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Everybody sees the ants, p.5
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       Everybody Sees the Ants, p.5

           A. S. King
 
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  Aunt Jodi is staring at my scab. I know this because I can feel her staring at it, even though I’m not looking at her. She whispers to Mom, “Is he okay? He looks awful!”

  Mom blows her off—a sign that she’s already mentally in Jodi’s backyard pool doing laps.

  When we walk out of the airport, it’s as if we have walked into a pizza oven. I feel like a pie, baking. It’s insane. I can’t even sweat. My eyeballs are hot and dry. My lips become chapped before we even get to the parking lot. My scab puckers.

  Once we’re in the car with the air-conditioning blasting, Aunt Jodi talks annoyingly about tourist attractions, as if this is the reason we’re here, when we all know it isn’t. Halfway to the house she turns on news radio and shuts up. When we get there, Uncle Dave hugs me and then holds me at arm’s length and gives my scab an evil look.

  I only met Dave once before, three years ago. He and Mom are only siblings, and they look alike—same hair and cheekbones. He came to see us while he was in Harrisburg on business for a week, but I was twelve and stayed in my room a lot. Now he’s saying, “Can’t wait to show you my weight room,” and “You watch baseball?” These comments make me confident that the next three weeks might not suck nearly as much as I thought they would back at the airport. At least we’re not talking about bullshit like how beautiful desert sunsets are or the plethora of tourist attractions that the scabbed pronoun in the backseat would love.

  After brief welcomes, Aunt Jodi shows us around. It’s a one-story house with a long hallway back to Jodi and Dave’s bedroom. The room across the hall is filled with various hobby items—a sewing machine, a treadmill, a scrapbooking table and Jodi’s home computer, which is so old it must have two megs of RAM, tops. The floor is crammed with stacks of magazines. Mostly tabloids, like People and Us. Our room—the guest room, with two twin beds, a dresser and its own bathroom—is right off the living room/kitchen area.

  “Please don’t move any of the furniture,” Jodi says. “It’s all in the right place to move positive energy around the house. If there’s anything you two need right now, it’s positive energy, right?” She says this like a kindergarten teacher. As if her feeble attempt at feng shui will rebuild our family, cure my dad’s turtle-itis and maybe even heal my scab. Mom excuses herself and goes into the guest bathroom.

  I heave the suitcase onto Mom’s bed and stare at Aunt Jodi until she gets the message. “I’ll give you some space,” she mutters, and waddles into the hallway. I close the door gently behind her and flop onto my bed.

  Mom emerges from the bathroom with her swimsuit on and her towel draped over her right arm. While she swims and talks to Aunt Jodi, who sits on the side of the pool dangling her feet in the water, I turn on the TV in the living room and check to see whether Jodi and Dave get the Food Channel, but they don’t. I go back to my bed and take a short nap, careful not to turn onto my right side so I don’t stick to the pillowcase.

  Can I call it a nap if I don’t really sleep? Can I call it a nap if all I do is lie here and listen to the ants in my head saying things like: Dude, this place sucks. You’re perfectly matched. Maybe you should move here. We could rename it the Pussy State just for you.

  It’s hard to believe that technically, only a few hours ago, I was getting my ass kicked by Nader McMillan outside the men’s room at the Freddy pool. After a while, I get up and inspect my scab in the guest room mirror for the first time. It’s dried into a sore, ugly, rucked-up plateau. Parts are cut more deeply than others. I swear he nearly revealed the peak of my cheekbone. No doubt I’ll scar and remember Nader every day of my life when I look in the mirror.

  On a lighter note, it’s the exact shape of Ohio. Like—identical. My eyeball is floating lazily on Lake Erie. It’s thinking of going water-skiing later.

  For dinner we eat food that tastes like we are visiting an old folks’ home. The green beans are mushy. The chicken is covered in powdered soup mix and tastes like one big chemical. The milk is skim and blue. I suddenly miss my father. He may not say much or stick around when we need him, but the man can cook.

  “We can’t wait to take you two to the Grand Canyon!” Jodi says at dinner.

  “You’re gonna love it, Lucky,” Dave adds. “It’s a life-changing place.”

