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Liv heard the town-hall bell gong seven times. Everyone knew it was ten minutes slow, which meant twenty minutes until school started. Plenty of time. She stepped off Hamilton Avenue, out of the shadow of the old J. C. Penney building and into the sun-splash of Washington Street. She was joined by ten or fifteen other morning plodders, students bearing packs of schoolwork and adults feeding meters before keying open Dittman’s Pharmacy, Bob’s Shoe Barn, or First American Bank.
A flagpole stood at the northeast corner of the square. By habit, Liv knocked on it as she passed. She heard the flag snap like wet laundry, but for once did not look up at it, for she was a freshman and had been walking this route for weeks now, and sensed right off something awry at the southern edge of the town square. Everyone else had stopped to look as well. That Liv could only see the backs of heads—no faces—was itself unsettling.
A person had entered the square from the center of Jackson Street, a trajectory that only made sense if you’d emerged from the alley between Wilson Hardware and McAllister’s Insurance, and why would you do that? Also strange: The person was pink. You didn’t wear pink that early on a Tuesday—not in Bloughton, Iowa, population seven thousand, you didn’t.
The person was pink because the person was naked.
He was a man, evident from how his genitals jounced with each lurching step. Walkers stopped walking. Schedules were forgotten. No one ran away, but neither did anyone run toward. The naked man’s presence was so jarring amid the sweet birdsong and swishing trees that it was difficult to accept. Only Liv headed for him. Already she could feel in her veins the thrush of urgency.
By the time Liv had trampled through flowers and skidded to a stop in the dewy lawn ten feet from the man, one onlooker had screamed, as if hoping the noise might assure the lot of them they hadn’t all gone mad. It worked: People moved. They were Iowans, luckless farmers, withstanders of bankruptcies, witnesses of machine accidents. They knew how to absorb shocks. A mustached guy approached the naked man. A woman stammered to a 911 dispatcher on her phone. An older gent limped up with a cane, coat outstretched, offering to cover the man’s nudity.
The old gent succeeded on his third try, the first two times the coat sliding from the man’s convulsing shoulders. It gave time for all present to memorize details that, over the next three years, would become local legend.
There was no indication why the man was naked. His chest was dirty. His calves were crisscrossed with underbrush scratches. His feet should have been bleeding, from rocks if not alleyway glass, except that he wore black dress socks—his only item of clothing. A fantastic detail for sure, though itself not enough to guarantee infamy; a few years back, a football play in neighboring Monroeville had been whistled dead when a young man, drunk and dared, had streaked the length of the field, and a week later it was old news.
What held everyone breathless was the man’s behavior. His eyes were fish-wide, defenseless against both sun and cottonwood fluff. He jerked about as if being encircled by a threatening mob. Strands of spit swayed from his bottom lip. His upper lip curled back to reveal clenched teeth. Whines escaped, broken by tongue-tangled babbles. Finally, there was his knee-juddering stagger, as if the planet were fracturing beneath his socked feet. Liv felt it too, the loss of footing. There was no stabilizing flagpole within her reach.
“It’s Mr. Fleming,” someone said.
Had it come from a schoolgirl? The old guy with the coat? Bob of Bob’s Shoe Barn? Or was it all of them, a choir of condemnation, shaming Liv for not making the identification herself? Whatever had led Lee Fleming to this state of degradation, she should have known about it, because Lee Fleming, in addition to being Bloughton High’s senior English teacher for twenty-five years, and the director of every school play, speech competition, and community theater production for the past three decades, was also Liv’s dad.
Her intestines knotted. She dropped to her knees and felt the dew soak through her leggings. The person closest to her in the world had been turned inside out. The flagpole was clanging again. No, it was her heart, transformed into a hammer, driving her into the ground.
Liv was, in fact, mortified she hadn’t recognized him first, though, in her defense, he was barely recognizable, stripped of his usual cardigan sweater, ironed slacks, and wire-frame glasses. Naked, he looked underdeveloped, even fetal. As the old man’s coat closed around him and Liv heard sirens from the direction of the hospital, her dad’s stabbing jabbers shifted to moist inhales and explosive, snotty sobs, noises louder and cruder than any she’d ever heard him make.
The actual event did not exceed five minutes. The hospital, like everything else in Bloughton, enjoyed a direct route to the town center, and an ambulance was the second thing to violate the square that day, rollicking over the curb and bouncing up the sidewalk, chewing up pretty green grass and ejecting two EMTs. They were all over Lee Fleming before Liv, still on her knees and struggling to breathe, could find the courage to reach him. They hoisted his forty-eight-year-old body of soft, but clenched, muscles onto a stretcher.
