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Alex Keegan

Ballistics

A set of car keys, fat as a grenade, is arching towards your eyeball. The tip of one key, v-shaped will precisely pierce the dark core of your eye. You're not yet two years old but this won't protect you. You are not old enough to understand that these keys, thrown in anger, began their journey a year before you were born, that maybe, a psychiatrist will say, they began even further back when a mother left a father, or further back than this, when a mining foreman, bitter, too bad for drink, strapped his wayward son.

You don't yet know the word key, but you know car and you know picnic. This is where you are now, out in the soft English countryside, and the sun shines, and down there is a clear river and over there moo-cows, and you have a mummy and a daddy. One day you will marry a much older man, a man with a criminal record for violence, who shaves his head brutishly short, who has his country's emblem tattooed on his chest, but nothing, nothing of this exists yet, not even this next moment, the long seconds when you look into the air, to the brightness. It's blue, and the black bird fills your view and then something happens.

Your father might explain, if he could speak; he would be sorry; but if he knew this was going to happen, then he wouldn't have thrown the keys. If your mother had known she wouldn't have insisted, she wouldn't have hissed the keys! at your father. You don't know keys but you know car, your car is big and gold and you've heard the rude words your daddy shouts sometimes, the anger between grown-ups. You don't know the word anger though, and you wouldn't say fuck-you like daddy does now, and you would have no idea about letting mistakes pass by and you wouldn't understand a line of poetry, "she grinds my eyes with answers far too short".

It's sunny. You're nearly two. You look up and the sky is blue and you are having a picnic and your mummy is taking you down to the river but the car isn't locked and mummy and daddy are angry.

You look up; you don't know the science of ballistics, you don't know the word. By the time you will be old enough, you'll think it refers to guns and bullets but here, correctly, it refers to objects moving through space, to initial velocities, height, direction, the exact, titrated amount of hate administered, momentum, friction of the air, the earth spinning.

You don't know yet about what happens to your father as he releases the keys, how his self-disgust spews out from him bare milliseconds ahead of realisation. You don't know, and he will never explain, how he knew some-thing was being done here, not happening, that physics was a lie, that God was quantum mechanics, that there was no uncertainty involved.

One day, the week he will try to drown himself, he'll say, "I could stand someone against a wall and throw keys at them and miss. I could try all day. That was meant to happen, meant to. I was fifty feet away, just pissed off with my wife. It was predestined. All I did was throw her the keys."

You don't know what predestiny is. If you tried to say it you would lisp and amuse your parents. You merely look up, innocent.

One night, a long time from now, because your father failed to breathe in water once, couldn't make himself do it, on a moonlit night that to his family doesn't exist, you will be weepy, very drunk, and you'll say, "How can you not remember?" and he will be confused and you will say, "Mam had gone back home and when you drove us, you promised me you'd give me away, you'd take my arm, walk me down to the altar, give me away."

And he, drunk, but not as drunk as you, will argue. He will make you so sad. He will only be arguing that he can't remember the incident, the drive in the car, but you will think he doesn't want to be your father. He forgets many things or puts the wrong things together. He's not sure why, but sometimes he worries for his sanity, he sees a bright blue day, his wife's hand raised to catch a set of car keys.

You will look up, see a child born thirty years before you.

Your mother will raise her hand. Her face will be a little red but it will not be in view. Her teeth will show because she will be muttering, cursing. Your mother will reach up to catch the keys. She will be angry. At the last moment she will pull her hand away. She has thought she might hurt herself, and has withdrawn. It's trivial, but you are behind her, in the shadow of your mother, under her protection. You are two, on a picnic.

Some time in the future, your future, you will be maybe thirteen, fourteen, already sexually active, already hurting, though you will think you're having fun. Your mother will be sitting at the kitchen table drinking oloroso sherry. She will be maudlin and she will talk, replaying the tape in her head. It was his fault - she means your father; it was hers - she should have caught the keys; it was just a terrible accident. It was both of their faults, because they'd learned to live on hate. It was God's fault. It just had to happen because too many things had been so good. You'll ask, "But you and Dad split up?" and she'll say, "Apart from that."

