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Everybody sees the ants, p.18
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       Everybody Sees the Ants, p.18

           A. S. King
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  When I check in the mirror after breakfast, I see the scab has separated into a bunch of little scabs. It’s Hawaii. The final scab on my cheekbone is Mauna Kea, Hawaii’s tallest mountain. Kauai is about to flake off any minute now. Maui after that. I predict that by tomorrow all physical traces of Nader will be gone. Then it’s up to me to erase the brain traces—my mental scab.


  I am in a pit thirty feet deep, alone. I’m in tattered black pajamas. I have sores on my feet. I’m missing my right arm and most of my teeth. I have a beard.

  Someone calls, “Lucky?” over and over again from the top of the pit, but I can’t see anyone.

  “Meet me in the tree, son. Remember?”

  I sit in the mud and meditate. Breathe in. Breathe out. I see myself in the tree with Granddad Harry. But when I open my eyes, I’m still in the pit by myself.

  “Try again!” he says.

  I try again. Open eyes. Still in pit.

  And again. And again. It begins to rain. Bananas.

  “Try again, Luck! Come on!”

  The pit fills with bananas. They are Chiquita bananas—store-bought. They have stickers on them with clever sayings. Instead of meditating, I take some of the stickers and stick them to my sore skin. I do this until I realize I will soon drown in bananas if I don’t get out of here. I try to climb on top of them. They mush under my weight, and make me sticky. Insects arrive.

  I read the stickers. PLACE STICKER ON FOREHEAD. SMILE.

  I have no problem placing the stickers on my forehead. But I cannot smile.

  “Try again, Lucky! Don’t give up! Get to the tree!”

  I meditate, I breathe, I visualize, I become the fucking tree, but I can’t get my ass out of the hole. I’m up to my neck in bananas.

  “Smile, son! That’s the ticket out!” I look up and see an outline of him—hazy and backlit. So far away.

  My face is paralyzed. I can’t smile. It’s like all those times Mom told me that if I crossed my eyes too much, they’d get stuck that way. It’s happened to my mouth. Operation Don’t Smile Ever has rendered me frowning. Forever.

  “Jesus, son! Hurry up!”

  I keep trying, but my face won’t obey. I think of cute things—puppies and kittens and babies—and happy things, like Ginny kissing me, and Granny Janice hugging me, and my ability to bench-press sixty pounds. I think about bad things that would make me happy—Nader in pain, Nader turning on Danny, Nader in jail. No smiles.

  I have mere seconds left. I’m going to die by suffocation. Everything is black. My breathing is barely there. I hear muffled calls, but I block them out. I’m okay with dying in a pit of Chiquita bananas. I’m okay with everything right now. I’m at peace. Real peace.

  Then I smile—unintentionally.

  I’m in the tree with Granddad Harry. We’re twins. We’re both missing the same arm, have sores on the same feet; we stroke our beards the same way.

  “Have you thought about my question?” he asks.

  “Which one?”

  “The one about why you come here. The time I asked you if you really thought you could take me back with you?”

  I nod.

  “You know you can’t, right?” he says.

  “Look. I have reason to be here. I was sent. It’s important,” I say.

  He strokes his beard. I stroke my beard. We’re like mirror mimes. Except my face is still covered in banana stickers. Except he’s really him and I’m not really anyone.

  “You’re not coming here,” he says. “You’re escaping there. Big difference.”

  • • •

  When I wake up, it’s the middle of the night, and I lie in bed for a minute. My forehead feels odd, so I reach up and touch it and find it’s layered in Chiquita banana stickers that say PLACE STICKER ON FOREHEAD. SMILE. I spend several minutes removing them. When I get to the final layer, I have to rip them off fast—like Band-Aids. I save one and stick it to the inside of my secret Harry box under my bed.

  I look at the box—a lifetime of secrets—and I know the change I’m about to make is a lot more than lifting weights and smiling and all the surface bullshit. It’s about something bigger, but I just don’t know what yet.


