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Everybody sees the ants, p.9
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       Everybody Sees the Ants, p.9

           A. S. King
 
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  He squints and cocks his head slightly to the right. “My God. Look at that.”

  “Weird, isn’t it?”

  We go back to lifting. I’m doing squats with his big dumbbells, and he’s benching. I say, “So you really think I should hit him back?”

  He finishes his press. “Depends.”

  “On what?”

  “You ever hit anyone before?”

  “We have one of those big punching bags in the gym at school. I hit that once.”

  “Is he big?” he asks.

  “Yeah. He’s a wrestler, too. He’d probably kill me.”

  “Or pin you to the ground in an act of homoerotic bliss.”

  I say, “Yeah, right.”

  “Can I tell you a secret?” he asks.

  I nod.

  “When I was in school, I was a bullying asshole just like that kid.”

  Not what I expected. I expected the opposite—a heart-to-heart between victims.

  “But the only reason I treated other kids like shit was because I was jealous of them.” He shakes his head. “I didn’t have the guts to be independent or smart. I was too scared to do anything different, so I beat up on the kids who had guts. Sounds pretty pathetic, doesn’t it?”

  “Yeah.”

  “Remember that when you see that guy again. He’s gutless. He only picks on you because he’s jealous.” I nod at this, but I can’t figure out what Nader McMillan would be jealous about. The ants say: Certainly not your ability to cook basmati rice. Frankly, it was starchy and too sticky.

  I make him spot me for ten more reps, and I can feel the scab crack a bit with my exertion, but I don’t care. Today made me feel awesome. I cooked a kick-ass dinner and lifted fifty-five pounds thirty times. I celebrate by going night swimming.

  I dive to the bottom of the deep end and I smile—a real smile, not a fake-for-Jodi-smile—for the first time in six months. When I do this, it makes me laugh underwater, and an eruption of bubbles races me to the surface.

  I dry off and lie on a lounge chair at the side of the pool. I stay completely still so the motion-sensor light goes off.

  The stars glow brighter and it’s beautiful. I hear kids a few houses away talking. I hear TV intro music. I hear an occasional car drive around the block, and the background hum of the highway that leads to town. I focus on the common area behind the block of homes, where all the scrubby backyards meet, and I see a group of shadows moving with lit cigarettes. I squint and I see teenagers holding hands and kissing and doing the stuff normal teenagers do.

  When they’re gone and I’m about to get up, I see her again—the shadow with the long, swaying hair. She’s scurrying through the landscape like a trained soldier.

  I sit up without thinking, and the bright spotlight goes on, reflects off the pool and blinds me.

  RESCUE MISSION #106—TIGER INTERROGATION

  I’m strapped to a chair, and two blinding lights are in my face.

  “Where is she, Lindo-man?”

  Something punches me. My mouth is full of hair. I can barely breathe.

  “You tell us where she is, and we let you see your grandfather,” the voice says.

  I squint and see it is Frankie, the guard from Granddad’s prison camp, but then he’s a tiger. A beautiful orange-and-black-striped tiger. His coat is so shiny and perfect I want to reach out and pet him. His jowls are huge and house teeth so big I can’t look away. This is, without a doubt, the most stunning creature I have ever seen.

  “You like the taste of that, Lindo-man? There’s more where that came from.”

  He holds up another clawful of hair. It’s long, straight and perfect. It sways.

  I spit the hair out of my mouth and look around the room. We’re alone—just the tiger and me.

  “I don’t know where she is,” I say.

  The tiger laughs. “Why you protecting her? She enemy! She eat you! She worse than us!”

  “She’s not the enemy, dipshit. You’re the fucking enemy,” I say. Behind my back I am trying to undo the loose knot in the leather strapping they have used to tie me to the chair. I have my thumb in the knot now. Shouldn’t be much longer.

  “Dipshit?” The tiger backhands me and nearly knocks me and the chair over. In the process he gives me a scratch across my forehead, and I’m pretty sure I dislocated my thumb from the force. I coax the thumb out from the knot and wiggle my wrists. Looser. Looser.

