by Bryce A. Johle
Vibrations on the windowsill jarred my eyes open, liberating me from a dream. I reached for my phone and read the text from my dad.
“Did momma tell you the lousy news? Bout me?” he said.
“Nope,” I said.
“I went to the doctor yesterday.”
“Doc told me I have heart problems, which I knew the heart wasn’t right, and a failing liver.”
I didn’t reply. Instead, I waited for a follow-up text, knowing he wouldn’t just let me go away from this. Only two minutes later, it came.
“The doc at the V.A. told me, ‘how do you want to die? A failing liver or heart?’” he said. He attached an angry-faced emoji to the end of the text. Another message came soon after this one.
“My blood isn’t getting filtered as it should, which causes lots of serious problems…he said it’s got toxins, inclusive of animal serum.”
“Wtf does that mean?” I said.
“Doc says maybe I was working with animals, or contracted something from animals.”
“Did you suggest the cat?”
“No. But cat has hooked me a dozen times. The doc asked what all the punctures were on my arms.”
I tossed my phone back onto the windowsill and pulled the sheets up over my shoulders. I laid there calculating the meaning of the items spread around the room. There were the television and PlayStation that I never turned on, the dwindling shelves of food, and posters I rarely glanced at pasted all over the walls. My eyes stuck to a couple of apples that I had collected, sitting on my desk. One was green, the other red, but both were brightly pigmented. Somehow, I felt inferior to all of these objects. Each one wanted to do its job and I wouldn’t let it. The apples would rot in a short while, and their vanity, which I assumed they must have had, would be replaced with insecurity when their crisp colors turned pallid, and their taut flesh wilted. I would watch them change, until one day the fruit flies came, and I had to throw them out. Even then, I would be unmoved.
Rolling over, I gazed up at the ceiling and recounted every detail of the film that screened in my head before I woke up.
I found myself in my church, listening to voices close by. I crept my way toward the open double-doors to the sanctuary, and poked my head in just enough so I could see the four armed bodies sitting on the front pew, with a fifth pacing back and forth in front of them, a man shouting peremptory gibberish. This one came to an abrupt halt in both commanding and pacing. He snapped his attention to the doors, and I knew he saw me.
“Get him,” he said. For the first time, he formed actual words. The four bodies immediately sprung to their feet, drawing their pistols from shoulder holsters as they ran towards me. I booked it up the stairs, racing with adrenaline to the next floor. They shot at my hand as I gripped the newel post, missing by an inch when I turned to continue up the next flight. I ran faster. Assuming I knew my own church better than them, I sprinted through mazes of hallways, stairwells, and Sunday school rooms.
I thought I’d lost them when I made a round trip back to the sanctuary, landing with tip-toes at the back room divided by curtains. I slipped behind them and sat down in a corner to catch my breath, careful not to make a thud as my ass hit the floor. Footsteps came before I could react to change my hiding place. The curtains were ripped open, then spread all the way apart when one of the bodies spotted me. He raised a pistol, retightened his fingers around the grip, and I half rolled over and wrapped my arm around my eyes.
Just before the shot was fired, I heard a galumphing movement, and a metal rattling—but I wasn’t hurt. I removed my arm from my eyes with reticence, and saw my dad standing with his back to me. His back had an unfortunate hole in the left side. The steel cane in his right hand fell to the floor with an echoing bang and rattle as his grip loosened, and he fell. I noticed my brother, Jace, standing in the doorway across the room, staring at the back of the body that just shot our father.
Then everything was black. The scene continued a moment later, but I played a different part. I stood there in the curtained-off room, staring at myself sitting on my ass, helpless in the corner. I saw my dad lying dead on the floor, facing me. I held the gun.
Back in bed, my fingers were curled in the sheets, securing them, when I realized I was trying to make myself cry. It wouldn’t come, so I gave up and let my thoughts take over again.
The dread I felt when I knew that guy was going to kill me was tremendous, and thank God my dad stepped in front of the bullet for me. I wouldn’t have done the same thing for him. There’s a theory that when you die in your dreams, you die in real life. I never really knew if it was true or not, but it’s better safe, than dying as a martyr in your sleep, right?
Feeling compelled to think about my dad now, I started collating memories. For as long as I could remember, my dad walked with a cane, which I guess was a result of his back injury from when he built houses for a living. He took heavy steps to the kitchen each morning, every other beat on the floor accompanied by the distinct metal rattle of adjustable steel. On the counter he prepared his breakfast: a paper plate cluttered with pills of assorted colors that looked like a children’s ball pit. Then he poured a bowl of cereal and a cup of coffee. He always ate his cereal standing in front of the living room window, staring out. Every fall, when the first licks of frost could be seen on the grass, he said, “Ya know, I might not be around too much longer. I might not even make it to next Christmas.” He stood there staring, talking between chews. “And you better learn to help your mother around here when I’m gone.”
“Yeah, okay,” I said.
“I’m serious, Hal. I’m not as healthy as I used to be.”
“Yep. Neither is the dog.”
My dad sighed and turned away, walking back to the bedroom where he spent most of the day napping.
This dialogue was tradition, and only one of many scenarios that has made my dad a king of uncomfortable situations. Telling me he’s dying via text was a brand new one. I was disturbed by it for a moment, before I realized the undeniable terror of receiving that news in person. Surely I would say something offensive I didn’t mean. Either that, or I’d say nothing, roll my eyes, and go to my room.
