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Everybody sees the ants, p.7
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       Everybody Sees the Ants, p.7

           A. S. King
 
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  “ ’Kay.”

  “Don’t come in all sweaty.”

  “ ’Kay.”

  As we shut down the garage for the night, Dave calls me over to the corner to show me a scorpion hiding behind a bag of pebbles. It’s really small.

  “Is it a baby?” I ask.

  “Nope. That’s full grown.”

  “Something that small can kill me?”

  “Well, it can hurt you really bad, but it probably won’t kill you. We have black widow spiders and rattlesnakes here, too, though. They could kill you.”

  “Huh.”

  I think of those microscopic things that killed so many soldiers in Southeast Asia. The parasites and bacteria and malaria. I decide if I was going to go, I’d want to be eaten by a tiger or something. At least I would know it was coming.

  Ten minutes later, as I stare at a plate of so-called lasagna that once had freezer burn so bad that the top layer of noodles is still brittle and covered in a white film, I decide to share my I-just-saw-my-first-scorpion story, and though Dave told me it couldn’t kill me, I say, “Seriously. I’d rather be eaten by a tiger than killed by something so small.”

  “See?” Aunt Jodi says to Mom. “You need to take him to see someone.”

  “I’m sitting right here,” I say. “I can hear you.”

  “Good. Maybe you’ll stop scaring your mother with talk of suicide.”

  I laugh. I laugh because what else is there to do? I can’t keep up with Aunt Jodi’s freaky mood swings. I don’t know when I’m allowed to joke or be sarcastic. Okay, well, no. I know today I am not allowed. To joke. About being eaten by a tiger.

  Too late.

  Jodi looks horrified that I’m laughing.

  “Lucky, stop laughing,” Mom says, monotone.

  I stop laughing and go back to frowning. I reach up and press on my scab where it itches the most. The urge to pick it is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Mom tells me that I will probably have a scar anyway but that if I pick, half of my face will look blotchy, and I decide I’m weird enough already without being blotchy.

  “I thought it was a funny joke, Luck,” Uncle Dave says.

  Jodi shoots him a look.

  “What? A kid can’t joke? One minute you tell him to be happy, and the minute he does, you say it’s a sign that he’s nuts? Sheesh. Make up your mind,” he says. The ants form a rotating halo above his head. They sing that high-pitched note that angels sing.

  I take my first Arizona night walk after dinner. The temperature is bearable. I couldn’t convince Mom to come with me, but I’m glad. She was happy enough reading her book, and I need time alone after that dinner conversation from hell.

  Everything street-side in this development is well lit. The only shadows exist close to homes, under cars and around the occasional tree or cactus display. I walk until I feel I’ve gone around too many corners, then turn back so I won’t get lost, and then explore a different direction. I do this until I have walked three cul-de-sacs, and decide that I am too boring to live. The ants say: You really are a mama’s boy, Linderman. I check my watch, and it’s only been fifteen minutes.

  I decide to be more exciting, and I walk without caring if I get lost. After another fifteen minutes, I am back on the road behind Jodi and Dave’s house.

  That’s where I see the ninja.

  She’s nearly invisible, all in black, moving through the pebbled back-lawn areas parallel to me, from one little shadow to another, stopping occasionally to look behind her to check if she’s being followed. When she turns her head, hair—so long and straight that it touches the asphalt when she’s crouched down—flares out like a skirt would if she were spinning.

  I slow my pace so I can see her next move. She darts from behind a parked SUV to the corner of the next house and then disappears behind it.

  I slow more. I stop. I wait for her to appear again on the other side of the house, but she is gone.

  RESCUE MISSION #104—JUNGLE NINJAS

  I am in the dark jungle, hiding behind a tree. I have a dozen burning-hot, greasy chicken nuggets in my pockets. I can feel the grease burning my thighs. Granddad is sitting under a small lean-to inside the camp perimeter. The gate is open.

  After I’ve been there a few minutes, Granddad whispers, “You can come out now, Lucky. Frankie is sleeping.”

