Friday, July 30, 2010

The Rabbi, The Nun, The Talking Dog,
and Everything

In submission to the 7/30/10 Lesser Friday Challenge. EDIT 8/12: In response to feedback, added two -- um, er... stanzas. Hopefully it will make the story a little less confusing. Just a little less, though.

An important man, a powerful man, a not-actually-religious man: The Rabbi. He listens with patiently concealed impatience.

A nobody woman, a desperate woman, a really-quite-loving woman: The Nun. She pleads with barely concealed emotion.

A large sum, a small sum, a requested two-hundred-percent-addition-to-the-regular-monthly sum: $10,000. With it, The Nun will save The Orphanage.

"The Children are our future," she says, "without them we have Nothing."

"I haven't the money," says The Rabbi.

~ ~ ~

A wicked idea, a crazy idea, a worth-a-quarter-million-dollars idea: The Talking Dog. The man drinks with woefully loud regret.

A healthy animal, a friendly animal, an unfortunately-quite-speechless animal: The Talking Dog. It pants with markedly mute happiness.

A paltry sum, a sneaky sum, a potential-for-one-thousand-percent-profit sum: $25,000. With it, The Rabbi will buy The Talking Dog.

"I wasted it all," the man tells The Rabbi. "I sunk $50,000 into this failure. If I could but recoup half of that, I might not end up in the gutter. Watch the beast while I take a whiz, will you?"

"I thought that whiner would never leave," says The Talking Dog.

~ ~ ~

An important man, a powerful man, a pulled-a-few-strings-to-get-here man: The Rabbi. He presents with hardly concealed excitement.

A skeptical group, an impatient group, a willing-to-give-it-a-second-try group: The Board. They listen with slightly hopeful avarice.

An invested sum, a withheld sum, a merely-provide-proof-of-product sum: $250,000. With it, The Board would buy a Talking Dog.

"Come on, boy," the Rabbi tells the dog, "Speak! Speak like you did at the bar! Come on, Speak!"

"Woof woof," barks The Talking Dog.

~ ~ ~

A crafty man, a generous man, a not-afraid-to-bend-a-few-laws man: The Bandit. He walks with jauntily nimble steps.

A nobody woman, a desperate woman, a once-cared-for-a-certain-street-urchin woman: The Nun. She weeps with hopelessly lonely despair.

A nothing sum, an everything sum, a still-leaves-ten-large-for-expenses sum: $15,000. With it, The Bandit will ring the doorbell.

"Special delivery," he says, "Envelope from the trade district. No return address, though a note instructs that it's intended for the Orphanage."

"I wonder who sent it?" says The Nun.

~ ~ ~

An angry man, a chagrined man, a looking-to-rid-himself-of-his-embarrassment man: The Rabbi. He bestows with kindly concealed disregard.

A relieved woman, an excited woman, a saved-by-an-anonymous-benefactor woman: The Nun. She thanks with sincerely sincere sincerity.

A healthy animal, a friendly animal, an unfortunately-quite-speechless animal: The Talking Dog. With it, the Children will romp at The Orphanage.

"I have no use for the pup," The Rabbi says, "and so I figured I'd give it to the Children. After all, the Children are Everything."

"Woof woof," barks The Talking Dog.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


Music plays softly
She listens without her ears
A single weight shift

Thursday, July 1, 2010

America's Backbone

Some of you may remember the peculiar Fourth of July celebration of the Ladrey family from last year. For this month's Greater Friday Challenge, we return to see how the Ladreys are doing one year later on July 4, 2050.

It was ridiculous to be unmanned like this, by a bunch of flowers. I had once faced down three armed mooeys with nothing but a knife. I had hoofed it on foot out of that ghetto in Chicago through two hundred miles of some of the most fiercely contested territories in America. I wasn’t afraid of nothing. But, nevertheless, as I stood on the hot Texas sidewalk in front of the shop’s window, dumbly drawing my eyes up, down, and over the various arrangements of colorful petals and green leaves, I felt powerless. The vibrancy of the flowers seemed to mock and jeer at my weakness and ignorance. I didn’t know enough about flowers to know what kind I was looking at. I didn’t even know what kind she liked.

Flowers hadn’t really been her thing. Amy didn’t care much for make up or hairstyles or any of that typically girly stuff. She didn’t need it, she said, keeping with her simple ponytail and face freckled from all her time spent outside. Though she was wild and free, I still found her stunning. Maybe she sent my heart to pounding because her beauty was mixed up in wildness and freedom.

But flowers seemed the right thing, here. Everything else Amy cared about she already had or had lost. Giving her a box of 7.62 just didn’t seem appropriate. Almost like mocking her.

I put my fist against the plate glass and gave it a reserved tap, secretly wishing that I could take out my frustration on it. Or the set of jihadis and Mexicans who had put me into this situation. Our relationship had been so much simpler when I could give Amy an old SAS parang as a Christmas present.

Christmas. I should’ve collected bloodied shahadah bands, prizes for each head like the warriors of old, for each kill I had made in Kentucky. I’d have had nearly twenty of them. But that had lost its romanticism in the stone age, if it had ever had any at all, even if it was appropriate here. Better a bunch of dead jihadis than a bunch of dead plants.

Though I was starting to hate these plants just as much.

I gave the window another feeble tap, then closed my eyes and took a big breath. When I opened them again, I was startled by the approach of Amy’s dad, Jakeb Ladrey.

The bright Texas sun gave the window’s reflection enough strength to be a mirror, so that I could see his wild brown curls and angular features clearly as he walked up quickly from the street, covering the ground quickly with the smooth strides of his tall legs. Amy’s dad wasn’t as big as I was, nor really as strong, but despite his lanky features he still intimidated me. When I had thought about it, many months back, I realized it wasn’t that he could take me in a fight—though I was certain he probably could—it was that he naturally thought on a level higher than I even considered.

I began to whirl to face him so that he wouldn’t think it a big deal where I was standing, then realized that would indicate more than anything my guilt, then turned back to the window kicking myself for feeling embarrassed at all. Stupid dead plants still unmanning me.

As usual, Amy’s dad smoothed away any awkwardness. “Oh, there you are, Brent,” he said as he walked up. With a smile that I could feel as well as see in the window’s reflection, he put a hand on my shoulder. “Thinking of getting something for Amy?”

I nodded. I looked over at him. “Do you know what kind are her favorites?”

He gripped my shoulder. “Roses. Especially odd colors or those modified multi-tones.”

“Oh,” I said, wondering how much modified flowers cost. “Should I get some of those then?”

“Nah,” he said. He let go of my shoulder and gave me a pat on the back. “I’d have to go back and withdraw more money to help you afford them. Just like a Ladrey woman to be content with sleeping in a pup tent and eating beans and tuna for days on end, and then fancy the most expensive flower in the store. And then she’d be furious that you wasted that much money on her. Though,” he added, giving me a wink, “sometimes women like it when you make them furious like that.”

“Then should I—”

“You know what else she likes? Books. And she’s got a lot of time to read them. That’d be a thoughtful gift, don’t you think?”

