An ultralight aircraft overshoots the runway and incinerates my azaleas. The pilot (a person I didn’t know) and my candy-colored flowers perish similarly. Flames glow like movie theater “Coming Attractions” projected onto neighboring garden sheds. The first phone number I dial isn’t 911, but my father’s. His reaction is civil yet competitive.
“So, not even a full-sized airplane, you say? A discarded Chinese rocket booster took care of my mole problem last night. Witnesses say the flare turned my backyard into the Vegas Strip! Blinded Mrs. Oakes next door and her three yappy dogs. Reentry is a bitch.”
Our conversation lasts four minutes, including lingering pauses and awkward silences.
“Call your mother,” Father says in closing. “She loves your bullshit, even when she doesn’t buy it.”
“You could believe it, too,” I reply, gravel-voiced, to the dial tone.
I smell courage whenever I sleep; breathe it deeply. If I catch a whiff of anything other than sweaty hair on my pillow, I’ll surely grab the bug-out bag next to my bed and slink down the stairs towards the exit. When you reach the horizon and look back, it’s another horizon.
Lunchdates with my sister and brother tend to be ritualistic bloodlettings rather than sociable, so their invitation leaves me crampy with dread. I shuffle into our agreed-upon meeting place, a greasy-spoon diner. The air is stifling and I’m the sole customer. At the counter loiters the entire food-prep staff. They sip cans of cola.
“Sit anywhere, hon,” the waitress yawns.
“Why isn’t anyone in the kitchen?” I ask, not minding my own damn business.
One of the cooks dabs at the perspiration on his scalp.
“It’s too hot in there, so we got out!”
Dawn and Don, my fraternal twin siblings, arrive together. When we were kids I named them Thing 1 and Thing 2 — in appearance and deeds, their resemblance to the Dr. Seuss characters left an impression, similar to what happens when you press your thumbs into a slice of fresh-baked bread.
No red jumpsuits for Dawn and Don. They now wear regular adult clothing: undersized T‑shirts, frayed denim vests, leather pants, those black-and-white Adidas slides. Strikingly un-identical, my sister and brother mirror each other more than I look like either of them.
“My seed is potent,” Father used to tell me, “yet somehow, we ended up with you.”
Dawn’s dilated eyes are interstellar black holes from which light cannot escape. Her iridescent tresses? Coils of razor wire. She habitually carries a calfskin messenger bag; manifestos and ultimatums ferment within the sueded darkness.
Don’s demeanor is of a man who has forever lost his keys or is about to. Slow on the uptake and quick to misread facts, he subsists on a diet of vitamin supplements and false assumptions. He is a beacon of nope.
“Let’s settle Father’s estate,” Dawn says to me through raw-liver lips. “We divide it equally. A three-way split, TC, whether you want it or not.”
Don wipes saliva from a corner of his mouth, sniffs imaginary chili. “Resistance is feudal,” he offers.
“Father is still alive!” I shout. The employees pause their chitchat and stare at me. “An hour ago I talked to him about fate and moles. Aren’t you two getting ahead of yourselves?”
Dawn bares her fangs in a smile. Mirth never passes through this gate.
“Hey, loser,” she says. “For years you’ve insisted he’s dead to you. What’s the difference? And how is his murder not justified?”
If I had false, lazy answers to share, I’d be a weather forecaster, so I shut up.
“The bastard owes us, TC,” persists Don. “Parents are expected to take care of their children. I mean…aren’t they?”
Dawn ignores Don for the million-billionth time.
“Father must compensate us for his brutality,” she says, her voice oscillating. “For his absences. The lousy opinions. Those ridiculous puns. Decades of cheap haircuts, and antipathy to dental hygiene — ours and his. Should I go on?”
When I was a wee tyke, all I wanted to do was ride the mower. I eventually came of age, was delegated the responsibility, and hated it immediately. The monotony stupefied me.
“So,” Father would growl, “if you’re going to mow the lawn, Third Child, you’d better get busy. Grass won’t cut itself, it knows only how to grow.”
“Why can’t Dawn or Don do it?”
“Maybe you won’t argue so much when I dislocate your jaw and it’s wired shut. Get out there!”
On the diner’s tabletop I trace patterns. Even though my arsenal is puny, I’ll utilize whatever I can conjure. Anxiety is fuel if you understand how to burn it.
“You folks know what you want?” the waitress asks us while she looks out the window.
“I do!” says Don. “For starters, when I collect my inheritance, I’m gonna buy this place. Re-conceptualize. Expand. Franchise it. Don’t worry — you’ll still have a job!”
“Thanks, mister. Such a relief. Thought I’d hafta sell off my stocks and jewelry. Anything to eat while we wait for the ink to dry?”
“Chopped steak, blood rare,” Dawn says, closing her menu. “Add a ham slice and some chicken wings.”