  I sit on the muddy ground with him and offer him the nuggets. I don’t tell him that they are probably made out of chicken’s assholes. I watch him eat them slowly—not at all like you’d think a starving man would eat. I put one in my mouth and chew it about a hundred times before my throat opens enough to swallow it.

  In the jungle outside this little camp, there is movement. There always is. Birds moving at night. Snakes. Rats. Predators. Prey.

  “Don’t worry about them,” he says. “They’re probably running food or water or ammo. Probably digging tunnels right here under us. They’re like ninjas.”

  Doesn’t he know the war is over?

  I hand him another chicken nugget and he eats it. “I hope you’re eating better than this at home, Luck.”

  I want to tell him about how Nader beat me up again. I want to tell him about how Aunt Jodi thinks I should take Prozac. I want to tell him about the ants because I know he’d understand. He’s got Frankie. I’ve got Nader. Maybe he even sees ants, too.

  Right then I hear the leaves around me shuffle, and I see the vague outline of a person crouched down and darting through shadows of the jungle, her long, straight hair swaying behind her as she runs.

  I swing my M16 into forward position and tell Granddad to get up and follow me. I eye Frankie, the sleeping guard. Personally, I want to shoot Frankie so he can’t come looking for us, but I know Granddad has some weird bond with the guy, so this time I’m just going to sneak by while he’s sleeping.

  I do a quick limb check on Granddad, and he has every single one, so he’s able to walk behind me as we navigate the path to our freedom.

  We walk for an hour until I hear talking up ahead. We duck into the brush and listen. After a few minutes of silence, we continue on. Right into an ambush.

  Two ninja-like soldiers in pajamas like Granddad’s come at us from behind. One takes Granddad down. Before the other one can floor me, I turn the M16 around and plunge the bayonet right into his skinny little torso.

  His friend has his arm around Granddad’s throat. I realize neither man was armed with anything but themselves. He’s saying something to me in some Asian language. I can’t tell what it is. I don’t care. I stab the bayonet into the nearest enemy body part—his leg—until he lets go of Granddad, and I tell him he can run away if he wants.

  As I pull the rifle up to my shoulder to shoot him in the back, Granddad says, “Don’t.”

  I say, “Why not? He was gonna kill you.”

  “But he didn’t.”

  I look at him and shake my head. “I don’t get it. How am I supposed to rescue you if you won’t let me?”

  • • •

  Mom is snoring, which I don’t think I’ve ever heard before. It’s kinda cute. And then I realize that there are cold, greasy chicken nuggets in my bed. I’m holding one, too. I must have squeezed it during my fight with the ninjas because it’s complete mush now. I collect the nuggets and take them to the bathroom and flush.

  THE SEVENTH THING YOU NEED TO KNOW—JODI GETS WEIRDER ON WEEKENDS

  Dave and I hang out all day in the garage. Apparently, this is what normal men do on Saturdays. He washes his car in the driveway and moves a few things around in the garage for a while and then washes Jodi’s car. He has a few boxes he’s filling with junk he doesn’t want anymore—books, beer steins and cassette tapes he says are from college. I’m doing a few fly lifts with his dumbbells now. I had to take the weight down, but at least I’m not using the hot-pink ones anymore.

  “Can I ask you something?” he says.

  “Sure.”

  “Remember when you told me that you don’t think about girls?”<
br />
  “I didn’t say that,” I say. “I said they’re not into me. I think about girls all the time.”

  “You’re right. Sorry. So—don’t you think they’d notice you more if you smiled and seemed happier?”

  “Girls are a pain,” I say. “All they do is rag on each other and gossip.”

  He laughs. “Not all of them.”

  I don’t feel like getting into it, so I keep lifting and counting.

  He sits down on the bench and stares across the garage for a minute or so and then says, “Your mom is worried about you, Lucky. She wants me to find out if you’re okay. I mean, she doesn’t think you’re ready to jump off a cliff or anything, but she’s your mom, you know? She has a lot on her plate right now.”

  “Yeah.”

  “So?”

  “So what?”

  “Are you okay?”

  I look up and keep my mouth straight. “I’m as okay as I can be, considering I live with my parents.”

  “Yeah. I remember not liking my parents at your age, too.”