It really did. Amy was incredibly smart, like her dad, and she loved to read. “But aren’t books just as expensive as mod-roses? What with most the major publishers over in the Islamic States?”

“We’ll stop by the library on our way out. I’ve got a membership. Amy’s always complaining that our local branch doesn’t have enough literary journals or philosophy. We’ll grab several McSweeney’s and maybe some Kierkegaard from the big city branch to bring back to her. She’ll love it.”

That sounded like a really good plan. Of course, Amy’s dad was known for his good plans.

We walked together back across the sizzling blacktop of the street to the long, well-shaded parking lot of the bank and climbed into his ’38 Ford Independent. The radio was tuned to a station that played old-time music recorded over a century ago, what Amy’s dad called “classic dance songs.” The truck merged onto the highway. I watched the concrete barriers whizzing by.

The Austin highway system makes it seem like you have to go way out of your way to get anywhere. Even going a straight shot up a single highway can feel like you looped way out of your way to get to your destination. As it was, the trip to Dr. Guerrero’s took only a quarter of an hour, but it felt more like half.

The doctor’s office was on the eighth floor of a private business tower. The door on the office that block lettering that read, “Pablo C. Guerrero, M.D., P.T., C.Tp.” and then the office hours in smaller letters underneath. The door looked and smelled like it had recently been repainted or shellacked or whatever. And instead of glass in the full-length windows flanking the door, plywood had been put up. A piece of paper was tacked to one. It read, “THIRD GENERATION AMERICAN.”

Amy’s dad did not pause a moment at any of this, but simply walked briskly to the door and entered the waiting room. He held the door for me, so I hurried to follow.

The waiting room was rather large, as far as private practices go, with chairs easily enough for a dozen patients and then some. However, nobody else seemed to be waiting today. I sat down in a chair facing the door and picked up a copy of America’s 1st Freedom while Amy’s dad walked up to the receptionist’s window.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Ladrey,” said the woman on the other side of the counter.

“’Afternoon, Betty. Can I go on in?”

“Sure. You’ve got perfect timing. Dr. Guerrero just finished his telexamination.” The receptionist lowered a shoulder and an electric buzzing sounded at the door. Amy’s dad walked over and opened the door.

“Thanks,” he said.

“Down the hall and the third door on your left.”

The door latched shut behind him. I watched the receptionist for a while as she busied herself with papers, then paged through the magazine without really registering anything before my eyes.

I hated waiting.

That was the worst part of war. The constant waiting. Waiting for the enemy to act. Waiting for the Independents to move. Waiting for a jihadi patrol to work its way fully into your ambush. Waiting for the next sound of a bomb detonating in the city.

I hated waiting. Amy’s dad always seemed infinitely patient; Amy, too. I had a lot of respect for her ability to lie motionless for hours on end from her sniper’s position. Running with her dad’s group had eventually drummed into me the importance of patience on the battlefield, but I had noticed it also had an unexpected side effect: I no longer had any patience to sit around in civilian contexts. Especially when I was anxious.

I put down the magazine and paced in front of the row of chairs. The walls of the waiting room were decorated with pictures, but I made a full circuit of looking at each of them in no time at all. There was a calendar, still turned to May though it was the last day of June. I flipped the page over to July. Every month’s picture had some play on the year. June was a pile of twenties and fifties; July had 2050 spelled out in fireworks.

The receptionist looked up as I passed the counter; I gave a friendly smile and kept pacing. She smiled absently back and returned to her work. When I glanced back, she was getting a file out of a cabinet and then disappeared into the back of the office.

I made a few more circuits around the room and then stopped at the counter. I leaned in through the opening, but I couldn’t see a sign of anybody. I jumped up and balanced my hips on the counter to reach into the office. I felt around the underside of the desk with my fingers and finally found the button for the door. I pushed it and hopped down to open the door before the circuit opened.

I peered cautiously around the other side of the door, but nobody appeared. I walked quickly down the hall and soon caught the sound of Amy’s dad’s voice. I crept up next to the door to get a better listen. It had not been closed completely and a strip of light shone between the door and the frame.

“…no way to reduce the price? That’s incredibly more expensive than I was expecting.”

“I’m sorry, Jake, I really am, but I can’t do any better. That main lab got hit last month and there’s a shortage. I’m giving it to you at-cost as it is. I can’t afford to take a loss on it, not with the recent drop-off in clients—”

Amy’s dad sighed. “The sign didn’t help?”

“I’m afraid not. You saw the windows. You should’ve seen what they did to the door and the office.”

“I’m sorry, Pablo. It’s a load of bull, you know. Our dads grew up together. You’re just as much an American as me.”

“I don’t know about that. You don’t see me taking tours in Virginia or along the Valley.”

The room grew silent. I hazarded to lean over and peek through the crack. Amy’s dad was sitting on the exam table with his head in his hands. Dr. Guerrero stood patiently beside him.

He sighed again. “How many more treatments will she need?”

“It’s hard to tell at which dosage the nanocytes will become effective. She’s showing some promising signs…”

“Promising enough that she might get by without more doses?”

Dr. Guerrero shook his head. “No, stop the treatment now and you might as well never have started it at all.”

Another long silence.

“Okay,” Amy’s dad said. “I’ll get you the rest of the money somehow. Can I take the next batch with me?”

“Sure, Jake. Let me go prepare it.”

I only managed to take a couple steps back before Dr. Guerrero came out of the room and ran face to face with me in the hall. He grunted in surprise, then nodded grimly at me before proceeding down the hall.

“Ah, Brent,” said Amy’s dad from the doorway. “I was going to fill you in on Amy’s progress on the ride home.”

People in Texas tend to describe distance by time rather than length. The Ladreys’ property was about two and a half hours west of the capital, a winding drive through beautiful hill country still largely untouched by the fighting. I held the books on my lap. The package from Dr. Guerrero’s, roughly the size of a shoebox but more square, sat at my feet. The label across the top read “Neural-Generative Nanocyte Cartridges – 12 CT Pablo Guerrero Prescribing Physician Patient America Ladrey.” Outside the window, barbed wire fences, rocky hills, stands of green oak, and flowered meadows proceeded endlessly by. All the while, Amy’s dad told me about how Amy was doing.

I knew most of it, because Amy had kept me informed by messages on wave, but she had apparently wanted to keep me from worry and shown a brave face, because everything was worse than I had realized. The treatments had not seemed to have any beneficial effects—only bad ones. Still confined to her bed, she was in constant discomfort and pain because the stimulation to her nerves had caused them to become overly sensitive, so that her bones ached and her skin felt chafed and burned, like it had seen too much sun. She had borne the pain well, but sometimes it was too much for her.

Amy’s mom stayed by her side day and night caring for her. From the way Amy’s dad spoke of it, the process was wearing on both of them. Recently, Amy’s uncle and aunt had come out to help Amy’s mom with stuff around the house and provide moral support.