The thing was, I just couldn’t stop thinking about my dog. Twelve years ago we bought him, and named him Indiana. I picked him out myself, and grew up with him. I played with him, taught him tricks, and took long, cozy naps with him. But now he was on his way out, marking his last days with sluggishness, arthritis, and difficult breathing. I loved Indy, but I was grateful to be apart from him for long periods while I was at school. My prayers wished for his release when I wasn’t around.
Then I got a kitten last summer. It was from a litter my brother’s cat had, so I got it for free. For months I begged my mom to let me get one, so I was ecstatic when she said I could have it. I called him Dr. Venkman. His immediate purpose was to serve as a companion for stress. Spending so much time with him, I was attached, and gradually paid less and less attention to Indiana.
I prayed about my dad after he texted me that morning. If they weren’t answered, I was going to be stuck with a situation I might not know how to accommodate. My chest felt indecisive about whether or not it should be constricted and stealing my energy. In the past, Jace had always gotten along with my dad, talking about cars, sports, and women. My brother was older, so he got to experience and know my father before he started to go bad. Sometimes they reminisced about those good times, like when they played baseball in the backyard, and my dad cheering Jace on at games. He taught him how to change the oil on a car, what to do if the air conditioner conks out, and how to replace the brakes. Jace was always my dad’s “buddy,” as he would call him right in front of me.
Our bond was different than theirs, even when we were screaming at each other. I addressed him when I needed help fixing something, and we shared a groove for the occasional classic rock song, but that was about it. I only knew my dad as a sick, frustrated old man who wouldn’t stop barking at me. Disabled as he was, he never did any of those dad things with me. I could care less about cars, and I didn’t know the first thing about sports. All I got were his condescending Vietnam parables. When he would come out from his bedroom just to catch me occupying myself by studying and reading, it evoked a rage in him. He would call me lazy, compare me to my brother, and tell me I don’t know what’s hard, that he was at war when he was my age.
Dads say these things, though, so I thought I still loved him—but I also thought it might be that love where you say it and want to believe it, but daydream about his burden being finally eliminated. I wished so hard that it was as simple as getting another cat.
Winter came, and I had submerged myself into my final papers, all the while blasting Christmas music and pissing off my roommates and neighbors. My mind was on one track, which was wrapping up the semester and heading home for the holidays to see Dr. Venkman and Indiana, drink some festive beer, and spend some quality time with Giada and Bobby Flay. My mom helped me load my junk into the van and we had a tranquil drive home, listening to Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas on repeat and discussing how school went.
After pulling into our driveway, my heart started to knock against my chest, and I tried to keep my cool, holding my lips shut tight so my veritable glee wasn’t as obvious. From the open hatch, I grabbed what I could and carried it inside, tracking in snow that melted on the kitchen tiles like a pat of butter in a frying pan. I set everything down in the living room, where my dad met me on the green shag rug.
“Hello, son,” he said. An unashamed smile showed his coffee-stained, rotting teeth when he wrapped his arms around me. Those smug expressions always made me wonder how he wasn’t disgusted with himself for being in Vietnam, and raising me to feel bad for not going through a similar struggle. I hugged him back with two quick, one-handed pats on the back, then tried to rip myself away, and run back to the van for my suitcases. When I found myself captured, claustrophobia set in and I panicked. Then he fell to the floor, pulling me along before releasing me and clutching his left arm. I backed up and watched him writhing on the carpet, making a figure impression in the shag.
My mom eventually saw him and called an ambulance. At the hospital, she, Jace, and I were sitting around my dad’s bed, waiting. I looked at him for a long time, thinking about the dog. I felt inferior to him and his heart monitor declaring the current eminence of his life. If I had the means to save the war hero, I know I wouldn’t move an inch out of my uncomfortable hospital chair; I would wait for the fruit flies to come.
When the digital wave pulled tight and the final tone lingered in my ears, I expected to feel an overwhelming rush in my stomach, like bat wings flapping and turning over against my entrails. I almost thought I’d cry for once, at least a tear or two. Instead, I felt indifferent. It was the same feeling as when I get a paper back in class, and read the “85%” written on the front: not happy, but not remarkably angry, either.
As the nurse stopped the ringing, those texts from only a month earlier echoed in recollection:
“Did momma tell you the lousy news? Bout me?”
“The doc at the V.A. told me, ‘how do you want to die? A failing liver or heart?’”
I felt no defined sense of finality then, and I didn’t feel it now, either. That’s when it hit me that my dad had been dead for years. At least, the image had been created a long time ago. I thought of an ice tray being filled with water, each mold flooding one at a time. Every memory of my dad was a hint that filled a mold. The first one was when elementary school classmates mistook him for my grandpa. Eventually the tray filled up with doctor reports, insatiable anger, and longer, more frequent naps that pulled him out of sight. Today, the water turned to ice.
As we each stood beside the bed watching his inert body, I broke the silence and said, “I expected it sooner.”
Bryce A. Johle is from Williamsport, Pennsylvania. He is a senior at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania currently completing his bachelor’s degree in Professional Writing. His work has appeared in Shoofly Literary Magazine, of which he is now a managing editor.