Certainly they would have beckoned Liv, the man’s only child, into the ambulance if they’d known she was there. The medics began administering to her dad before he was even strapped down, and the last thing Liv saw was his limbs thrashing, spittle geysering, all ten fingers pointing at his wet, matted chest hair.
They were the first words he’d managed.
The doors slammed, and the ambulance hopped the curb, surging the wrong way down Hamilton, its siren no match for the happy birds, its swirling red lights gulped up by the cheerful sun. Liv pivoted in the grass, knees muddying, and watched, thinking there was other biologic evidence here, the provable kind, that tied the raving, naked lunatic to the gasping, kneeling girl.
At least her dad was home, after four days missing.
Eight months and six days later, he would vanish forever.
Bone cracked against glass. Liv sucked air, wobbly, sick. She’d chased the ambulance and fought her way through the back doors, only for it to overturn when it took a corner too fast, and the sound was her bones, or her dad’s bones, shattering hypodermics. No—she was lying down, and it was wet. The dewy grass? No, the wet was sweat. Was she in bed? Yes. In bed. The dream again. That terrible memory, ending this time with a fictitious crash. The memory was never going to leave her alone.
The knock again, steady as a woodpecker’s. Right: It was Sunday. And not just any Sunday—the last Sunday before senior year began. She’d been waiting for this week for so long. Liv opened her eyes to the fiberglass ceiling panels her dad had installed eight years ago, once upon a time cloud white but now tawny with water damage. Orange was the closest color, given the quality of sun at that hour, which was, of course, seven in the morning. Her father’s hour—seven would always be her father’s hour.
For the third time, a hard knuckle against her window. The visitor’s shadow was cast across the same ceiling at which she stared, not that she needed the shadow to recognize Doug. All week, her excitement to begin her last year at Bloughton High had allowed her, deliciously, to forget the pains of the past. But Sunday always came; so did Doug; so did the memories.
“Doug.” She hated the whine in her voice. “Can’t you be late for once?”
“Love you, too,” Doug said from outside. “I’m going to steal some food, cool?”
Liv sat up and rubbed at the pillow grooves in her cheeks. Her tank top was soaked to her back. She grimaced, distraught like a child who’d wet the bed, and angry, too, for being unable to quit doing it. She peeled herself of damp clothes and kicked through the multicolored mess on her floor for sweatpants.
John, a mud-colored sheepdog mutt of advanced age, struggled to his feet and followed Liv through the house, his claws clicking across scratched hardwood, dull linoleum, and broken tile, and then through the front door. Across the skinny dirt road awaited a mundane panorama of nothing of note: undeveloped farmland stretched into the horizon, thin groves of overgrown trees, and just visible off to the east, a single hill topped with Major Dawkins’s former place.
The major had once uttered the only inspirational phrase Liv valued:
Be the tallest you can.
She spoke this charm to herself, attempting to draw her spine tall and straight, forcing the muscles of her torso to tighten and her eyes to open fully. Only after she’d built the best Liv she was going to get at this odious hour, she shifted her eyes left to the sight she knew would try its best to depress her.
Doug stood in the yard shoving an untoasted Pop-Tart into his face. The disheartening vision fit into the yard’s ambience: a cemetery of dead saplings her dad had planted that, since his disappearance, no one had bothered to nurse. The sunrise, by contrast, was a great one, an electric tangerine that coaxed feathered textures from silver clouds. Doug, however, stared at the dirt, as he always did, as if there was something with his neck that hindered looking upward at what the world had to offer.
“You could at least close the cabinets,” Liv said. “Every Sunday it looks like we were robbed.”
Doug shrugged. Crumbs clung to the greasy tendrils of his shoulder-length hair. John snuffled at the ground for bits.
“Aggie doesn’t mind,” he said. “If she was up, she’d say, Go hog wild, Doug.”
Doug called her mom Aggie and had called her father Lee, a familiarity no other friend of hers had achieved. Liv felt her annoyance soften. She looked where Doug looked, at the dirt, and kicked at an anthill.
“She’s never up, though, is she?” she asked.