“It’s all she can do some days to keep Amy exercised, cleaned up, and get her to eat,” he said. “Amy’s sense of taste is messed up by the treatments, too. Everything tastes bad—not just bland, but actively nasty. Between that and her mood, she doesn’t eat enough. It’s weakened her. She’s lost a lot of weight.”

He glanced over at me. I didn’t know what to say.

“It’ll be good for her to see you. She’s been looking forward to it. But I realize it’s going to be uncomfortable for you both to see her this way. If you need some time to collect your thoughts, we don’t have to go straight to the house.”

I didn’t say anything. I stared blankly out the window, hardly noticing the landscape, much less my own thoughts. The slowing down of the truck pulled me out of my disconnect. I looked up in confusion as Amy’s dad pulled over to the gravel shoulder at the side of the road.

He seemed to avoid my gaze, looking grimly down at the steering wheel even after shifting into park. I looked outside but did not recognize anything special about our location. A wide berm filled with the orange flowers that were everywhere this time of year lay between the truck and the barbed wire of the nearest property, which was well supplied with large live oaks. Hilltops peered over from a distance.

The noise of the engine and road having ended, the cab filled with an expectant silence. I looked again at Amy’s dad, still hunched motionless over the steering wheel. I felt more curiosity than anything.

He sighed, then looked over at me with a weak smile that strengthened as his words came. “Well, you wanted to get her some flowers, didn’t you? This looks like a good spot to pick some!”

I smiled back, and popped open the door. The Texas heat embraced me as I stepped out onto the gravel.

The flowers had a brown center shaped like a thimble, with thin petals extending from its base. Though at a distance they appeared uniformly orange, up close the petals were darker at the center, burnt to nearly match the central brown, gradually lightening to a yellow that formed a halo about the edge. The thin green stalks made for a lousy bouquet, so to compensate I had gathered nearly a hundred of them until the petals bunched together in a thick cluster of orange dotted with brown.

I had been to the Ladreys’ property before, their home situated at the back of a plot of several acres filled with tall pecan and fruit trees and a front lawn with rows of lavender. Amy’s dad parked the truck and ushered me inside, immediately guiding me to the back of the house and up the stairs to Amy’s room.

He paused and knocked on the door. “Sweetling, I’m home.”

“Dad!” came Amy’s voice from inside the room. Amy’s dad opened the door and entered, with me following a few hesitant steps behind. Amy was sitting up in bed, with sheets drawn up to her waist and pillows supporting her back. She held a book in her lap. Her brown hair wasn’t in her usual ponytail, but fell straight about her neck and shoulders. She had indeed lost a lot of weight, her face looking more thin and hollow than I would have thought possible. Next to her bed, Amy’s mom was sitting in a chair. She was a small woman with wispy features; brown hair like Amy’s was done up in a bun. She wasn’t really old enough to have gray hair, but some streaks of it ran at her temples, though this did nothing to diminish her attractiveness; Amy’s mother possessed a beauty that had a sweetness to it.

Both women smiled as Amy’s dad entered the room; sincere, yet strained smiles. He gently, so very gently bent over and hugged his daughter. “How ya doin’, babe?”

Amy’s eyes were closed and her expression blank as he gently squeezed her. She patted his back with an unbelievably thin arm and looked at me from over his shoulder. “Not a bad day, Dad. Ooh!”

Amy’s dad froze. “You okay?”

“Fine.” Her brow was tight.

He stood up. “I guess you’ve seen the stray dog I picked up on the way here.”

She smiled at me. My heart skipped a beat every time she did that.

Amy’s dad scratched his head. “Do you think we should keep him?”

“I dunno, Dad, do you think he’s housetrained? He might have mange.”

Amy’s mom spoke up. “Aw, he looks all right to me,” she said, standing up. She smiled at me and crossed over to give me a hug, the top of her head coming just short of my chin. “Hi, Brent.”

“Are those for me?” Amy asked from the bed, pointing at the bouquet of flowers.

“What? Why would these be for you?” I asked her, snatching my chance to tease her in return to the stray dog comments. “I only give flowers to beautiful ladies.” I held the small cluster out to her mother. “These are for your mom.”

When she saw that I was serious, Amy’s mom accepted the flowers. “Why, thank you, Brent.” They had no real scent, but she brought her nose down to them, anyway, and her eyes smiled over at her husband.

He gave her a wink, and then went out into the hall and came back with a larger bouquet of flowers, which he handed to me.

“These, on the other hand,” I said, “these are for you.”

Amy’s eyes sparkled as she accepted the bouquet. “Wow, so many!” She, too, sniffed them, drawing in a deep breath, but her face bunched and she groaned. “No, no, I just have to remember not to do that,” she said, waving off her mother.

Amy’s dad reached over and took Amy’s bouquet from her. “Why don’t we find some vases to put these in, dear,” he said, putting his free hand around her mom’s waist.

Amy’s parents left with the bouquets. I remained standing near Amy’s bed. I thought I had been prepared for this. I had seen Amy like this, right after she had been injured, but I must have held some sort of false hope that she would be better by this time. She was much worse. She looked extremely weak and pathetic against the memory of the athletic and fiery girl I had known. I clenched my fists at how unfair it all was.

“So, how was Kentucky?”

I shrugged off my dark thoughts, and gave her a smile. “It was a hell hole. The fighting along the Ohio river has gotten pretty intense. The militia had several major engagements while I was there.”

“Then I’m glad you made it back whole. I prayed for your safety all the time.”

“Looks like he saw fit to answer your prayers,” I said. But not mine.

“Could you sit? You’re making me nervous, standing over there like that.”

“Oh, sure,” I said. I went over to the chair where her mom had been sitting. “By the way, these are for you, too.” I held up the stack of books we had checked out from the library.

Amy shifted herself in bed to better turn toward me but then gave a cry of pain. I cast aside the books onto the nightstand and would have leaped out of the chair to her had she not put up a hand.

“No, it’ll pass. Thank you.” She shifted herself hesitantly, and settled back down with a groan she kept swallowed deep in her throat. I watched helplessly.

She smiled faintly and looked over at the spines of the books. “Ah. I had been hoping to read some Kierkegaard.”

“Now you can,” I said. I frowned.

The sound of the cicadas drifted in from the window, which was beginning to turn a bright crimson as the day began its end.

“Amy,” I said. “I’m sorry this is happening to you.”

She smirked at me. “What are you sorry for? You didn’t cause this. Nobody did.”

My face burned. “If I could know which of those cowardly jihadi scumbags launched that missile, I’d see to it that they’d pay.”

“I know you would,” she said. She reached a hand out to me, which I took gingerly in my own. She bit her lip as I did so. “But please don’t talk like that. I don’t want you to feel that way. Surely you already made plenty of them pay up along the Ohio River.”

“Knock knock,” said Amy’s dad from the doorway. He had the flowers in a vase of green-tinted glass, which he placed next to the books on the nightstand.

He put a hand on my shoulder. “I’m sorry to interrupt you two, but I’m afraid we need to administer the next treatment as soon as possible.”

Amy’s face fell. She closed her eyes and swallowed. She nodded.