  “I like them, but I wish they did their job, you know?”

  He shakes his head and chews on his lower lip and looks at me, which tells me he doesn’t get it at all.

  “My dad won’t talk about anything. I mean, he’ll talk about food, but at home if we try to talk about anything real, he just gets up and walks away.”

  “I never saw your dad walk out on any conversation any time I knew him.”

  “Yeah. In front of other people, he’s perfect. But really, he storms out more now than he ever did.”

  Uncle Dave sighs. “Huh. Why do you think that is?”

  “I dunno. Probably because he’s still messed up by what happened to his dad. I mean, that’s obvious, right?” I point to my POW/MIA shirt.

  “I don’t know, Luck. I get that he’s messed up, but I’m thinking this is more about the shit that’s going on at school. With this kid. When you’re a parent, you have to deal with more serious shit as your kids get older. I think he’s not sure what to do. He didn’t have a dad to show him how it’s done, you know?”

  “Yeah, but I can’t see why that’s my problem and not his. I mean, it was their choice to have a kid. He should step up.”

  Dave nods and shifts his lips around. “So what about your mom?” he asks.

  “She basically does what Dad tells her to. He’s not really all that nice to her, either. I mean, when it comes to me. I think they were probably fine before I was born,” I say.

  “Do you want me to talk to her?” he finally says.

  “No. We have an understanding.”

  “So…”

  “So what?”

  “Do you want me to talk to your dad about it?”

  “I don’t want you to talk to anyone about it. You asked me why I don’t smile and I told you.” Of course, this is not the real reason. The ants say: You’re a liar, Lucky Linderman. Tell him about the locker room. About what Nader does to snitches.

  “But I want to help.”

  “You are helping.”

  “Really?”

  “You’re helping me a lot more than anyone has so far.”

  I point to the bench. Even though I know I should wait until tomorrow to press again, I really just want to do a few reps. My chest is sore, but it makes me feel like I’m doing something. Something. Which is more than I’ve ever done before.

  On Sunday we are startled awake by Aunt Jodi zipping open the curtains and saying, “Time for church!”

  Mom says, “Not for us, it’s not,” and turns toward the wall.

  Jodi says, “Sorry, kiddo, anyone staying in this house goes to church on Sundays. Period.”

  I wonder which pill has made her like this. After just a few days, I know the blue ones make her weepy, and the white, diamond-shaped ones make her mellow. I wonder which one makes her a church freak, because up until now I wouldn’t have pegged her as someone who was so hard-core about Sunday mornings.

  Mom is sitting up now, glaring. “Don’t call me kiddo.”

  “Fine. Lori. Sis. Whatever-yer-name-is. We leave in an hour for church,” Jodi says in the scariest chirpy voice I’ve ever heard, and before she walks out the door, she straightens the hanging mirror and pretends to shine it a little with her forearm sleeve.

  Mom is boiling. This distracts me from the fact that I’m boiling, too, because when Jodi barged in, I turned my head too quickly and left the corner part of my aloe-coated Ohio scab on my pillowcase. I get up and inspect it in the mirror. It’s now the exact shape of West Virginia. (Which means the scab left on my pillow case is a slice from Toledo to Cincinnati, straight through Dayton.)

  “You okay?” I ask as I press a tissue to the bleeding ex-Ohio.

  “Yeah, I guess,” Mom says. “You go ahead and take a shower. I’m swimming first because my God lives in the pool.”

  After my shower I realize that unless I plan on wearing a pair of camouflage combat shorts, then I’m screwed for church pants. Jodi told me that everything in Arizona is casual, but somehow I doubt she meant going to church dressed like a walking army-navy store.

  I figure Dave might have something around that would fit me, so I put on a plain T-shirt, wrap my bottom half in a fluffy white towel and go in search of decent pants.

  I find Jodi in the kitchen. “Do you think Uncle Dave has any old dress pants that might be close to my size?”

  She is stunned. I figure she’s happy I’m showered and getting ready to go to church. I figure she’s proud that I’ve come to ask for more respectable clothing. Problem is, I’ve just caught her downing a handful of pills. A big handful. More than ten. I’m guessing they were pills she shouldn’t be taking, because she’s staring at me still, ten seconds later, trying to figure out what to do.