  I lunge at the tiger before he knows I’m free, and I wrap the leather strap around his neck and pull and twist until he can’t breathe anymore. I straddle him and pull for what seems like five whole minutes, and even while he dies and his eyes roll back and he pisses on the concrete floor and his huge pink tongue rolls out, he is still beautiful—and I feel bad for having to kill him.

  When I’m sure he’s dead, I get up and take a pistol from a table by the door and make sure it’s loaded. I look in the drawer of the same table and find an extra clip, and I bring it with me. I have no idea what’s outside the door, so I consider this a search and destroy from the minute I get into the hall.

  It’s empty. A long hallway lit by three tiny lightbulbs.

  “Granddad!” I yell. I don’t give a shit if they hear me. I’ll kill them all.

  “Lucky!”

  I run toward the voice. He says it again. “Lucky!” I’m closer.

  The end of the hallway is dark. I’ve got my pistol aimed at the final door.

  “Lucky!”

  I kick it open and scour the room with my weapon, and there is no one except Granddad, tied the same way I was, with a leather strap, to a chair. He is missing his left forearm, so they tied him at his armpits.

  “Oh, thank God you’re alive,” he says as I untie him.

  I ponder this. Thank God I’m alive? Really?

  “I killed the tiger,” I say. “I’m sorry.”

  He says, “Sometimes we have to do ugly things.”

  I take him by the right hand and pull him out into the hall. “Stay close,” I say. “I’m getting you out of here.”

  “Your head is bleeding.” He leans down and rips off a strip of his pajamas. I stop and tie it around my head.

  I run, crouched, to the opposite end of the hallway, where the exit door is. I open the door slowly and peek out. There is no one. No vehicles. No nothing. It looks a little like the abandoned warehouse down the road from the Freddy pool. I point in the direction of a flying American flag—the flag that flies over by the pavilion at the pool. “This is it!” I say. “We’re home!”

  I look behind me to see him—freed. But he is not there. I turn in circles. He’s gone.

  “Dammit!”

  • • •

  I say this out loud and wake up both of us—me and Mom. She groans and turns over. I go to do the same but instinctively reach up, where the black headband Granddad just gave me is still tied around my head.

  “Dammit!” I whisper again. I nearly had him.

  THE EIGHTH THING YOU NEED TO KNOW—GINNY CLEMENS

  We’ve agreed that today is for making Jodi’s pool area a happier place. Right now it looks like the one room of the house where no one goes. Because it is. The paint is chipped, and the patio has gaps and cracks and crooked spots that need to be smoothed. Before he left for work, Dave helped me carry all the extra bags of pebbles out there so we can make the little cactus area pretty again.

  The scrambled eggs I make for breakfast taste so nice that Jodi eats Mom’s portion while Mom does short laps in the pool. “And all you put in here was salt and pepper?” Jodi asks.

  “Yep.” I fake-smile at her. I fake-smile pretty much every time I’m near Jodi, even though it hurts my now cracked and peeling cheek, because I can’t tell what she’ll do or say next.

  “Who’d have thought it was so easy?” she says. “They’re delicious.”

  An hour later Mom has scoured the scum line along the pool gutter and is fixing the small garden areas with a tattered exercise mat under her knees. Jodi is scrubb
ing down the dusty lounge chairs with a blue scrub brush, and I’m filling holes in the patio area with dyed cement.

  As I near the side of the garage to mix a little more cement, I overhear Aunt Jodi talking to Mom about me. She says, “He’s so, he’s just so, uh, strange! I mean, what fifteen-year-old boy cooks? He’s not normal. And he has that look on his face! It’s like he’s forcing a smile or something,” she says, as if this is the number one problem—what my face looks like. “I really think he’s going to hurt himself, Lori. And you never know—all these school shootings… he might decide not to go alone.”

  Only two hours earlier she was telling me how great I was because I could cook eggs. Now my egg-making means I’m a homicidal maniac. Now I might wipe out random people at a mall because I don’t smile enough. Why are the adults in my life so determined to bring me down when I’m feeling good?

