me a bunch of stuff. And just meeting Jodi kinda showed me how normal my life is. I mean, even with Dad storming out a lot and wishing we were ham hocks.”

  We watch Jodi waddle from the door of the chapel, and I add, “I kinda like her, you know? She has redeeming qualities or something.”

  Mom chuckles and says, “Yeah. She has something. Not sure what.”

  Here is where I would tell her about Dave cheating if I had more time, but I don’t. I don’t want to ruin her relationship with her only sibling, or mess up anything more than it already is.

  When Jodi returns, she says, “You two ready to pan for gold?” and we walk down to the panning shack and the three of us buy a pan of dirt to sift through. The woman gives us vials for our gold and some tweezers. Mom finds more gold than all of us. Jodi says she’s only after garnets this time because she’s come here enough that gold is boring to her. Unsurprisingly, I end up with a vial full of iron pyrite—fool’s gold. Last week this would have made me feel stupid. Today it makes me laugh. And it reminds me of what Granddad said last night. Maybe I’m looking at things all wrong. Fact is, iron pyrite looks a lot like gold, and I wouldn’t be the first person in the history of the world to have confused the two.

  When we get home, it’s three o’clock. I watch Mom swim laps. She says she can’t stand the short pool much longer. “Makes me feel like a condor in a birdcage,” she says. I tell her that I’m taking a walk, which is insane because it’s a hundred and ten million degrees outside, but I
see Ginny walking with some girls through the common area behind Jodi’s house.

  I cut through the backyard, and by the time I catch up with her, she’s talking with three normal-looking girls (long, straight hair done just right and ironed preppy clothes) on the sidewalk. When she sees me, she excuses herself and walks over.

  “You’re still smiling,” she says.

  “Can’t help it.”

  “You coming tomorrow?”

  “I think so,” I say. “Are you still gonna…?” I point to my hair and raise my eyebrows to indicate the rest of my sentence: shave your head?

  Just as she’s about to answer, there’s a loud whistle. She turns toward her house. When she does, her hair swings like a wide skirt. I will miss it.

  “Shit. That’s my mom.”

  “She calling you or a dog?”

  I look over and see a woman on the porch of the nicest house on the block. She has one hand on her hip, another in her mouth to whistle again if necessary, and she’s looking right at me. Right through me. Then she points to her watch frantically.

  Before I can say anything else, Ginny is gone. She stops to say good-bye to her friends, and while she jogs to her house, I watch her transform into a completely different person. Even from behind I can tell that person would never talk to Lucky Linderman, let alone kiss him.

  We wait until six thirty for Dave. Jodi tries calling him on his cell phone, but he doesn’t answer. So we leave for their favorite restaurant without him.

  He finally calls while we’re eating our bread and says he can’t make it.

  “A last-minute meeting,” Jodi says.

  Mom looks disappointed. Before Jodi can comment, she says, “I really should have planned this better so we didn’t come when he was so busy at work.”

  Jodi and I look at our plates and don’t say anything.

  I gorge myself. I even eat dessert—the house cheesecake with strawberries. When I get home, Mom starts doing our laundry, and I go straight to bed because I can’t wait for Friday because Friday is the day we leave. Because Friday is the day I get to see Ginny one last time. I can’t figure out which is better.


  I wake up to Mom stacking her clean clothing on her mattress. She’s stripped the bed and has borrowed Jodi’s laundry basket, which is waiting for my sheets, I presume, before she will take it to the laundry room and wash them for Jodi. She stacks the piles exactly four inches away from each other. Each piece of clothing is folded perfectly, like a department-store table display. I fall back asleep.

  The shower goes off, and Mom arrives a few minutes later wrapped in a towel.

  “Get up, Luck. I need to strip your bed.”

  “Sure.” I say this, but I want to keep sleeping.

  “Up,” she says, making the motion with her arms.

  So I get up and take a shower, and when I emerge, I see my bed is stripped and my clothes are neatly stacked on my mattress as if they were for resale at JCPenney. The POW/MIA department of JCPenney, of course, where our heroes are never forgotten.

  I comb my hair and check out my scab in the mirror. The edges have shed their ragged dried bits, and Iowa has morphed into Pennsylvania now—a near-perfect rectangle with a jagged eastern edge and a ridge of mountains through the middle. I find this fitting for the day we’re flying home.

  While Mom takes her final few laps in Jodi’s pool, I try to find Ginny. I walk by her house twice, once going east and once going west, but it looks as though no one is home, and so I go to the empty playground and sit in the shade for a while thinking that tomorrow I’ll be home again. I nearly feel all the confidence I have here in Arizona collapse just thinking about it. It’s as if location is more important than I ever gave it credit for.

  The last place I remember being happy was at Granny Janice’s house before she got sick. Since first grade, school has made me a jittering coward. The pool was fine until Nader started working there two years ago. Now I hate it. And home is a disaster for a variety of reasons.

  I picture Dad alone for the last three weeks—raising the flags, driving to work, driving home from work and lowering the flags. Something about this scene makes me want to cry. Everything about it. All these years I’ve been visiting Granddad while he can’t. When he folds that POW/MIA flag every night, that’s his father he’s folding. It’s all he’s got. It’s all he’s ever had.