Amy’s dad reached into a drawer and pulled out an injector. He sat it on top of the books. “I’ll go get it.”

After her dad left, Amy looked at me and squeezed my hand.

“Brent,” she said, “My heart is very glad to see you again. But I don’t want you to see me right after a dose. Could you give me a few days?”

I frowned, but she cut me off before I could reply.

“Please?” Her eyes pleaded with me.

“Okay,” I said hoarsely. She squeezed my hand again, satisfied. I got up.


Amy’s dad returned with a vial that looked similar to one of those CO2 cartridges used for BB guns. He inserted it into the injector.

He glanced at me. “It, uh, has a pretty immediate reaction, Brent.”

I nodded and walked towards the door. Grunting and groaning, Amy rolled over to her side with her dad’s help. I glanced back at her when I reached the door; her eyes were watching me. Her dad’s hand was steadying her at her shoulder, and she was reaching up with the same arm to grip his forearm, his flesh drawn white from the pressure of her fingertips. Her dad pulled back the sheet; he seemed to be placing the injector at the small of her back. He looked up at me. I closed the door.

It did little to block out Amy’s screams.

Downstairs, in the hallway, I could still hear her cries. I braced my back against the wall, staring blankly at a china cabinet opposite as her anguished screams echoed in my ears. A jade tea set, elaborately carved with Chinese symbols and Oriental pictures—dragons, bamboo, buddhas, and the like—was laid out on display upon its main board. I knew that Amy’s grandpa had visited China several times before it closed to Americans; various Chinese pieces lay throughout the house. There, over on the wall, was a drawing with calligraphy, and—

Amy’s scream pierced my thoughts. Unable to take it any longer, I rushed down the hall and out the front door for some fresh air.

I let the screen door slam behind me. The air was still hot, and thick with the drone of cicadas and crickets. It was that time in the evening where the sun had already disappeared behind the horizon, and though everything on the ground was already shrouded in murky darkness, the sky retained its memory of the day and shone brightly in light blues and the occasional pink or purple cloud. The moon, too, seemed brighter than it would be in half an hour when the day’s light had completely faded and the stars winked into existence. For now, only the brightest specks were visible, and the black silhouettes of the trees reached backlit toward them.

I paced across the front deck, my heel sounding against the wood boards with each step. I walked two times back and forth, then grew irritated with the sound and hoisted myself over the rail and onto the dirt below, my work boots swishing through the well-trimmed St. Augustine instead as I rounded the house.

I had passed the utility shed and the propane tank when I smelt the cigarette smoke. I took several steps away from the house and looked up on the roof. A small dot of red glow confirmed my suspicions.

I had been here with the Ladreys during the Christmas tragedy in which Amy had been wounded. It was the first time I had met her extended family. Afterward, I had stayed on and helped with repairs to the house. Her younger brother and I had done most of the work on the roof; it had also been an excellent place to get away from it all. I walked back around the house and hoisted myself up the large oak we had often used instead of a ladder. It was an easy climb because of a split base and well-spaced limbs, from one of which it was possible to hoist arm-over-arm down onto the metal roof.

The roof was still hot from the day’s heat. Though visibility was low, the route was still familiar to me, even in the dark, and I was in no danger of slipping on the rubber soles of my boots.

“Hey, Brent,” said Amy’s brother as I approached. The red glow of what little remained of his lit cigarette brightened as he took a pull on it.

“Hey, T,” I said. I sat down next to him and offered a fist. T was several years younger than me; I figured he must be sixteen now, since he was fifteen when I met him. He and I had gotten along well together, and he had come up with a secret handshake.

“Glad to see that you hadn’t forgotten it,” he said. “And, of course, that you made it back from Kentucky in one piece.” The words were friendly enough, but there was no joy in them at all. He smothered his cigarette on the roof and toss the butt into a can. Reaching into his pocket he pulled out a pack and offered me one. When I declined, he shrugged and put a new one between his lips.

“Your dad know you smoke?” I asked.

T shrugged. “Probably. Not much gets past him.”

“I guess not,” I said. If his dad hadn’t lectured him on smoking, I sure wasn’t going to. Though it seemed odd that his dad would be okay with it.

We sat in silence. I couldn’t actually hear Amy from here, but in the silence my imagination tricked my ears into inserting snips of her screams in the ebb and flow of the night’s song.

“You get to see Amy?” T asked.

“Yeah, but then they gave her a treatment.”

“Ah. That explains why you’re out here.”

I nodded. “Is it usually that bad?”

“No,” said T. “Sometimes its worse.” The he looked apologetically over at me. “She’s strong, though. The doctor says it might still work. I hope it’s worth it. I don’t know how Mom deals with being in that room all the time like that.”

“She’s a strong woman.”

“Heh, she’d have to be, in this family.”

I leaned back on my hands and looked up into the darkening sky, remembering the first time I had met Amy’s mom. She had gotten the drop on me in a field in southern Illinois, not long into my flight into the Independent States. I had met the rest of the family with my hands on my head and her gun at my back. Hard to believe that was not even a year ago. I laid all the way back against the warm roof, using my hands for a headrest.

T continued to sit, leaning his elbows on his knees. “You see any action while in Kentucky?”

“Three major conflicts, and some skirmishes,” I said. I caught myself scratching the fresh shrapnel scars at my ribs.

“Yeah? What was that like?”

I was pretty sure T had seen more action than I had. “You know what it’s like.”

He spit off the roof. “Not after Christmas, I don’t.”

The tone of his voice startled me. T had always had a spring in his step, a youthful excitement that even witnessing close combat had not obliterated. But that had all changed after Christmas. I was surprised that the dark brooding he was going through when I had left still remained. I suppose a death in the family had brought the war to home in a way that no other casualty had been able to do before.

He took the cigarette out of his mouth and set it down on the roof, the laid down on his back to join me at looking at the sky. The stars were beginning to reveal themselves in full.

“Do you think we have a chance, Brent?”

The question startled me. “What do you mean?”

“Sometimes… sometimes it feels like America is getting smaller every day. Crumbling like the Roman Empire to the relentless waves of barbarians. You know, a century ago, our country stood against tyrants and spread freedom all over the globe. But the world is submitting, it seems, one region at a time. Freedom doesn’t seem to be gaining any ground anymore. We’ve got the jihadis gunning for us from the north and the—hell, the U.S. states ceded Southern California to the razistas. And on top of all that, we’re still rotting on the inside from the same sort of ignorances that led to the Separation of the States. It’s like we’re on a island of freedom that’s sinking into the sea.”

I wasn’t sure what to say to that. “You don’t think continuing to fight for freedom makes a difference?”

He thought for a moment.

“I used to,” he said. “Just on principle. But after Libby died… well, recently I’ve been wondering if we’re not just the fevered twitches of an idea that died before I was born. Liberty is an exception in history, after all.” He sighed.

I echoed with my own sigh. I didn’t necessarily disagree with him. Some days it did seem rather hopeless.

“You know,” I said, “in Kentucky, there were times when I felt like giving up the hope of fighting. But then I’d always remember, that if I didn’t fight there, sooner or later Amy would be fighting them here.”