Liv sighed, bothered by her early-morning urge to criticize Doug. She knew the kitchen cabinets at his house were empty. He didn’t eat meals, mostly surviving off trail mix he made from ingredients he bought in military bulk—almonds, peanuts, pine nuts, sunflower seeds, raisins, and dried cranberries. It was a trait he’d picked up from Liv’s dad in his final months. All day long, to the ridicule of classmates, Doug pulled feed from baggies he kept in the side pockets of the same army-green shorts he wore every day regardless of season. It didn’t help that he insisted on using the hikers’ term for trail mix, gorp, which was too close to dork for anyone to resist.
Doug didn’t react well to sympathy; he eyed it like a snake he hoped would slither away. In fact, he behaved in ways that invited scorn, as if more comfortable with that emotion. He got to school late, slept through obligations, forgot to shower for days on end. Yet he was never, ever late for their Sunday morning ritual. His fealty to it was a fist that squeezed her heart. She was afraid of what he’d do if she ended the ritual—which is what she wanted to do more than anything.
“You sure you want to do this?” It was as far as she dared. “We could go back inside. I can do better than Pop-Tarts.”
“Don’t be lazy,” he admonished. “You got the screwdriver?”
She held it up with the speed of an eye roll. He saluted the tool and indicated the clear plastic grocery bag tied to one of his belt loops. It was filled, as ever, with John’s poop, a week’s worth collected from the yard. Here it was, the day before her last year at Bloughton High, and this, ladies and gents, was her life: not blitzing through last-second school shopping with Monica and the gang, but perpetuating a fanaticism that, if anyone ever learned of it, would brand her as loony tunes as her dad. It meant everything to Doug, so she did it for him, in gratitude for the years when he’d been all she’d had.
She stowed the screwdriver in her pocket and set off for the backyard. She was tired and grumpy, but forced herself to smile; Monica said she’d read online that smiling actually forces your brain to be happier. Right then, something about the light reminded her of a walk she and Doug had taken when they were short enough to breeze beneath these same branches.
“Remember when we walked to the firehouse?” she asked.
“Those guys were jerks,” Doug said through his last bite of Pop-Tart.
The backyard was in shoddier shape than the front. The push mower had rotted where it had died, searing the grass with gasoline. The swing set’s collapse had contorted it into a briar of sharp steel. All over, there were piles. How else to say it? Piles of brick, piles of plank wood, piles of buckets. No one remembered why Lee had piled them. The grass had become shin-high bracken and knee-high sedge, a jungle gym from which ticks swung until they found John’s belly.
“They were perfectly nice firemen,” Liv said.
“They came at us with axes!”
“They were holding axes. They were firemen. Firemen hold axes. They just weren’t used to kids showing up with a list of demands.”
Doug chuckled. Now Liv’s forced smile became real. The firehouse visit was the kind of jaunt that had made knowing the younger Doug Monk such a thrill. Doug was the best kid to play with; he always arrived armed with multiple proposals of stuff to do, each so original they made their sleepy Iowa burg feel like a place where incredible things happened all the time.
All kids heard things—from their families, on the playground. Only Doug took rumors as dares. Liv, did you hear there was a barn on Sycamore where a guy built a “monster” from dead-animal parts? They say he lets people see it for a few bucks! Liv, did you hear about the guy who used to live above Fielder’s Auto? He robbed graves. You think we should sneak up there and see if we can find anything cool?
“There was a dude buying firecrackers from my dad once.” Doug spoke in the animated voice Liv alone in the world got to hear. “And he said he used to be a volunteer firefighter, and he swore the firehouse had a chunk of meteor.”
“I’m just saying,” Liv said, “who would even believe that? I didn’t think it could be real.”
“A meteor hitting Bluefeather Prison? Why wouldn’t that be real?”
Liv laughed, and the happy sound helped, now that they had waded halfway into the backyard. John held back. It was dangerous out there; his old master had taught him that. He whined, lay down by the door, and watched Liv, the closest thing he had now to a master, walk straight toward what he sensed was still a bad place.
What the homes at Bloughton’s outskirts lacked in stores, gas stations, and reliable cell coverage they made up for in real estate. The backyard was a third of a football field long, the back half of which was nearly vacant. In the far southeast corner of the backyard was Lee’s shed, a storage facility for gardening tools until the day he stumbled naked onto the town square. After that, he began to fill it with tools of a different kind.
The cobwebs over the shed’s door were as thick as boards.
Even Doug knew better than to talk about it. He leaned into good-mood joshing.
“And what did we learn that day?” he asked in the voice of a snooty professor.
“Firemen hate kids?”
“That they had the meteor! Right there in a glass case like the firecracker dude said!” He shook his head hard enough for his greasy whips of hair to sway. “Man, no one ever believes me about shit.”