  “Dave!” she yells—like, yells. And then she shields her eyes from me, as if I’m standing here naked. She overreacts so much that I peek down to make sure Mr. Lucky isn’t poking out or anything, but of course he’s not. I’m wrapped in two layers of towel.

  Uncle Dave shows up, and she says, “I think Lucky was just about to show me his… his… penis!” She breathes dramatically, simulating hyperventilation, with her hand (the one that just tossed all those little pills into her throat) on her chest.

  I look at Dave and shrug. “I don’t have any nice pants. I figured you might have something that fits me.”

  While we’re digging through his closet, he asks, “You weren’t really going to flash my wife, were you?”

  “Uh, no way,” I say. “Why would I do that?”

  “Yeah. I know,” he says as he finds a pair of slacks that are too long but small enough to nearly fit my waist. “She’s got a heckuvan imagination.” The ants say: Imagination? The woman is bat-shit crazy.

  I’m not sure now is the time to say this, because I’ve only been here five days, but I say it anyway. “I worry about the pills.”

  He nods, still eyeing up the pants. “Yeah.”

  “Belt?” I ask.

  He finds a belt and gives it to me.

  Mom walks into the guest room just as I’m looping the belt. “That was nice of you to make the effort, Lucky. More than I can do.”

  We drive to church in Jodi’s SUV, and the vibes are weird. Dave isn’t saying anything, as if he’s being forced into this like we are. A few times Mom and Dave meet eyes while Jodi talks about the Grand Canyon. It’s as if they have sibling ESP, because I can tell they’re communicating without saying a word. I’ve noticed that when they’re in the same room, they don’t talk much, but they exchange these looks. Being an only child, I have no idea what they’re saying or what it’s like, but it looks cool.

  The church is a big, open warehouse with pews. It’s like no church I’ve ever been to before. It feels like Wal-Mart or something. Not to say it’s not pretty. It is. The windows are huge and stained glass, and the walls have tapestries and paintings and sconce lights. The pews are uncomfortable. We manage to squeeze into one abo
ut midway up the aisle, and while Jodi talks to people around her, Mom, Dave and I sit and leaf through the little programs we picked up at the door. Jodi doesn’t introduce us or even acknowledge to these church friends that we’re her guests. She’s high-energy, like maybe those pills I caught her eating this morning were speed or something.

  Eventually the music starts, and the pastor gets up and starts to talk, and Mom and I slouch in the pew and endure it. The local news about deaths and illnesses of members of the congregation is interesting. The youth chat—about abstinence and how rap music promotes swearing—is okay. But the scripture goes on forever. I start to daydream. One minute I’m staring at the stained glass, and the next minute I’m in the jungle.

  RESCUE MISSION #105—BAITING THE TRAP

  I am with Jodi, Dave and Mom. Mom has on a full ninja suit—all black and tight-fitting. She has a mask on, too, so only her eyes show. Jodi is fatter here—the jungle mocks her. She can’t walk without tripping, because she can’t see her feet. She is being eaten alive by mosquitoes and other flying and biting insects. She has on her typical Arizona outfit—shorts and a tank top. Not jungle-friendly.

  She curses and slaps at mosquitoes on her arms. “Damn! I should have brought that Avon stuff!”

  Mom darts behind a tree and reaches into her ninja suit, produces the Avon stuff and hands it to Jodi, who slops it onto her arms.

  Dave is in front with me. We are scouting. With each step I look down to avoid booby traps, and then I look up, waiting for Granddad to appear on a tree branch or swing in on a vine.

  But so far there is no evidence of a camp or Granddad anywhere.

  Jodi yells, “Wait up!” and we all shush her.

  Dave continues to walk ahead, crouched down. Then he stops and points. I catch up and look. We’ve found it. The main camp. We drop to the ground.

  “What’s the plan?” Dave asks.

  I have no plan. I’ve been rescuing Granddad for eight years, and still I have no real idea of a plan.

  “I say we use Jodi as bait,” I suggest.

 
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