  I’m eating a late lunch at the kitchen table when I hear Uncle Dave park in the driveway. The ants say: Hey! Look who decided to show up!

  Dave walks in and says, “I’m so glad I caught you! I thought you’d have left by now.”

  “Our flight isn’t until late. It’s a red-eye.”

  “My sister has always been early for everything,” he says. “Plus, I thought you might be out saying good-bye to your mysterious friends.”


  He cocks his head. “Is something wrong?”


  He can feel my disgust for him. I am purposely sending it.

  “Sorry I didn’t make it yesterday. It’s been a killer week at the office.”

  “Sure it has,” I say.

  He shrugs and goes back to the garage door. “Want to lift a little before you go?”

  “Nah. Already showered.”

  He stands there looking at me, and I look back at him. Eye to eye. He has no idea that I know he’s cheated Aunt Jodi out of a happy life. Part of me wants him to know this. Part of me wants to tell him to shit or get off the pot. The ants want me to drop a twenty-pound weight on his dick.

  “Okay, then,” he says. “I’m going out to lift.”

  Just as he’s about to open the door, I say, “I know you aren’t always at work when you say you are.”

  He stops and turns to face me.

  “I know,” I say again.

  He looks a mix of caught and hurt, and I don’t say anything else, so he opens the door to the garage and closes it behind him.

  As I’m rinsing my plate in the sink, Mom and Jodi come in, toweling off and chatting about calories. Apparently, Jodi thought calorie counting was a myth.

  “But let me get this straight. If I eat less than fifteen hundred calories and exercise every day, then I’ll lose weight?”

  Mom nods. “That’s the idea, yeah.”

  “Why didn’t they teach us that in school?” She wraps her beach towel around her lower half and slips on an oversized T-shirt.

  “I think they did,” Mom says. “But it was boring then. You probably forgot.”

  “Yeah, well, back then I could eat whatever the heck I wanted and never gain a pound.”

  “And another—” Mom starts, but then there’s a banging on the front door and someone rings the doorbell, like, four times in a row.

  Jodi is startled. We are all startled, because there seems to be screaming or crying or—Ginny. As Aunt Jodi opens the door, Ginny falls into the house, a lump of sobbing, hands over her face—and nearly bald. I do the first thing that comes naturally. I hug her.

  We stumble to the nearest love seat, and she continues to sob into my chest.

  I make eye contact with Jodi and Mom, and they both shrug. Eventually Jodi grabs a box of tissues and sits down on the couch on the other side of Ginny. I hand a tissue to Ginny, and she cleans up her face and then looks at me, and I see she has a huge red-purple mark around one eye—a shiner in the making.

  “What happened to your hair?” Jodi asks, because she hasn’t seen Ginny’s eye yet, and Ginny puts her head back on my shoulder and cries again.

  I’m speechless. Picture this: girl with a white scalp showing through an inch-long white-blond crew cut, with a welt the shape of New Jersey forming around her eye, the red-purple starting in around the edge, her face puffy with grief. The most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen in my life. She’s wearing a pair of oversize sweatpants and a T-shirt. She smells like salt.

  Ginny continues to cry in my arms, and Aunt Jodi rubs her back i
n circles. “Virginia? What’s going on?”

  And then Ginny looks over and Jodi sees her eye and she’s speechless for a moment.

  I manage to ask, “Who did that to you?”

  She traces the welt on her face with her index finger.

  “Who did this?” Jodi says.

  Ginny looks at me and reaches up to my scab and feels it. I can see her searching for an answer, but she bursts into tears again, and Jodi rubs her back and puts on that concerned face. Not like during the interrogation two weeks ago, but like a genuine concerned face. Like she could imagine Ginny being her own daughter or something.

  I hear the radio go off in the garage, which means Dave is cooling down. Mom is still standing where she was when the doorbell rang. Ginny is taking deep breaths, trying to get a grip on herself.

  “Do you need me to call Karen or Shannon or anyone?” I ask. She takes a tissue and blows her nose a few times and wipes her face.

  She nods in response to my question, and Jodi looks at me with raised eyebrows, looking for direction.

  “What horrible reason did they have for cutting off your hair?” Jodi asks.

  “I did it,” Ginny says.

  Jodi interrupts. “But, sweetheart, I—”

  “I’m sick of being hair,” she says. “That’s all I ever was! Hair!”

  I nod.

  “I think it’s really nice,” Ginny says, feeling the crew cut she gave herself.

  I feel it, too. I make a face as if to say: It is quite nice.

  I feel Jodi getting impatient.

  “My mom freaked out,” Ginny says. “She said my career is over, my future is over, my life is over. She told me that maybe she and Dad were going to send me to some boarding school or something.”

  Jodi looks again at Ginny’s eye. “So—who?”

  “She did,” Ginny says. “I didn’t know what to do. She never did that before.”

  Jodi nods.

  “She kept hitting and hitting,” Ginny says. “Her eyes were closed. She thought she was still aiming for my arm, I think. She was crying, too.” She inspects her arm and it’s also red-purple.

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