  It was my last monthly meeting with the guidance department. I was sitting in one of the itchy tweed chairs in the waiting area. About two minutes after I got there, Charlotte Dent came in, pulled two college catalogs from the bookshelf and sat at the big table. She’d been crying, made obvious by the watery mascara under her eyes. The guidance secretary wasn’t there, and we were on our own, but I didn’t have the guts to talk to her.

  She looked up and stared at me, and I looked at my shoes. Then she pushed the catalogs out of the way and put her head in her arms, as if she was napping. But I heard sniffling.

  “Are you okay?” I finally asked.


  “You don’t look it.”

  She looked up from her arms and put on a huge goofy smile. “How about now?”


  I moved over to the table and sat across from her.

  “I want to make sure you’re okay,” I said.

  “Why? You believe the stupid rumors?”


  “Then why?”

  “Because Nader McMillan used to bully me before he started bullying you,” I say. “And your questionnaires are making me worry.”

  “My what?”

  “You know—the questionnaires?”

  She shrugged and made a face like she was genuinely clueless.

  “In my locker?”

  “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she said, and then the guidance counselor called my name from her office door, and that was the end of it. All I could think about during the meeting was who? Who put them into my locker if Charlotte hadn’t? I know I saw Charlotte putting the paper into my locker back in February, but maybe I was being deceived. Maybe Nader or Danny had a pink pen and knew how to do curlicue handwriting. Maybe I was just an idiot—again.

  That day I got a new questionnaire in my locker. It was in pink ink, with the same curlicue writing. If you were going to commit suicide, what method would you choose? It read: I’m okay. Thanks for asking.


  The first person I see at the pool is Danny, who flashes a quick smile before he gives me the finger as a joke. He’s over by the bathroom door, scrubbing down the black rubber slip-proof mats. I follow Mom to a shady spot under a tree and proceed to lose any nerve I ever had in my scrawny, pathetic body.

  While Mom sets up her chair and applies sunscreen, I sit cross-legged and look around the pool. It’s early, and the pool is empty except for the swim team stragglers and a few lap swimmers. I look back at Danny and I think about what Ginny said to me: Friends act like friends. My stomach tightens.

  Mom digs out her swim cap from our pool bag and fits it over her head. I decide that I want to swim some laps, too. So I do. Mom takes lane three and I take lane five and we swim.

  At first my brain focuses only on what my eyes see. The black line, the blue bottom. The black caulk at the seams. The bubbles that my breath creates and the waves and currents of my arms and legs moving through the water. I can taste the chlorine and feel the pressure on my eyeballs. I can feel my scalp cutting through the water and my new cheek enjoying the cool, refreshing liquid.

  After a while I get bored, so I dry off and sit on a bench in the sun and close my eyes and daydream about the new me. School is going to be different. Life is going to be different. I am going to be brave.

  “Hey, dickhead!” Nader calls from the office door. “The nuthouse called. They want your mom back.”

  My stomach double-knots as I replay the last Freddy pool scene in my head—the scene in which Kim promised us “disciplinary action.” Am I a fool to have believed that he’d be fired for what he did to me? Am I really still that naiv
e? After all these years? I feel my red face and pick Maui off my cheek and flick it. Danny’s head pops up behind the concession stand. Nader appears next to him, with a stripe of zinc oxide across his nose and a whistle around his neck. The ants roll out a tiny howitzer and begin to calculate coordinates.

  I watch my mother do another slow lap of breaststroke, and I dream up ways I can just stop coming here. Before I manage to think up a foolproof excuse, Lara and her mom appear at the gate. Lara smiles my way and gives a halfhearted wave as her mother gives their cards to Petra and they walk to their usual space behind the trees near the volleyball net.

  This intensifies the feeling that I have to get away from this place. If I have to be humiliated in a public place, that’s one thing. But being humiliated in front of Lara Jones just sucks. I walk slowly toward them, even though I’m dreading the pity she’s about to dish. We meet at her blanket.

