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Everybody sees the ants, p.19
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       Everybody Sees the Ants, p.19

           A. S. King
 
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  “A hundred,” I say. “And another twenty for the sweet coffee and half of my hash browns.”

  “Wanna race?”

  She’s never asked this before. I know I will lose. But I get into position at lane four. She says, “On the count of three. One. Two. Three!” and we dive.

  The sun hits the water and makes the bottom a mosaic of light. I can see my own shadow, racing through the wet, and I try to catch up with myself. I do not come up for air until I’ve done eight strokes. I picture being chased by a man-eating shark. I breathe to the right so I can’t see Mom. This really isn’t a race. It’s the most fun I’ve had since Ginny dragged me around her shadows at night.

  We stop racing at lap ten. I feel as if my lungs are on fire. Mom is equally winded, and we don’t talk as we squat in the shallow end, catching air. I see Danny peeking out from the snack bar and I think—if it makes me a mama’s boy to have fun racing my mom in the pool, then I’m Lucky Linderman, mama’s boy. If it makes Lucky Linderman a fag or a dick or any of those other stupid names I’ve been called my whole life, then fine. I am a dick, a fag and a douche bag, loser asshole mama’s boy.

  Mom and I go for twenty nicely paced laps, and when I stop to catch my breath again, I see Lara and her mom setting up over by the picnic table and I wave. Lara waves back and smiles. She walks over to the pool and sits on the edge, with her feet in the water.

  “Did you hear?”

  I make the no, I did not hear face.

  “They fired Nader McMillan last night.”

  I look at her and tilt my head. If it makes me a fag to think her cheekbones are the most amazing things I’ve ever seen, then I am Lucky Linderman, fag. Because her cheekbones are monumental.

  “That’s awesome,” I say, but I’m still thinking about her cheekbones.

  “I’m so relieved,” she says. “If he could do that to Charlotte and get away with it, then he could do it to any girl at this pool.”

  I nod and stare at her perfect, shiny round shoulders, and I can barely think straight. She walks back to her book and her mother in the shade, and the ants say: What do you have to lose, Lucky Linderman?

  At lunchtime Mom and I sit on our blanket and munch chilled egg salad sandwiches. The ants sit on the corner of our blanket and play poker. They bet with crumbs.

  Mom does a few more laps, though the pool is so full of day-camp kids, there’s really no point. She gets out, dries herself off and starts to pack up. It’s three thirty. We’re going home early to eat dinner with Dad, because that’s the new plan. More family dinners. More time away from Bistro La-Di-Da for Dad, which just might mean more happiness for all of us. Or not, I guess, depending on how open Dad really is to the new plan. Either way, I feel so full of Aunt Jodi’s positive chi I could choke. I say good-bye to Lara, but she’s so into her new book she doesn’t even look up at me while saying, “Yeah, see ya.”

  As Mom pulls out of the lot, I see that Nader McMillan is at the front gate, talking to the other guards. I want to crouch down in the car until Mom drives past him. I really don’t think I can do this. My guts twist. We’ve almost driven past him when I say, “Can you stop for a sec? I need to take care of something.”

  Mom stops on the shoulder of the road, and I get out of the car and walk over to the front gate.

  Nader sees me coming. For once he doesn’t have something smart to say. He’s just watching me come at him. My back is straight. I look him in the eye. He takes a step away from his lifeguard friends, and when I get there, he’s standing, arms crossed, smirking at me.

  I say, “We need to talk.” My heart is totally beating out of my chest. I bet he can see it.

  He nods. “Yeah?”

  I get right in his face—as much as I can considering I’m about six inches shorter than he is. “Here’s the deal,” I say, and I poke him in the chest. “You’re not going to give me any more shit.”

  “I’m not, huh?”

  “Nope. And if you lay a finger on me again, I’m calling the fucking cops on you.”

  “Oh, really?”

  “Yeah. And if I see you doing your fucked-up, perverted shit to any other kids? I’m going to call the cops then, too.”

  He’s looking at me like back when we were pretend-friends—he’s smiling a little. He says, “Who loaned you a set of balls, banana boy?”