  I find myself thinking that it would be nice to be able to fix my life the way I’m fixing the patio. I wonder, is there enough terracotta-colored cement to fill the hole where my father should be? Or where my mother’s spine should be? Or where my guts should be?

  I think back to the last time I told Dad about Nader and what he said. “Son, there will always be bullies in your life. Some people just don’t know how to act.”

  Always? I know this sounds totally stupid, but sometimes I really can’t see the point in living if I will always have to deal with this crap. I know I will have better times in my life, and I might even make myself into someone important, but if the whole time I have to deal with assholes, then what’s the point?

  I know if I said this out loud, Aunt Jodi would call an ambulance or something, but instead of shutting me up over it, why can’t they just answer me?

  I think it’s because they feel bad for not making it fair. Rather than actually fix it, they freak out on kids who say things like, “I’d rather suck truck fumes than go through one more day of this place.”

  Hasn’t everyone said something like that at least once? And really—I would rather suck truck fumes than deal with this sort of shit forever. Mom says that Nader is a loser who will grow up to be a loser and that I’ll understand when I’m forty. But I want to understand now.

  For dinner we eat frozen enchiladas that aren’t half bad. Mine has rogue jalapeños in it, but I deal. I chew, I sweat, I wash them back with water. I am in serious need of a walk when I’m done rinsing the dishes.

  I wear my earphones and rock out tonight while I walk. It’s nine thirty and it’s still a harsh hundred degrees. As I round the last corner, I feel a tug on my arm. I’m startled out of my walking trance and turn off the music with my thumb.

  It’s her. My ninja.

  “Are you doing anything?” she asks.

  I don’t know what to say, so I say, “Just walking.”

  “What happened to your face?”

  “Nothing.” Dumbass. It’s pretty obvious that something happened to my face. I just don’t know what else to say.

  “You get beat up?”

  “Yeah, kinda.”

  “I heard from my mom that you’re staying with Jodi and Dave because your mom left your dad.”

  “Yeah, I guess that’s part of it. Not all of it.”

  “She said you’re from Kentucky or something.”

  “Pennsylvania.”

  “Oh.” Silence. I’m staring at her as if she’s just beamed down from space. My throat closes up a little bit because it knows if I talk, I will say something that will make her hate me or notice I am not in her league. Though I guess that’s pretty obvious already. “How old are you?” she asks.

  “Fifteen. Almost sixteen,” I say, even though it’s a lie. I’m nine months from sixteen. “You?”

  “Seventeen.”

  “Cool,” I say.

  “So if it’s not all about your mom leaving your dad, then why are you here?”

  “Well…” I blush. I feel like a complete sissy. “I dunno. I got beat up by this kid who won’t leave me alone, and my mom was sick of ‘taking it,’ whatever that means.” I put air quotes around taking it.

  I realize that we’re now walking toward a darkened gap between two houses. “You’re not an asshole or anything, are you?” she asks.

  “Uh—no?”

  “You don’t sound sure.”

  “I guess I’m not,” I say, completely blown away by how crazy this is. How beautiful she is.

  “Come with me,” she says, and runs between two houses and across the road. I follow her. She is dressed all in black with a light, long-sleeve hoodie on top, and as she runs, the hood falls to her neck and her hair escapes. She cuts between two more houses, past a barking set of dogs, and then jumps a three-foot-high wall like a gazelle. Her hair jumps with her, a wave of silk.

  We reach a playground, and she sits on a swing. She has to move her hair or else she will sit on it. I reach the swings and sit on the one next to her and catch my breath. By this time she has a cigarette in her mouth and is lighting it with a match. We’re sitting there, her smoking, me watching her smoke, and it’s too quiet, so I do what I’ve done my whole life when it’s too quiet. I say something really stupid.

  “You shouldn’t smoke.”

  She sneers at me. “You shouldn’t lie about not being an asshole.”

  “I didn’t mean it that way. I just. I meant that—uh—you don’t seem like a smoker to me.”

  “It’s how I rebel,” she says. “You’d do it, too, if you were me.”