“Well, that’s just the point, isn’t it?” said T. “Sooner or later, they’ll be out beyond that rise, with this sky flashing with explosions.”

“Maybe,” I said. “But I would also remember something your dad once told me. He said that when it comes to life, the outcome doesn’t matter as much as where you make your stand. Even if the ISA pushed all the way down here, I couldn’t consider myself much of a man to not fight them every inch of the way.

“Plus,” I added, with a bit more fire, “I want to make them pay.”

“Amen to that, brother.”

Since Amy’s Uncle Jon and Aunt Mary were staying in the guest room, Amy’s mom put me up on the fold-out in the living room. By habit, I woke up at dawn. I stayed awake, listening to the birds’ cheerful songs and the crowing of the rooster. I laid there until I heard people moving around in the kitchen and smelled the coffee brewing. I folded up the bed and put the cushions back on the couch before padding across the hardwood floor into the kitchen, now following the scent of sizzling bacon.

Amy’s mom was hovering over the frying pan, tending to the thin strips of bacon. She looked strange, like the same woman I had known but drawn too tight across her reality. Amy’s mom had always impressed me with how at ease she always appeared, even when toting her two kids through a war zone. But on this visit, her spirit seemed rigid and tensed.

Amy’s aunt was seated on a stool at the island, facing her sister-in-law. She had blond hair and a model’s face, though it was beginning to noticeably line with age. Whereas Amy’s mom was short and thin, her aunt was tall and thick. She cupped her mug of coffee with both hands both when she held it on the counter and when she brought it up to sip.

“…how you can stand it,” she was saying as I walked into the room.

“Just have to take it day by day,” Amy’s mom said over the stove. “And today’s a new day. Good morning, Brent.” She gave me a brief smile.

“Good morning, Mrs. Ladrey, and other Mrs. Ladrey,” I replied. “That smells good.”

“I’m almost finished with this set. Will you get a plate from the cabinet and put some paper towels across it for me?” Amy’s mom asked, pointing over to the appropriate cabinet door.

“Anyway, on top of that having to prepare for more guests!” said Amy’s aunt, apparently continuing the previous conversation. “Jake’s quite a man, but sometimes I think he doesn’t wait for the rest of us to keep pace. What’s he thinking, asking for a thing like that?”

“Well, it just makes me appreciate all the more you and Jon coming out to help us for a couple of weeks,” Amy’s mom said. I set the plate with paper towels on the counter next to her.

“Thanks, Brent,” she said. “Would you like some coffee?”

“No thanks.” I retreated to the island and sat on the stool next to Amy’s aunt.

“He hasn’t even told you who or how many or what for!” Amy’s aunt exclaimed. “Aren’t you at least curious?”

Amy’s mom was lifting the cooked bacon over onto the plate. “Oh, you know how he likes his surprises. I trust his judgment enough not to scorn him a few details. He did say for Monday, which is the Fourth, and said enough chickens for two dozen, so…”

“Well, I won’t hear nothing of it,” said Amy’s aunt. “You just take care of your daughter, and I’ll take care of the chickens, and the housecleaning, and whatever else needs to be done around here in preparation for his little Fourth of July mystery party.”

“Thanks, Mary. Hey, could you get the biscuits out of the fridge and set ‘em up in the pan?”

Soon Amy’s aunt had two pans of biscuits in the oven and Amy’s mom had eggs sizzling in the bacon grease. The house was coming alive with footsteps up and down the halls and stairs, and shortly I found myself sitting at the dining room table with T, opposite Uncle Jon and Aunt Mary, with Amy’s dad and grandpa at either end.

Amy’s mom disappeared with two plates up the stairs.

I had not seen Jon since the events at Christmas, though I had spent time with him out in the field prior to that. Jon was a big black man with thick limbs and short-cropped hair. He had a broad, infectious smile that often shined beneath the mischievous look in his eyes. He was easygoing in peace and hard as flint in a firefight.

He was taking full advantage of his captive audience to regale us with the exploits of the most recent of “the Bandit’s” forays, which Amy’s dad had planned but he had executed. The group had escorted some New England refugees through Appalachia into the Independent States. Jon was a natural storyteller, with both timing and charisma, and he had us nearly in tears as we laughed over his tales of his whining charges, colorful contacts, and bungling hostiles.

“So we missed having you there, bub, but it all worked out well enough,” said Jon, mopping up the remnants of egg and bacon with what was left of a biscuit. “I’m looking forward to whatever you have planned for the summer, though I’m hoping something a little more troublesome for the enemy.”

“I don’t have any plans for the summer,” said Amy’s dad.

“Don’t give me that! You’ve got your wife preparing for guests come Monday. You wouldn’t gather the Highwaymen without a plan for mobilizing them.”

“I sent word to most of the Highwaymen that if they plan to fight this summer to coordinate with their local militia rather than me,” said Amy’s dad.

Jon stared with wide-eyed disbelief at his brother. “What?”

“There will be no activity of the Highwaymen this summer.”

Jon pushed his plate to one side and turned to fully face his brother, one arm leaning on the table. “Don’t tell me that you’ve lost the nerve, now of all times!”

“I’m sorry, Jon, I meant to tell you earlier. I need to take a break and focus on the family.”

“Sorry, nothing! You can’t disband the Highwaymen right now, with the ISA gearing up for what will probably be the most aggressive push yet! With the razistas emboldened by their takeover of Southern California, and likely to come gunning for the other border states! With the drug lords cooperating with the jihadis to bring the fighting directly to Texas! The people need the Highwaymen more than ever, and you’re just going to take a summer vacation?”

I was also dumbfounded by this news; part of why I had returned from Kentucky down to the Ladreys was to join up with the Highwaymen for the summer. And I had to agree with Jon that action was sorely needed.

Amy’s dad looked cross, but his voice remained even. “Family comes first, Jon.”

Jon was fuming. “Family comes first? Family comes first? What about my family, Jake! Wasn’t I focusing on family when those damn jihadis launched a missile that killed my daughter in this very house? You’re family will still be coming first when the next botched missile strikes and kills your daughter who you’re putting through so much pain right now!”

Amy’s dad stood straight up. “I will attribute that last remark to your continued grief.”

“Yeah, I’m grieving,” Jon shot right back. “Every day I’m grieving. But the only way I can work through the hole in my heart left by Liberty is to fight so that maybe other Independents will not lose what I have!”

“Don’t you see? Don’t you see?” Amy’s dad was beginning to meet his brother in intensity. “They win! If we are forced to sacrifice the most fundamental aspect of lives, our own very families, the very building blocks of civilization, then they win. Don’t let them win, brother! You still have your wife, your two sons, your other daughter, your nephew, and your niece!”

“My niece, who screamed at the top of her lungs last night because of the jihadis’ malice and your cowardice!” Jon pushed himself away from the table.

“Oh, I am a coward now, am I?” Amy’s dad shouted, chasing after him.