  I poke him again—this time with two fingers. “Save it for a kid who gives a shit.”

  “You think you’re tough now?”

  “You just don’t scare me, that’s all.” My heart, now beating four times faster than it was only thirty seconds ago, would disagree, but I’m doing okay.

  “Huh,” he says. Then he takes a step toward me and gets right in my face.

  Rather than step back, I lean toward him so he can feel my breath. “I’m serious,” I say. “I’ll put your ass in jail. Don’t think I won’t.” I give him a crazy-looking, bugged-out-eyeball stare and say, “I’ll tell them everything if I have to.”

  He puts his hands up in that joking defensive way. “Okay, man. Whatever you say.”

  He’s still giving me that cute and cocky look right up close—as if he’s about to laugh. But I don’t care. Now that I’ve said it, it’s over. My part is over until I have to keep my word… which I will do if I have to.

  Kim the manager says, “McMillan, get what you came for and get out of here. If a board member sees you, it’ll be my ass.”

  I stand right there—in his face—until he slinks off to the chemical shed to get the stuff he came for. I feel amazing. I feel everything.

  As I’m walking back out the gate, Ronald struts in. Fast. He walks over to Danny, who’s standing outside the snack-bar window, and he picks him up by his shirt. “Where’s McMillan?”

  Danny just blinks. Ronald grabs his face and squeezes. “Where the fuck is McMillan?”

  “Chill out, man,” Danny says, and points to the chemical shed. I stop and turn back around. Charlotte is walking slowly down the sidewalk outside the fence—and is just passing Mom’s car. She’s on her cell phone. I bet she’s calling 911, because Ronald’s hawk tattoo is three-dimensional with crazy.

  I try to think up a way to stop Ronald from doing what he’s about to do. I want to tell him that it’s not worth it. That he might go to jail for some little shit like Nader. But Ronald is too fast, and I end up standing there staring at him run-walk to the shed.

  All I can do is hope he doesn’t hurt Nader too much. And I really can’t believe, after everything Nader’s put me through, that I’m actually hoping that. But I am.

  Charlotte closes her phone and stops to look through the chain-link fence. Ronald has disappeared into the chemical shed. Then we hear the violent noise.

  It’s pounding, rhythmic and loud. The whole shed is shaking. A minute later Ronald appears. He has blood on his chest, smeared over part of his tattoo, and he’s covered in a shiny layer of sweat. I walk to Mom’s car and before I open the door, I say to Charlotte, “You okay?”

  She nods, and I sit into the car and nod back.

  Mom and I get home at 3:40 to find that Dad has already minced garlic and chopped chives. He’s sliced the chicken breasts into chunks—perfect one-inch cubes. He’s twisting a lemon over an old glass juicer that Granny Janice used to use to make my orange juice.

  “Good day at the pool?” he asks.

  “The McMillan kid got fired,” Mom says. “So that was good.” She leaves out any mention of my facing up to Nader, and I’m glad.

  Dad nods.

  “And Mom and I raced.”

  “Who won?”

  We laugh. Mom puts her hand up.

  “And Lucky played card games with his girlfriend most of the afternoon.”

  “I lost them, too.” Mom makes a mental note that I did not correct her. I make a mental note to make Lara Jones into my girlfriend as soon as I can.

  Dad says, “Women, son. Get used to losing.” He goes back to twisting lemons.

  “Can I hel
p?” I ask.

  “Nah. I got it covered.”

  I stand around for a minute or two, but he’s not saying anything to me, so I go to my room and change and come back out when I hear Mom is out, too.

  “You don’t have to help if you don’t want to, but I could use a hand with this rice,” Dad says. Mom looks to me.

  “Sure,” I say.

  “Don’t let it boil over while I get these on the grill.”

  When he goes out, Mom looks at me and half smiles. I think we both know we can’t work miracles on Dad.

  “You know, this is fun,” he says as he walks back in through the kitchen door.

  Mom and Dad exchange a look as if they have some sort of secret. Mom leaves the kitchen and claims she has to do something out in the front yard. Definitely one of the weirder things she ever “had to do.”