  “Hey!” Lara says. “You’re back!” She’s holding her library book with her finger in the page as a bookmark, as though she’d been reading the whole way to the pool.

  “Yep. Here I am.”

  “Did you have a good time?”

  “Yeah. I guess,” I say. “It was hot, that’s for sure.” She nods and smiles. “Anything exciting happen while I was away?” I ask.

  She nods and winks while her mouth says, “Nope. Nothing exciting.” This means yes, but she can’t tell me in front of her mother. She starts walking away from the blanket and says, “Are you okay? We were worried about you.”

  “Yeah. Thanks.” We walk toward the tetherball pole, out of earshot. She keeps her finger in her book and hugs it to her chest.

  “I was so glad to see your car in the parking lot again,” she says, gesturing me closer to her. She switches to a whisper. She tells me Charlotte was there on Friday doing funny dives with her little brother. “Her bikini top came off again,” she says. “And since Nader was the senior guard on duty, he made her get out of the pool in front of everyone. It was horrible.”

  “Shit,” I say.

  “I mean, she covered herself the best she could with her arm, but you know—it was still awful. My mom complained to the board of directors. A few people did. They want him fired. That guy is such a jerk.”

  “Yeah. A total jerk,” I say. I feel bad now. I feel bad for not calling the cops when he beat me up three weeks ago. If I’d done it, none of that would have happened. We start walking back toward her mother, who is now looking at us with those eyes mothers have when they think their kids are experiencing puppy love.

  “Do you want to play some gin later?”

  “Yeah. Sure. I’d love to,” I say. “Finish your book first. I can tell you’re dying to get to the end.”

  “The next one is waiting for me at the library,” she says. She opens the book and sits down in the shade of the surrounding trees. I think about Ginny and how she was the first girl I ever wanted to kiss. The ants make smooching noises as I realize Lara is the next girl I want to kiss.

  I see Mom drying out in the sun on her beach chair. Her eyes are closed. I sit down next to her and say, “Hey.”


  “Did you see who’s working today?”

  She opens her eyes and squints around the pool grounds. “No.”

  “Nader McMillan.”

  She sighs.

  “Doesn’t seem like he got fired, does it?” I say, pointing to my cheek.

  She shakes her head and swears under her breath. “That’s my fault. Totally my fault, Lucky. I just—” Her voice wobbles a bit. “I just had so many other things going on.”

  “It’s not your fault,” I say.

  “No. When you become a parent, you have certain responsibilities. Totally. My. Fault.” She stresses each word with a hand motion.

  Lara turns a final page of her book and reads it. She gets to the end, stares out into the blurry distance, sighs and then closes the book. Mom sees me watching this.

  “Seriously, Mom. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault he didn’t get fired, and it’s not your fault he’s an asshole.” I say. I scratch my itchy cheek, and the last of Hawaii—my cheekbone Mauna Kea—peels off and lands on my leg.

  She stares into space for a minute. “Did I ever tell you what my mother used to say about assholes?” Her voice is cheery, as if our conversation just rounded a corner.

  I shake my head.

  “She’d say ‘The world is full of assholes. What are you doing to make sure you’re not one of them?’ ”

  I say, “Wow,” because that’s probably the coolest thing I ever heard.

  “Anytime any of us stepped out of line, she’d say that to us.” She shakes her head. “The woman was a saint.”

  I meet Lara under the pavilion for a two-out-of-three gin match an hour later. She beats me the first time. I get totally lucky the second time and am dealt a near-winning hand. We sit there for a while between games, watching the scene together. The day-camp kids have complete control of the deep end now. Mom is over at our blanket, and I watch her call out to Kim the manager and stand talking to her for a few minutes.

  I can tell from Kim’s body language that she is apologizing. I can tell from Mom’s body language that she is quoting her mother: What are you doing to make sure you’re not one of them?