Run ahead, see the day you get the first fitting of your glass eye. Your father has become quiet. He still works, still functions, but your accident has made him slower, deader. He is trying again but the woven bitternesses of your parents' lives will not unravel and he has learned merely to avoid things. He has taken to indulging you, to seeing only his "Little Nelson". He often allows people to persuade him it wasn't his fault but he knows with the absolute certainty of death that it was his and his alone. He had tossed his bomb with the intention to hurt.

The hospital is the same one you were rushed to. Your mother and your father, your brother, accompany you. Your mother walks down a polished corridor with you, the floor is blue, the walls old and the smell will stay with you forever. Your mother talks about the magic that the lady doctor has done. She says they have copied your eye and when you leave here today you can have a special one, one you can put in and out.

The room where your mother takes you smells of alcohol but you cannot think this. You merely think it's a smell you do not care for. The lady doctor seems nice. She has frizzy yellow hair and a red spot on her nose. She smells of peppermint and she talks gently. When you are sitting down in her special chair she opens a drawer full of eyes and then she says, "Ready?"

You will be too young yet to understand cosmetic needs, but your mother and the doctors have told you stories about the eye fairy who is far cleverer than the tooth-fairy. You tell the doctor yes, but after the doctor has cleaned your eye, suddenly you are frightened. Your mummy says "Shush babe," and holds your hand, then the lady goes, squick-squick and there's a cold thing in your face. They show you a mirror.

When you leave the clinic, your mother holds back. She lets you run ahead towards your father and your brother. She has told you to run to daddy and you do. He is crying all over his face and can't stop. He kisses you, holds you up, then away from him, then hugs you, still crying, still stupid. Your brother asks which is the bad eye.

But you are too young for this, little one. You are too young to know that your mother and father have only one good photograph of you undamaged, that they will worry over it, have it copied when your father moves out. You are of course too young to know your father has been working away, that he has a place of his own but comes home weekends. You only know he likes to play with you but is more fun when it's just you and him or just you and him and your brother. You like the weekends but in the week is all right too. You know this but don't understand this.

Look up, think of futures.

First the eye will be peculiar. They will sew a small marble into the flesh of the socket. They hope this way that the artificial eye will follow the movements of its healthy twin. But your too-young flesh will tear, your soft stitches will undo, there will be infections, they will have to give this up.

But you will have your eye. On photographs, sometimes one eye will be askew, adrift, and you will tell people, no, that's the good one, your seeing eye, distracted, forgetting to look ahead.

When you have colds, the socket will weep, a light yellow-white mucus will cover the inside of the lids, smear the glass pupil, the false iris. You will pass through a phase of embarrassment where to remove the eye and clean it is worse than having what looks like a disease.

Now for the next quarter second of your life you can see perfectly, but you aren't yet old enough to see what happens around you, only what happens to you and because of you. You will be six before you hear the word Ruth, eight before you understand who she was, and not until you are fifteen will you have the courage to ask your father was it her, did she cause all the anger, was she the hand that guided his?

His eyes will fill up. He will try to hold you but will feel awkward because you look and act like a woman now. "No," he will say, "It was me, and me alone. Ruth was before you were born; your mother couldn't let it go."

When you ask your father "Did you love her, Dad?" and he says "Do you mean Ruth?" all you will do is nod and at first he will nod. Then he will take a breath and tell you he loved her completely, absolutely, hopelessly. He will stand, go over to the window and look out. You will not be sure if he is crying but you will be old enough to wait for him to turn round. You glance at your reflection in a tiny mirror you carry and adjust your eye.

Born 1947 in Wales, Alex Keegan took up writing seriously after recovering from the Clapham rail-crash December 1988. In October 1992 he went full-time and has since published five mystery novels and seventy literary short-stories including the inaugural story for Atlantic Monthly Unbound. He is a columnist for The Internet Writers Journal.

 

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