  Great. No pressure, guys.

  The conversation—or should I say monologue—moves from tourist sites to Dave’s crazy work schedule to Jodi and her seven new diets, which aren’t working. She talks about how she can’t exercise because of the ailments—a bad back, sore knees, breathing difficulties—all caused by her weight gain. She says she read in one of her magazines that people like her die young. She read in another that people like her go on disability and get to use the handicapped parking spots. She read in Us about the master cleanse diet, where you don’t eat anything but just drink lemonade for two weeks. “Like that’s even possible,” she says.

  Mom offers, “One of the girls I swim with in the winter does that master cleanse thing every year.”

  Jodi looks at her. “So?”

  “Uh. I don’t know. I mean, it works for her, but you know, not everyone can do it. I mean, uh.” I’ve never seen Mom this awkward. “I couldn’t, that’s for sure.”

  Things go silent for about a zillion minutes. No one talks about my Ohio scab or my mother’s amazing butterfly stroke. No one talks about food.

  Jodi eventually says, “Lucky, I see you put clothing on the floor under the window. I put the little table next to the dresser for that.”

  “Thanks. But I’m cool with it being under the window.”

  “But that will mess up the energy,” she says, a golf ball–sized lump of mushy green beans in her cheek.

  I decide, even though I know all about feng shui from a book Mom has, to play stupid. “What energy?”

  “The chi,” she says while chewing.

  “The what?” I ask.

  “Chi!” she says, her mouth so full she has to tilt her head back to say it. Mom and I squirm. In the Linderman house, talking with your mouth full equates to peeing on the food.

  To avoid having to see Aunt Jodi’s half-chewed dinner again, we don’t say anything else. I try to get another bite into my mouth, but each bite I chew hurts.

  I wipe my mouth and thank them for dinner. “I hope you don’t mind, but I need to go to bed,” I say.

  Mom offers a sympathetic smile. “Your cheek hurt, Luck?”

  I realize my whole face is crunched up in pain, and I look more miserable than usual. “Yeah. It’s killing me, actually.”

  Jodi gets up and comes back with two over-the-counter pain pills and takes my plate.

  Dave drops his dish at the sink and says, “I’ve got to go back to the office for something. Back later.” Then he rests a hand on my shoulder as he moves toward the door. “Tomorrow I’m getting you on that bench, man. In two weeks, you’ll be beefed up and ready to kick that kid’s ass.”

  Jodi answers, “Don’t encourage him.”

  LUCKY LINDERMAN IS NOT GOING TO STAIN YOUR CARPET

  The first thing I hear the next morning is Aunt Jodi diagnosing me in the next room.

  “But he’s got all the signs, Lori!”

  “You just met him yesterday.”

  “Still… he’s depressed.”

  “He’s jet-lagged and a teenager. He’s fine.”

  “He’s always frowning!”

  “That’s his thing. You’ll understand when you get to know him better.”

  I hear one of them sigh. Then Jodi says, “Did you ever think that your marital problems could be rubbing off on him? On top of being bullied, that could really mess a kid up.”

  “There are no marital problems,” Mom insists. “We just needed a break.”

  “Seems to me you’re just ignoring all the problems in your life. Dave does that, too, you know. I just don’t think it’s healthy. For you or Vic or Lucky. I mean—”

  “Please. Just stop. I have a lot on my mind right now,” Mom says.

/>   “He could be at risk!”

  I can practically hear my mother’s eyes roll. “He’s not at risk.”

  “It’s a proven fact that bullied kids are more depressed than non-bullied kids.”

  “He’s not bullied.”

  “Didn’t he get beat up? Isn’t that what happened to his face? Isn’t that why you’re here?”

  “Look. I mean this in the nicest way, Jodi, but could you please mind your own business?”

  I hear Dave clear his throat.

  “I am not turning a blind eye to a suicidal teenager,” Jodi says. “What if he kills himself here? In our house?”

  “Oh my God,” Mom says. I hear her footsteps. The door opens. She sits on my bed. “Luck, get out of bed and act happy. Your aunt Jodi thinks you’re going to kill yourself.”