I glanced wide-eyed at the others. Amy’s aunt had her face in her hands; I think she was crying. T was drawing circles on his plate with his knife. Amy’s grandpa just stared thoughtfully, almost placidly, in the direction in which his sons had left, and continued to do so as their angry voices carried in from the kitchen, reaching a fever pitch punctuated by the slamming of the front door.

“Excuse me,” Amy’s aunt said, and she hurried away from the table.

T left wordlessly.

I sat there uncomfortably for a few moments, wondering what I should do. Amy’s grandpa was still sitting silently at the other end of the table. I did not know him as well as the others; he was the sort of man to entertain awkward silences even in the best of situations, much less something like this. I found it strange that such an unsettlingly taciturn man had ever been a politician, much less an important one, but it occurred to me that above the awkwardness his silence also seemed to signal a grasp of wisdom and perception that would be fitting for a statesman.

I decided to wait for his signal of what to do. He remained there, his wrinkled brow lifted in apparent thought. He had a rather large nose dotted with visible pores that sat above his thin mouth and below his sharp blue eyes. His hair was white and buzz-cut, the hairline pushed back on either side of his forehead like Mickey Mouse or Dracula. He had his son’s thin frame but without the sense of sinewy strength—perhaps because of his age—though at the same time he did not seem frail, either.

He suddenly realized I had been looking at him, and looked at me with surprise as if he had forgotten I had been there at all. Then he looked down at the table.

He looked back at me and smiled. “Well, that was certainly a clever way for them all to leave you and me with the dishes, don’t you think?”

He stood up and began gathering stacking the nearby plates and silverware onto his own. I quickly stood to help. We took the pile of dishes in to the kitchen.

“I’ll wash and you rinse and dry, what,” he said, immediately taking up the wash rag to scrub the first plate.

We worked in silence for several minutes, clean plates forming up in a pile on the left side of the sink.

Amy’s grandpa cleared his throat. “They’ve always fought like that, you know.” He handed me a plate. “Actually, back when they were boys, it was worse. Doesn’t mean they don’t love each other.”


“They’re family, and they’re both trying to defend family. They’ll patch up when they realize that.”

I nodded. I took a pile of clean plates over to the cabinet to put them up.

“You’re a good man, sticking by Amy,” Amy’s grandpa called from over by the sink. “I’ll be proud to have you in my family. Do you think you’ll ask her to marry soon?”

I nearly dropped the plates. “Um, I hadn’t thought, what with the…”

“Oh, there’ll always be something, son.” He turned off the running water and turned to smile at me. “Maybe when her treatments settle down, maybe when the border skirmishes are settled, maybe when the war is over, maybe when you’ve found a civilian job, maybe after you’ve got enough saved up to buy a house—there’s always another maybe. Don’t let your plans for the future get in the way of living life right now as it’s still here.”

“That seems like good advice, sir.”

He chuckled. “I should hope it doesn’t just seem it. If you love my Amy enough to stick by her through this, well, the rest of us approve of you, I think you should start considering when to start a family. Remember, family is what it’s all about.”

“Yes, sir.”

We finished up the dishes, and Amy’s grandpa left me with a smile and a pat on the back. I decided that I definitely liked him.

Neither Amy’s dad nor Jon returned home until shortly before supper, but they returned together and with no sign of resentment for the argument that had taken place that morning. When it became obvious that they had put the dispute behind them, the rest of the family did, too.

I spent the next day with T helping his dad and uncle trim and spruce up the yard, as well as wash the outside of the house. Then in the early evening we helped Amy’s aunt clean up around the house.

The morning after that Amy’s mom offered for me to take Amy’s breakfast upstairs to her. Having not seen Amy but that once briefly when I first arrived, I was very grateful for the opportunity to spend some one-on-one time with her. I carried the two plates of steaming hot “breakfast casserole”—more like quiche than anything—quickly up the stairs, nearly spilling the contents when I reached the top, so excited I was to see Amy again.

I balanced the two plates on one arm and hand and knocked on the door.

“Come in,” I heard Amy say from the other side of the door.

“Brent!” Amy’s face lit up as I entered, and my heart skipped a beat. She still had an effect on me, laid up and deathly thin though she was.

“Lone Star Breakfast Casserole, they said this monstrosity is called,” I said, handing her a plate. I set my own plate on the bedside chair so I could unfold the tray the Ladreys had for her to use as a table. I pulled her silverware, carefully wrapped in a napkin, from my pocket and set it on the tray for her.

Amy’s mom showed up with two glasses of orange juice. “All right,” she said, after handing them to each of us, “do y’all need anything else?”

“We’re fine, Mom,” Amy said. Her mom kissed her on the forehead, then gave me a smile and left the room.

Amy took a couple of bites of her breakfast.

I looked at the yellow, brown, and green mixture on my plate. “So, is it any good?” I asked.

“Dunno,” Amy said. “I remember it being rather spicy, sort of like squishy sausage. I always liked it.”

I covered my embarrassment of asking such a stupid question by shoving a bite quickly into my mouth. “Mmm,” I said. “You’re right; it is like squishy sausage.”

“I’m hoping to start in on one of those literary journals you brought me today,” Amy said. “Thanks so much for bringing them.”

“Of course,” I said. “Can’t have you getting bored up here. Otherwise, next thing you know, you’ll have your bed moved over to the window so you can snipe chickens in the yard.”

Her laugh was still the same, but it cut short and she put a hand over her stomach. “Or take pot shots at you guys while Dad has you in his yard labor force.”

I took a swallow of my orange juice.

“Hey,” Amy said. She was looking at me intently.


“I would understand, you know, if you decided to leave.”

“What are you talking about?” I stuck my fork in a new hunk of breakfast casserole. “I haven’t even had more than a couple of bites yet.”

“Not that, silly. I mean if you decided not to stick around for a girl who may never walk again.”

I set my fork down and looked at her seriously. “Where else would I find a girl who can hit a quarter from eight hundred yards, or who’s smart enough to read Cicero in the original Latin? I didn’t just choose you for your hiking ability. I’m not going anywhere.”

She beamed at me. I set my plate on the bedtable so I could lean over and kiss her, gently. Gently.

Then I sat back. “Now eat your breakfast.”

She stuck her tongue out at me.

I stared at her. “How do you do it, anyway?”

“Do what?” she asked, putting another bite in her mouth and chewing it with a slight roll of her eyes.

“This,” I said, indicating her bed, “has deeply impacted everyone else in the house. They’re all on edge, they’re all grieving, they’re all worried and upset and mad. You’re not at your best, but you don’t seem depressed or anything. It would make more sense if you were.”

“Some days I am, but…” She looked away from me. “When the missile hit, last Christmas, I was sitting right next to my cousin, both of us there, on the couch. I’d seen enough combat to know immediately that we were goners; what surprised me was to find that I was not dead. But Libby was. Just like that.”

She looked back over to me. “We grew up together, you know. We were more like sisters than cousins. We talked about everything, clothes, music, internet, boys, everything. We were going to be maids of honor at each other’s weddings. And now she’s gone and can’t talk about any of those things. She’ll never hear the newest song by Trackshun. She’ll never get married. So I can’t sit down here and feel sorry for myself when I’m still here and she’s not.”