  Tonight for dinner Dad makes a particularly scrumptious batch of barbecued ribs, and he lets me grill corn on my own without telling me how to do it better. I eat like a caveman. He makes a few jokes about his workday, and Mom laughs. She complains about the day-camp kids taking over her precious lane three, and he makes fun of her for ever thinking it was her lane to begin with. I listen and just eat and eat and eat.

  “I think the McMillan kid might get fired tomorrow,” Mom says.

  “About time,” Dad says.

  They look at me, and all I can do is smile.

  I’m not really smiling about Nader getting fired. I’m smiling because I feel like I’m part of a normal family. Sure, my father is still mostly turtle. And my mother is still going to keep swimming laps to appease her pool god. But I feel normal now. Not sure why. Not sure I should care why. I just do. I am so satisfied by this, and by the larger-than-usual portion of ribs I had for dinner, that I fall asleep early, before the FMC hour on the Food Channel, and I steer myself to Granddad Harry.


  I see us from a distance at first. Granddad and I are in the tree, swinging our legs. Limb check: all present. He’s smiling with the few teeth he has left, and I’m smiling, too. I can’t hear what we’re talking about, but I know it’s good.

  Then I zoom in and Granddad says, “You are a fine father to my son,” which takes me a while to process. He means I’m being the father to my father that Granddad never was. “Thank you,” he says.

  We’re silent for about five whole minutes as we watch the sun dapple spots on the jungle floor, and the canopy above us sways with the breeze.

  “I feel very fortunate to have had these years with you,” Granddad Harry says.

  “Me too.”

  “Watching you grow into a man has been the best experience of my life,” he says.

  I feel hairs growing on my chest instantly. My sperm count increases. I say, “I figured out what to do about Nader McMillan.”

  “I see.”

  “I’m going to talk to him. Face him, you know?”

  “Your grandmother would be proud. She was always the vigilante in our family.”

  At the thought of her, I sadden. “She missed you so much,” I say.

  “I’ll see her soon,” he says. “She’ll be happy we fixed Vic.”

  Suddenly I’m by myself again, walking down a jungle path. I’m thinking: Did we fix Vic? How? I look up to the branches above me and can’t find Granddad anywhere.


  I take an extra-long shower and concentrate on myself in the mirror once the steam dies down. I feel like my dream last ni
ght aged me. I look for proof on my face—all I find is the same fuzzy upper lip I’ve had all year. My cheek scar stares at me. It tries to remind me how weak I am. I block it out.

  When I’m dressed, I find Mom in the kitchen, slicing pickles.

  “Do you want to go to McDonald’s for breakfast?” she asks, and I nearly fall over. Lindermans do not eat at McDonald’s.


  “I hear the coffee is better now. It used to be like drinking thinned tar.”

  I’m not used to this yet. I’m not sure I can pull off being normal.

  Dad used to tell me about the guys at the VFW who could feel their amputated limbs. I feel like one of those guys—wiggling my weak, tortured, pathetic self from only a month ago even though I’ve amputated him.

  It’s a little like being two people at once. One minute I feel like the old Lucky who had nothing, and the next minute I realize I have everything I could possibly need.

  While I’m in the driveway, I hear the neighborhood kids playing. Normal kids doing normal things. They probably haven’t heard about the Vietnam War. They probably don’t know that as of today more than 1,700 servicemen have still not been accounted for. They probably don’t know that about 8,000 are still missing from Korea, or that approximately 74,000 never surfaced after World War II. They don’t know that amputees sometimes try to wiggle limbs they lost.

  I don’t envy them. They have a lot to learn.

  Mom orders a Sausage McMuffin with Egg, and I order an original Egg McMuffin with hash browns, and we park in the shade and as we eat, we try to figure out exactly how many laps we’ll have to do to burn the delicious goodness off of our bodies.

  When we get to the pool, Mom stuffs her hair into her swim cap and goes straight to the deep end. She waits until I get there and stares down the length of lane three. She says, “How many laps do I have to swim to work off that Sausage McMuffin?”

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