  After Dave goes to work at eight, I pull out the book I brought with me, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, and sit in the living room. Mom goes swimming while Jodi sits in front of the TV watching talk shows and news flashes between thumbing her gossip magazines with movie-star cellulite articles. She sits forward for the entire Dr. Phil episode. Two college kids are explaining why they treat their girlfriends like shit, and when Dr. Phil gets stern with them, she cheers as if she’s watching sports or something.

  After her swim, Mom gets a bottle of pure aloe from Jodi and spreads it all over my cheek. I admit, it feels nice—cool and soothing—but when I look in the mirror, I see Ohio is coated in ectoplasm or frog spawn. I look like a freak.

  The jet lag catches up with me during midafternoon, and I consider swimming to wake myself up, but when I go out, it’s too hot to do anything but go back inside. How is this better than life at home? For either of us?

  I decide to nap, even though it makes Jodi look at my mother and raise her eyebrows.

  RESCUE MISSION #103—OPERATION RESCUE LUCKY

  I am trapped in a grass hut with great energy. There is a mirror by the door, and two chairs facing east. This is feng shui prison. There are cameras. Dr. Phil is here. He’s asking me how long Nader McMillan has bullied me.

  “Since forever,” I say.

  “Can you be more specific?” he asks. The audience nods.

  I sigh. “It started when he peed on me in a restaurant bathroom when I was seven.” The audience gasps. “Then it just never stopped. Never.”

  Dr. Phil leans forward. “Who did you tell about this, son? Did you tell your parents? The teachers?”

  I nod.

  “I know it’s hard to talk about, Lucky, but I need you to talk. Who’d you tell about the first thing? The urinating part?”

  I shook my head. “I didn’t tell anyone. My parents were with me. What could I say? I mean—I didn’t pee on myself, right? Who would do that?”

  “So no one stood up for you?”

  I’m silent. I look up. The audience is taking notes on pads made from jungle leaves. The ants are wearing tiny white doctor coats and glasses low on their noses.

  “How does that make you feel?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “Can I tell you how I’d feel if it were me?” Dr. Phil asks.

  I nod because I feel hot tears forming behind my eyes.

  “I’d feel really tired. And I’d feel that someone should be sticking up for me,” he says. Then he stops for a second and he puts his hand to his chin and looks at the camera. “Do you know what I wanna know?”

  I can’t tell if he’s talking to me or the audience. The jungle insects zeep-zeep-zeep, and a strange rodent scurries from one corner of the feng shui hut to another.

  “I wanna know: Where are this bully’s parents? Why don’t they know he’s been terrorizing Lucky for eight long years?”

  The audience hangs on his every word. He looks to a different camera suspended from a boom to the left of the hut. “The sick thing? They do know.” The Dr. Phil music cues faintly in the background. “When we come back, we’ll have some strong words with Mr. and Mrs. McMillan, and we’ll talk to Lucky’s parents, too, so we can all make sure Lucky leaves our studio today feeling like someone cares.”

  The music gets louder, and Dr. Phil turns to me off camera. “Son, you need to find a way to get this out of there,” he says, gently poking me in the heart. “You can’t keep it all inside.” All I can hear is what he just said to the audience. Strong words with Mr. and Mrs. McMillan. We’ll talk to Lucky’s parents, too.

  I send a convoy of red fire ants on an emergency maneuver up the leg of Dr. Phil’s suit pants. I give them orders to bite the minute he starts talking again, so I can get the hell out of here.

  Then Granddad Harry swings in on a jungle vine and plucks me from my Dr. Phil feng shui stool and delivers us both back to the limb of our peaceful tree, side by side, swinging our legs, except Granddad is missing his right leg from the knee down.

  “I love it here,” I say.

  He eyes me up, concerned. “You do?”

  I refer to my dream physique with my hands. I am completely buff, wearing a sleeveless T-shirt, and my deltoids are firm, small cantaloupes.

  “Oh, that,” he says. “You’d give up real life and freedom for that?” He looks at me as if he’s annoyed.

  “What use is my real life? It sucks.”

  “Huh,” he grunts. I realize that maybe that might be one of the stupidest things I’ve ever said. I mean, yeah, my life sucks. But his life sucks way worse. So I change the subject.