  “Huh,” I grunt. I cannot, for the life of me, figure out what the world’s most awesome and beautiful ninja girl would have to rebel against.

  “So why’d you come all the way out here? Why not some relatives in Kentucky or something?”

  I can feel myself trusting her too much. I try to keep my mouth shut because the ants are telling me: Stay safe, Lucky Linderman. Keep your mouth shut. But I talk anyway. “My mother is a squid, so we had to come here because Dave and Jodi have a pool, and my mother has to swim several hours a day or else, as a squid, she will die. My father had to stay in Pennsylvania because he is a turtle and can’t face anything other than boneless chicken breasts and organic vegetables.”

  My ninja is smiling at me. “Your mom is a squid?”

  “Psychologically, yes.”

  “And your dad is a turtle.”

  “Right.”

  “What does that make you?” she asks.

  “I don’t know yet.”

  She takes a long drag on her cigarette. “You’re interesting,” she says.

  “Thanks,” I say, because I don’t know what else to say. Because I’m too busy staring at her perky, little upturned nose and the silhouette of her lips as they wrap themselves around the filter end of her cigarette.

  “Will they miss you if I take you with me?” she asks.

  “What?”

  “Can you come out tonight with me?”

  “When will I be home?” The ants bury their faces in their hands. A beautiful seventeen-year-old girl wants to take me somewhere, and this is the best I can come up with?

  “Before midnight, Cinderella.”

  “Where are we going?” The ants say: Wasn’t your first question dumb enough, Linderman? Sheesh. You’re a real buzz kill.

  “Rehearsal.”

  “Oh,” I say.

  She answers, “How do you feel about vaginas?”

  I stare at her and rehear that question about seven times. How do you feel about vaginas? I hear a car coming down the road toward the playground and distract myself from the question because I have no idea how to answer it.

  “Well?” she asks.

  “Well—I like them, of course,” I say.

  “Them? You mean vaginas?”

  “Yeah.”

  “So if you like them, why can’t you say it?”

  “I just did.”

  “I mean the word. Vagina. You know?”

  I am now sweating. It’s so bad I feel sweat dripping down the back of my arm.
I think the one and only time I ever said the word vagina was in health class in eighth grade. As in: What is the name of the birth canal?

  She’s right in my face, blowing smoke while she talks. “Vagina! Vagina! My God, what is so wrong with that word? It’s just a body part! Can you say tonsils? Can you say elbow?”

  I see the car parking in the playground lot, and I feel like something bad is going to happen. I don’t know what to say to Ninja Girl. Frankly, I’m a little scared of her. She’s ranting now. Pacing.

  “Every five minutes on TV, I have to hear about erections that last more than four hours, and yet nobody can say the word vagina! It’s crazy!”

  I see the car doors open, one by one. I imagine four Naders. “Shit,” I say.

  “Shit? Why ‘shit’?”

  “Maybe we should get out of here,” I warn.

  “Why?”

  “Those guys are getting out of their car, man.”

  She laughs. It comes from her throat. It’s deep and sexy. “Those guys”—she places finger quotes around the word—“are my friends.”

  “Oh.” I relax. “Good.”

  “So are you going to say it?”

  “What?”

  “Vagina.”

  “Oh. Sure,” I say. “Vagina.”

  She grins and claps her palms together quickly, as if she’s just won a round on a game show or something. This is the exact moment I realize we haven’t traded names.

  “What’s your name again?” I ask.

  “Ginny. You?”

  “Lucky.”

  “Seriously?”

  I nod. She laughs, grabs me by the POW/MIA T-shirt and says to her approaching friends, “Hey, look, guys! I just got Lucky!”

  Four minutes later I am squished into a car with five girls. Three of them have crew cuts, so I thought they were guys at first, which I think I should keep to myself. Ginny is next to me, and I can feel the heat of her leg through my combat shorts. This is not the moment to think about her naked. And yet, I do.

  So I am squished into a car with five girls—three of whom have crew cuts—and I now have a boner. The ants say: Jesus, Lucky Linderman. Can’t you control that thing?

 
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