A flimsy fence marked the southern border of the yard, though Lee had used wire cutters to expedite passage. Liv went first into the thicket, hoping her mood could survive it. It couldn’t. The coolness of the shade made her grinning lips go cold. Jokes and nostalgia might get them through this Sunday excursion, and the next, and the next, twelve more months before she escaped to college. Was letting this continue mercy or cowardice? Because each Sunday hurt her, which meant each Monday was spent building herself back into the Liv Fleming that Monica and the others expected.
“Speaking of firecrackers … Mr. Tooney, Angie Tooney’s dad? He came out Tuesday. I guess there’s some anniversary party? Anyway, Mr. Tooney definitely did his research because he was like, ‘Give me five girandolas, five roman candles, two chrysanthemums, two flying fish, and one giant peony.’ He had this envelope of cash he tried to give me before I even told him what I had in stock. He acted like he was buying coke. He wasn’t even listening to the safety instructions.”
There was one reason Bloughton didn’t wipe Doug’s family from its mind. Unless you wanted to truck your ass to the Missouri line, the Monks were it when it came to illegal fireworks. They were stored in a separate garage, the only building on the Monk property kept watertight, air-conditioned, locked, and free of critters, and because Doug’s dad set the prices, Doug had no room to haggle. It also meant he had no leeway to deny kids who forked over insults along with payment. Liv hadn’t been to Doug’s place in years and was glad. She couldn’t stomach the notion that the Fleming household had caught up to the Monks’.
“I think he was nervous because he had this little boy with him. I think he was worried the kid would say the wrong thing at the party and expose him as an illegal-fireworks-buying criminal and he’d end up serving life in prison, hard labor. People are so dumb.”
Fireworks sales were what kept the lights on and the toilet flushing. Doug’s dad, a trucker, touched down in Bloughton six or seven times a year to dole out truck-stop trinkets and drop off fireworks gathered from across the country. He’d stay for a couple of weeks before getting itchy for the road and his various girlfriends. Doug’s mom had never been in the picture. The only role model Doug had ever had was Lee Fleming. Now all he had was Lee’s memory. Liv carried the responsibility of that, which was why she was here, kicking through stickerbush at dawn.
“So the kid starts crying how he wants to see something explode, and Mr. Tooney definitely didn’t want this kid crying all day about it, so he asked if I could just shoot something off for an extra twenty. And I was like, ‘It’s two in the afternoon, man, you won’t be able to see anything,’ but he was practically begging. I didn’t want to burn good fireworks no one could see, but remember when I cleaned out my car?”
Two years of Sunday safaris had tramped a thin trail through the woods. Liv banked right at the dry gulley, circled a towering black ash, and ducked under a marquee of threaded branches, eyes squinted for the flash of metal that marked their first stop.
“I found a flare in the back seat. I didn’t know I had a flare. So I said, ‘Here, how about I shoot this?’ and Mr. Tooney said fine, and I did it, and we could even see it for a second. Pretty boring, but the kid liked it, and then they left, and I went back to my game, and then like an hour later I smell smoke and I look outside and there it was. A fire. You know that field of dry grass across the road? There’s this whole line of fire where I guess the flare went down. I almost shit.”
Liv looked over her shoulder at Doug. He was talking past gorp, grinning to his tale. Doug was on the short side, but not bad-looking, with a fox face and shoulder-length black hair so thick you couldn’t see scalp, not even when wind split it. In middle school he’d bought dumbbells at a garage sale and, in classic Doug fashion, committed to a workout routine of pointless rigor, developing tennis-ball biceps while ignoring every other muscle of his body. Today, and nearly every day, he wore a sleeveless T-shirt to show off his arms.
“I went out there to stomp it but it was too big and I only had flip-flops, so I had to call the fire department. I’m not even kidding. They asked what happened, and I couldn’t remember if I’d sold fireworks to any of them before, so I said I didn’t know. But I must’ve sold one of them something, because he covered up for me and said it was probably lightning. I spent the whole next day out there making sure there weren’t pieces of flare I had to hide. I don’t need the FBI on my ass. Now I’m out a flare and my flip-flops are melted. Fucking sucks, man.”
Doug pointed, his preposterous biceps flexing, as if Liv didn’t know exactly, precisely, down-to-the-square-foot where they were headed. She faced front again, though her eyes dragged behind. Looking upon this ugly metal contraption hidden in the woods was as close as she got to looking at the corpse of her father.
Copyright © 2020 by Daniel Kraus