  Dad doesn’t say anything. He starts looking for something else to do for dinner, but everything is in that in-between stage. After watching him search for a few more seconds, I take a deep breath and say, “You okay, Dad?”

  He jumps a little. “Yup, chicken should be ready to turn in a minute.”

  I keep looking straight at him. He’s weirded out by it. He starts poking around, opening and closing cupboards, not looking at me. He moves some dishes from the right-hand side of the sink into the left-hand side. Then he looks at his watch. I’m about to ask him again when he says, “You know, this place wasn’t the same without you guys around.” My heart lifts. Then he kills it a little. “I didn’t have anybody to cook for,” he adds with a smile.

  “Better get used to it.” I sigh. “I can cook for myself now, you know.”

  He finally looks back at me and I see he’s all soft—just like the day Granny Janice died. He says, “Are you okay, son?”

  I nod. When he doesn’t say anything else, I say, “Yeah. I’m okay.”

  He looks into my eyes for a second and nods, subtly. Then he gets up and goes to turn his kebabs. I feel kind of sorry for him for some reason, and then the feeling passes and I go back to wondering just how badly Ronald hurt Nader and trying to figure out how I feel about it. It’s easier than figuring out how I feel about Dad.

  A little while later we’re sitting around the plastic deck table on the back porch, eating my favorite yogurt-chicken-pineapple-tomato-on-rice dish, listening to our neighborhood. Parents come home from work. Kids come home from day camp or day care or wherever they were shipped off to. The smell of a hundred dinners wafts through our backyard. We don’t say much. None of us looks worried.

  After dinner Dad goes back to work and promises Mom he won’t be home too late. I watch two shows on the Food Channel and then go into my room and lie down on top of my POW/MIA comforter. I think about the last month of my life—from getting my Ohio scab to meeting Aunt Jodi, loving Ginny, loving and hating Uncle Dave, facing Nader, appreciating my mom and dad and discovering Lara—and I feel lucky.

  Before I know it I’m almost asleep, wrapped in a cozy feeling of contentment. I can feel that my hands are behind my head. I have lounged myself to sleep. I smell the chlorine from my skin and feel the heat where the sun kissed me today. My muscles are slightly sore from racing. It’s a satisfying ache.

  RESCUE MISSION #115

  We’re in the camp where we first met, by the stream where I fell. I am a grown man, not a teenager. I have the beginnings of a beard, and my hair is too long. I sit on a big rock, and Granddad sits on the rock next to me. He folds his hands into each other and leans his elbows on his knees.

  “Hey, kid,” he says.

  “Hey, Harry,” I answer. I don’t think I ever called him Harry before.

  “Wanna take a walk?”

  I’m watching the clear stream travel by and am comfortable. I say, “To where?”

  “Somewhere special,” he says.

  I reach into my breast pocket and retrieve a pack of cigarettes. I’ve never smoked in my dreams before. I offer him one and he takes it. He’s never smoked in my dreams before, either. We smoke and watch the water flow by.

  “You’re good to your dad,” he says. “I was afraid he’d grow up to be an asshole without me.” He takes a drag. “Many a night I lay here wondering if Janice’s soft side would ruin him.”

  “Nah—he’s a good guy,” I say.

  “You happy these days?”

  “Yeah.” I take a long drag and think of Ginny. “I think I’m figuring it out. You know—how to be happy.”

  He digs out a fortune cookie fortune from his mouth, as if his mouth has a pocket. It says THE SIMPLEST ANSWER IS TO ACT. He hands it to me. I nod and put the fortune in my own mouth pocket. He reaches into his mouth pocket again and retrieves a ring. It’s gold—his wedding band.

  “Wear that,” he says.

  “Okay,” I answer, and I slip it onto my finger.

  He puts out his cigarette in the mud bank, and I do the same. He turns and says, “Come on. I want to show you this.”

  We walk on the jungle path, and I can tell he has no fear of Frankie or any other guards. I do a quick limb inventory—he’s got them all. So do I.

  “Where’s Frankie?” I ask.

  “He went home to his family,” he says. “Left me here to die.”

  “Oh,” I say. Then I stop walking, and add, “To die?”

  He stops and looks back at me on the path. “Did you think I’d live forever?” he asks.