Libby had been a pretty girl, with a broad smile and a cheery personality. It angered me, thinking about her, and that she had been robbed of all Amy had said. The flame that had been smoldering in my heart flared at the thought of those responsible for her death getting to experience anything she was now missing.

Amy’s eyes flickered with an equally intense ferocity. “No, I have to live. And I have to live to the fullest, despite having to force-feed myself because food tastes like crap, despite being stuck in this bed, despite any amount of pain, I have to push to live life to the fullest that I can possibly live, I have to make the best of what I have, because now I have to live for Libby, and get to do all the things that she can’t, in her memory.”

I bit into the last few bites of my breakfast casserole, which did not provide enough resistance to allow me to chew as angrily as I wanted to, thinking of those who killed Amy’s cousin. Amy, apparently inspired by her own words, tore into her own breakfast and cleaned her plate.

“I don’t have another treatment until Monday,” Amy said as I gathered up the plates and silverware to take downstairs. “Do you think you can hang out with me more today?”

“Your dad asked me to help him with a trip into town, but I could—”

“No, you help him with that. I need to get cracking on that copy of McSweeney’s, anyway; you could be returning it if I had opened it yesterday!”

“And bringing you a new one.” I shook my head. “Oh, well.”

“Hah! Yeah. We can play cards or something tomorrow. Come up and let me know when you get back, though.”

“Sure thing,” I said.

I walked down the stairs and into the main hall. As I walked past the china cabinet, I noticed circles of undusted wood where the jade tea set had been laid out; no other sign of intricately carved tea set remained.

Half an hour later I was once again with Amy’s dad in his Ford Independent, winding our way through the hill country. We stopped first at a pawn shop; Amy’s dad went in with a cardboard box and then came out all smiles, commenting that the owner recognized value.

Then we dropped by Dr. Guerrero’s again so Amy’s dad could pay the bill in cash. From there we got back on the highway and headed home. We stopped in Marble Falls at their superstore, and I watched with somewhat uncomfortable surprise as Amy’s dad loaded up on enough briscuit, sausage, beer, sodas, chips, and salsa to feed a small army. At the checkout, he also had the checker ring up a dozen bags of ice.

“Grab the ice, will ya?” he asked me as we exited the store.

I could only reasonably carry four bags at a time, so I headed out with my first load and joined him at the truck. He had put the meat in the bottom of the ice chests, and I put the bags of ice on top of that. I turned and headed back to the store while he continued to load the other groceries into the back of the truck.

I stepped out of the way to let an older lady, a Hispanic-looking woman hunched with several bags of groceries, out of the store, then went to the freezer just inside the door and got the next batch of ice. I passed the same lady on my way back to the truck; she was shuffling along at a snail’s pace. I filled up another ice chest and returned to the store for the final set.

“That’s the last of it,” I said when I returned.

Amy’s dad didn’t respond. He was turned, looking down the parking aisle. I followed his gaze, at the same time noticing the sound of teenage laughter.

A group of boys were harassing the lady I had seen earlier. They were circling her, giving the occasional shove.

“Why don’t you go back to Mexico?” I heard one of them say. They shoved her harder, causing her to lose her grip on the sacks she was carrying. Groceries spilled out on the parking lot. Other people were giving the scene sideways glances and a wide berth.

But Amy’s dad was walking rapidly toward them. I dropped the bags of ice and moved to follow. He walked straight up to the biggest of the four teenagers and sent him toppling backwards with a punch to the nose. Before any of them could react, he had kicked another in the stomach, causing the kid to collide backward into a third teen.

The kids turned to face their attacker, but by that time I had also made it to the scene, and looking at the two of us they hesitated to make a move to strike back.

“What the hell, man?” said the first, daubing blood from his nose. “What are you, some Mexican sympathizer?”

Amy’s dad spat at the ground. “What are you, some cowardly Yankee refugee who came down to Texas rather than fight for your freedom in the north? ‘Cause you damn well ain’t no Texan, ‘cause any born and raised Texan would know that people like this lady’s ancestors fought beside us in the War for Texas Independence. You can’t tell if she’s a razista by looking at her, and when you act like you can, you’re no better than the razistas. Now get out of here before I call the cops.”

The kid glared at him, but after pressing at his nose a couple more times, he let his friends usher him along and soon they had all left. Amy’s dad watched them go, then bent down and started gathering up the groceries that had spilled on the pavement. I picked up a bag and held it open for him to put the stuff he had gathered. The woman also helped, admonishing us for troubling ourselves to pick up the stuff.

“There you are, senora,” Amy’s dad said when the last of the groceries had been picked up.

“Thank you, sir,” she said. “Thank you.”

“No need to thank me. I’m sorry they troubled you. Here, let me and my friend help you get to your car.”

We helped her carry her bags to her car and saw her safely head out of the parking lot before walking back to the truck.

“Such ignorance,” was all that Amy’s dad said.

We drove out of town, stopping only for some more gas, and then about half an hour later, at a fireworks stand, where once again Amy’s dad purchased enough munitions for a small army, though he stayed away from the big ticket items and stuck with small crackers and sparklers and similar small-scale things for individuals.

“What?” he asked as we got back on the road.

I guess I had been letting my expressions get the better of me.

“Nothing,” I said.

“You’re wondering how come I’m spending all this on firecrackers and such,” he said.

“I, uh, noticed the jade tea set disappeared,” I said. “Wasn’t it sort of a family heirloom?”

“Ah, a family heirloom, yes,” he said. “My dad agreed to us using it for this, if you were wondering. And Amy. She was most likely to inherit it some day.”

“I understand using that for Amy, but I’m still…” I stopped. It wasn’t my place.

“I understand.” He sighed. “I’m not sure what I can do to explain it. You could say that Amy’s treatment and my plans for Monday are one and the same in purpose, though for different patients. I consider both invaluable.”

I didn’t understand where he was going with this, but figured I’d take advantage of this moment in which he was sharing his thoughts with me.

“So what’s the deal with Monday?”

He smiled. “You’ll just have to wait and see.”

Sunday afternoon, Amy had me playing cards with her, this two-player card game that she loved where you add the cards up to fifteen and move little pegs about a board. I understood it well enough to play—she had taught it to me before—but not nearly well enough to keep her pegs from moving way faster than mine.

About the third time she had beaten me mercilessly, her dad interrupted and asked me to come help him with hanging lights in the yard for the next day’s party. Jon and T had gone into town to borrow tables and chairs from the local church, who hadn’t been able to spare them until after their own Fourth of July picnic, so it was just me and Amy’s dad out in the yard.

“We’ll run them from either corner of the house, hang ‘em from the trees to form a big square.” He pointed down the yard all the way to the fenceline.

“Up all the way to the fence there?”


“That’s a lot of space,” I said.

“Gotta have room for fireworks.”

He started the line at the corner of the house, then held the ladder for me as I hung the lights across the limbs of the trees.