  “I’ve been reading about you,” I say.

  “Am I in a book?”

  “I’ve been reading the files Granny Janice kept,” I say. I add sheepishly, “And your letters.”

  He nods and says, “You read those letters?” I suddenly feel awful about it. “Some nights I dream of her back when we met in high school. We used to go with our friends to this little diner every Friday night, and we’d show off our cars and eat hamburgers and French fries and try to score a bottle of beer.” He laughs. “Just a bunch of know-nothing kids, before we realized what might happen to us.”

  “You mean the war? Getting drafted?”

  He nods. “Janice wrote and told me we lost Smitty and Caruso in the first three months. They’d enlisted, you know? Caruso got blown to pieces by a mine, and Smitty got hit with friendly fire. Then me. The only person still standing from our original Friday-night crew was Thompson, who’d escaped the whole nightmare by having a bad back and flat feet.”

  “I have flat feet,” I say because he looks so sad talking about his dead friends.

  “Boy! We had some fun! Used to go out hunting and camping on weekends, and we’d smoke cigars and steal liquor from our fathers’ cabinets.” He stops and looks at me. “You do that kind of stuff, don’t ya, Lucky?”

  “I tried smoking once because Danny wanted to. I hated it.”

  “No hunting?”

  “Nope.”

  “Camping?”

  “Nope.”

  “Chasing girls?”

  “Nope.”

  He looks concerned. “You got friends?”

  “Kinda. Not really. I used to have Danny.”

  “What happened to him?” he asked.

  “Nader turned him against me.”

  “That Nader kid is really screwing himself out of a good afterlife,” he says. “Have you told any adults about this kid?”

  “They’re all afraid of his dad.”

  “What is he? Some sort of nut or something?”

  “A lawyer.”

  “Huh.” He sighs. “What about your dad? Can’t he talk to this lawyer guy?”

  I don’t have the heart to answer this.

  OPERATION DON’T SMILE EVER—FRESHMAN YEAR

  A month after Evelyn Schwartz went crying to the guidance department about how “morbid” my survey was, the Lindermans were called into a second meeting. All of my teachers were there, including Mr. Potter, my social studies teacher.

  “He’s got no problems in my class,” Mr. Gunther, my algebra II teacher said. “I was going to ask h
im if he wanted to tutor after school for extra money.” Mom and Dad raised their eyebrows and nodded. Of course, I’d say no to the tutoring because I didn’t want to be in school late, when the Naders of the world roamed the halls in packs (also known as wrestling practice).

  “He’s doing fine in my class, too,” said Mrs. Wadner—the best biology teacher in the world. If I managed a B, I’d be happy, because she was hard-core.

  Each one weighed in with the same conclusion. I was doing well in school. I nearly smiled, but stayed loyal to Operation Don’t Smile Ever and just nodded.

  But then the Shrew got her turn. The Shrew was my gym teacher that semester, and she never smiled, either. She was short, had thighs the size of Pacific totem poles and a face to match. She wore the same outfit every day, only in different colors—a classic coach tracksuit with stripes, and a T-shirt that had something to do with Freddy High girls’ sports.

  “Lucky has been absent quite a bit from my classes this month. If he keeps it up, he’ll get an F.”

  True, I’d hidden in the empty auditorium during a few gym classes since the locker-room banana incident.

  Dad looked at me and said, “Well?”

  “I just don’t want to go into the locker room. You know. The rumors?”

  They all just stared at me. No one nodded a knowing nod or made a face that showed they knew what I was talking about.

  The final teacher was Potter. He said that since my first idea for my social studies project had been “not the most appropriate,” I should come up with another.

  I went into my backpack and pulled out the chart. “I’m going to do my project on the Vietnam War draft lottery and figure out how many people in my class would be drafted if it was 1970.”

  They all nodded. I looked at Fish. He looked to be about sixty. I said, “Were you born in 1951?”

  His eyebrows went up. “Close. Fifty-five.”

  “What’s your birthday?”

  “February twenty-seventh,” he said.

  I looked at the chart and said, “Your number is sixty-six.”

 
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