  We arrive at the makeshift jungle prison. He’s made it his own. There is an American flag flying. There is a real bed, not just a few bamboo crates. Sitting in the chair where Frankie used to sit is Granny Janice. She waves.

  I wave, even though I want to run into her arms and breathe in her baby-powder smell. I say, “Hi, Granny.”

  She says, “I’m so glad you could make it, Lucky.”

  I ask myself: Make it to what?

  Granddad is at the back door—the one that leads uphill. He’s urging me to follow. We walk for about twenty minutes in silence. We hold hands. At the top of the hill, where the view would make anyone wonder why Earth allows us to continue living here and ruining it, there is a hole. It is six feet long and about four feet deep. Next to the hole is a pile of dirt and a shovel.

  “I need you to tell your father that everything is over now. I need you to tell him that I loved him more than I ever loved anything in my life.”

  I’m crying. I can’t talk. I nod.

  “I need you to tell him. You will, right?”

  I sniffle. “Yes. I’ll tell him.”

  He jumps into the hole like a man who is not dying. “If my government ever wants to know where I am, you tell them I died where the view was outstanding.”

  I squeeze my eyes shut and quietly sob for all of us. For him, for Granny Janice and for Dad. I sob for Mom and how she married into this. I sob for myself. When I open my eyes, he is lying in the bottom of the hole, motionless. His arms are behind his head, and he has a grin on his face. He has lounged himself to death.

  I cover him with the dirt. Time passes. I sweat through my shirt, and my beard itches. Only when I finish, I stab the shovel into the ground and find a cigarette and light it. I marvel at the view—a landscape of cloudlike jungle canopy. It is, without a doubt, outstanding.

  • • •

  When I wake up, it’s dark. It’s 3:34 AM. I’m covered in grit and sweat. My feet are brown with mud, and I’m sucking on something. I spit it into my hand and unfold it. It’s a fortune from a fortune cookie. It says THE SIMPLEST ANSWER IS TO ACT.

  I bend my thumb to my ring finger, and I feel it there—the wedding band. And so it’s time.

  LUCKY LINDERMAN HAS SOMETHING TO SAY

  There is something magical about the world at night. Sitting at the dining room table, sipping a glass of iced tea, I can totally understand why Dad gets up so early. Minutes seem to last longer when the rest of the world is asleep. I think he heard me come in here, because I hear him flush the toilet and walk down the hall.

  He fixes h
imself a glass of ice water and sits down across from me.

  How do I do this? How do I tell my father that I got to meet his father, when he didn’t? That I just buried him? How do I explain something so unbelievable? So unjust?

  I take the ring off and set it on the table between us.

  He looks at me, still smudged with red dirt, my hair dried to my head. He picks up the ring and reads the inscription out loud. “ ‘Harry and Janice, September twenty-third, 1970.’ ” He looks at me. “This is my dad’s.” He blinks. “Where did you get this?”

  I say, “Do you have a few minutes?” I reach across the table and hold his hand. “I need to tell you something really important.”

  Results for Men Facing the Draft in 1971

  Lottery Numbers, by Birth Date, for Selective Service–Lottery Held July 1, 1970

  This determined the order in which men born in 1951 were called to report for induction into the military.

  Source: Selective Service System

  Acknowledgments

  First:

  This book is in memory of Ed Daniels—a good man who cared about women and wasn’t afraid to show it.

  Second:

  This book is dedicated to every missing soldier and to their families. I want to especially thank Jo Anne Shirley, vice chairman of the board of the National League of POW/MIA Families. Jo Anne, your frankness about what it’s like to have a missing loved one was incredibly helpful and affecting. Additional thanks to the many people who talked with me about their own POW/MIA, Vietnam War and draft lottery experiences.

  Third:

  I owe planet-sized thanks to my agent, Michael Bourret, who is so tremendous they should make an action figure out of him. To the entire team at Little, Brown who do such amazing work, including my editor Andrea Spooner, who understands; Deirdre Sprague-Rice, who should be cloned; and Victoria Stapleton, who sent me a tweet while I was sitting on a bench by myself, which meant a lot more than she thinks it did.

 
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