Don rubs his belly. “I’ll have the shrimp and grits. Hold the shrimp, double the grits.”
“And what about you?” Our server drags her gaze from the outdoors and lays it on top of my head.
“Ice water, please.”
“All you want is a glass of water?”
I nod, she shrugs.
“Got none. Fresh out, I’m ‘fraid. We had some problems today on account of the A/C goin’ kerflooey and kitchen help passin’ out and all. Then the plumbing went kaput.”
Don unfolds a paper napkin and positions it on his lap. He removes ten more from the dispenser and stacks them, ready. Dawn gapes at him in bored disbelief.
The door dingle-dings. In limps an elderly man, muscular for his age, his face weathered by unkindness. He’s behind my sister and brother but they note my spasm of recognition.
“Hey, handsome!” grins our waitress, meeting him at the counter. “What can I do you for today?”
“Carryout, Lois,” says Father. “Picking up my strawberry PB&J with a side of kettle chips. I hope your crew trimmed the crust this go-round…”
“Lemme know if they messed up, Mitch. I’ll whip ‘em with a wet noodle!”
“Is that what you’ll do?” His giggle escalates to laughter and finishes as a choking fit. Lois slaps his back and I’d swear she and he both enjoy it.
“I’m dying, here!” gasps Father. “Give me something to drink!”
“You bet, hon!”
Lois hands him a glass of water. From where? Father gulps it; the condensation drips and overflow dribbles off his chin. He plops down the glass — backwash and ice slosh around. Then he spots us and a sneer bends his wrinkles.
“My progeny! The fruit of my loins! What are you three up to?” He coughs up phlegm, remembers not to spit, swallows it. “Never mind, I don’t want to know.”
He speaks to all of us but his bloodshot peepers lock onto me with the intensity of a thirsty dog gazing into a toilet. From nowhere or everywhere, within me ignites an emergency-flare of resolve. I can land this thing. Balance airspeed and lift. Line up the runway. Pull on the stick and instead of bringing the nose up, stall. With the gale of acceleration in my ears, yaw sideways and brace myself to crater a random flower garden.
“Dawn and Don want your money and probably your house,” I blab. “Apparently, we’ll kill you for all of it. This was supposed to be a secret meeting.”
Father’s fist flattens his lunch bag on the counter. The purple stain seeps into ripped paper, mesmerizing me.
“Conspiracy!” Father shrieks. “Assassination! Patricide! You little shits!”
The twins are mute, rigid, flabbergasted. A permanent film of beige schmutz tints the diner’s wall clock; its second hand runs unmistakably backwards three ticks and then stops. I’m unsurprised by this phenomenon. I learned early: time is elastic, untrustworthy, and most definitely aligned against you.
My bicycle chain snaps and I go headfirst over the handlebars, fracturing my collarbone. I’m absent for four months of fifth grade. I finally return to the classroom and Father grounds me for six weeks as punishment for having let my bike become unsafe.
In the middle of my second senior year of high school, Mother resigns her real estate license and moves to the Canary Islands (of all places on Earth). Forever she’ll refuse to talk to us about her marriage to Father and how it ended, although she’s unapologetically eager to dish on his subsequent wives.
As one, Dawn and Don scramble out of our booth. Dawn waves a pill bottle and rattles it for extra effect. Her plan was to poison Father secretly, now she and our brother must do it in the open. Don hefts a sugar dispenser, tosses it from hand to hand, smirks with dumbass confidence. Father drops into a half-crouch, and with a three-inch pocket knife he pierces his left index fingertip. He holds it aloft. The trickle of crimson advertises the knife’s lethal potential.
The twins are seven years old, I’m five. Father takes us to a family reunion, where he forbids us to eat the food or play with our rambunctious cousins. He tows us from relative to relative and says to each, “You said Mitch couldn’t do it! See for yourself — three times, here’s the proof!”
I’m a stationary human lump inside the diner, and the clock hands resume moving in their normal direction. Dawn, Don, and Father are gone. Broken glass on the linoleum tiles glitters like ice — which the diner is purportedly out of — intermingled with scattered pink carnations of blood-soaked paper napkins. The seared landscape without is a parfait of rose, peach, violet, and ash. Identified flying objects thud to the ground. Lois the waitress clutches the phone, sobbing, and from outside rises the whine of wind and sirens.
Michael Grant Smith’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in elimae, The Airgonaut, The Cabinet of Heed, Ellipsis Zine, Spelk, Bending Genres, MoonPark Review, Okay Donkey, trampset, Tiny Molecules, and elsewhere. Michael resides in Ohio and is neither aerodynamic nor buoyant. He has traveled to Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Cincinnati. Find more at www.michaelgrantsmith.com and @MGSatMGScom.