“Brent, I want you to know that you can stay here all summer if you’d like.”

“That’s a really nice offer, Mr. Ladrey,” I said. “But since the Highwaymen aren’t mobilizing this summer, I’m thinking of joining up with the militias along the Valley instead.”

“Oh,” he said. He stepped aside as I came down the ladder and we walked over to the shed near the fence. He set up the ladder and I climbed up to string the lights across the shed’s roof.

“I feel like Jon has a point, that it’s a critical time for the fighting,” I said, not sure why I felt the need to explain myself.

“He’s right in that assessment,” Amy’s dad replied.

“Besides,” I said, coming down the ladder, “fighting in the Valley will give me an opportunity to strike back at the worthless scum who launched the Christmas missiles.”

The hand on my shoulder twirled me around and slammed me up against the shed so quickly that I barely had time to be surprised. With an iron grip on my shirt, Amy’s dad pressed his forearm into my throat and held me against the shed.

“That’s no good, soldier.” His face was deadly serious.

I easily weighed more than him, but the surprise and his intensity left me feeling helpless. “Sir?”

“You want to go kill the jihadis who hurt Amy? Or the drug lords who let them? Is that it?”

I nodded, speechless.

“That’s no good. You can’t fight for that reason. You can’t die for that reason.”

He released his grip on my shirt put the hand on my shoulder instead, his other hand bracing against the shed as he leaned forward, his head lowered.

“Brent, you may have to fight the jihadis every day of your life, and one day they may break my little girl’s heart when they kill you, and if that day comes, I would want you to die for the right reasons, and vengeance isn’t one of them.”

He raised his head to look me in the eye. “We can’t fight their bloodthirstiness with vengeance. We have to fight them on principle. We have to stand and fight in order to stop them from doing more harm, not in order to make them pay for what they’ve done. Do you understand the difference?”

I did, and it made sense coming from his mouth, but in my heart I wasn’t quite sure I could just let it go like that. However, I nodded.

“Do you think you can fight for the right reasons?” He stared into my eyes. No trace remained of the anger which had shoved me against the wall. His eyes seemed to be pleading with me more than anything.

I swallowed.

He nodded. “I don’t think you fully understand, yet. Stopping the jihadis from taking over the world, that’s not what’s most important. It’s important, yeah, but it’s not everything. No, Brent, you are everything; you are what’s important. You can’t throw away what’s important for revenge, especially if running after vengeance will cause it all to become meaningless.”

He pushed himself away from the shed and got out of my face. He straightened my shirt and patted me on the shoulder. “Sorry. Hey, look around tomorrow, when all these lights are on and everybody’s here. See if you can’t better understand what I’m saying. Then think it over and let me know what your plans for summer are going to be.”

We finished hanging the lights in silence, Amy’s dad looking more apologetic than anything. I thought over his words as we hung the lights, and continued to consider them when T and his uncle got back with the table and chairs, and was still thinking over their meaning that night as I lay exhausted on the fold-out listening to the crickets.

Monday morning dawned warm and soon progressed to hot, with a steady succession of puffy white clouds providing the relief of occasional shade. The house was busy with last-minute preparations for Amy’s dad’s mystery party. By eleven, he had the grill fired up. Shortly after, the guests began arriving.

“Oh, wow, Paw-paw and Mema!” exclaimed T as a long RV pulled up the drive and parked next to the barn. A tall man got out, with a thick forest of white hair, accompanied by a short and thin woman who looked like an exact copy of Amy’s mom, only thirty years older.

“And Aunt Jaclyn!” T ran up and hugged a woman who looked startingly like an older version of Amy.

The day continued, with more and more relatives of the Ladrey household arriving. T introduced me to aunts and uncles and cousins and more cousins. Even Aunt Mary’s parents showed up with her and Uncle Jon’s two sons and daughter.

Amy’s dad had organized a Fourth of July family reunion.

Everyone brought a dish of food to share, so that before long a literal feast lay out upon the serving table. People sat about in foldout tables and chairs, eating food and sipping beer or lemonade. Little kids ran about the yard, chasing the butterflies, grasshoppers, and each other. I met members of the Ladrey family that I didn’t even know existed.

The feeling of love was notable, like a lubricant in the social occasion that put everyone at ease and made everything run smoothly. Many of these people had not seen each other for months or years, and most had not even met me before, but everyone was happy to see one another. Everyone smiled at me and gave me a hug.

The afternoon rolled on, the time passing quickly as stories were told and dominoes were shuffled and watermelon seed-spitting contests were held. When dinner rolled around, I stopped and looked at all the people and realized that this was something special. What was happening could occur in no other situation.

And the atmosphere was more than just pleasant. It was a salve. T was chasing and laughing with his much younger cousins. Amy’s mom was enjoying the company of her family, looking relaxed and happy as she sat talking and drinking lemonade.

Uncle Jon came out of the house carrying Amy in his arms, so that she wouldn’t miss out on her family. He sat her down carefully on a sun chair on the back porch. A bunch of her little female cousins immediately gathered around her. She laughed with them and wove flowers into their hair.

“A toast!” Amy’s dad announced, as the sun began to lower in the sky. “A toast!”

He stood at the porch, addressing everyone. “Thank you all for coming. It gladdens my heart to see you all again, and it is an honor and a privilege to be part of your family. I know that some of you traveled for hours to be with us today, and I appreciate how that shows how much you value all of us.”

“But not everyone could be here today,” he continued, “and one member in particular has been lost to us.” He looked over to his brother and sister-in-law. “And so I propose a toast, in the memory of Liberty; to family!”

“To family!” everyone cried, and drank.

“And now,” Amy’s dad said, raising his arms like a ringmaster in a circus, “dancing and firecrackers!”

Music belted out a dance tune and many people hopped up to dance. Amy’s dad grabbed his wife and twirled her about in the grass, showing off an extensive array of twists and turns. It nearly looked like an extension of the music, fluid as it was.

T broke out the box of fireworks, distributing punks and munitions to all the kids and watchful adults. Pops and spinning lights began to occur steadily over by the fenceline. The string of lights were turned on, and the fireflies came out, and soon all of the light and noise seemed sewn together in one seamless garment of joy that the evening wore proudly.

After a good set of dance tunes, Amy’s dad played a series of patriotic songs. I was sitting over at a side table near the porch with Amy’s grandpa and aunt, watching the kids jump and spin with their sparklers, when “America the Beautiful” came on.

“Oh my God!” Amy’s Aunt Mary brought her hand up to her mouth, an expression of absolute disbelief on her face.

I turned to see what she was staring at. Amy’s dad stood with a hand extended toward his daughter. Slowly, slowly he helped Amy stand, then scooped her closely into his arms as she leaned against him, and they slowly shifted to the music.

I jumped out of my chair. I looked over to see Amy’s grandpa smiling and Aunt Mary sniffling. All of the family near the porch had taken notice of what was going on, and a spontaneous burst of applause broke out. Amy buried her face in her father’s shoulder as they continued to slowly sway to the music.

Amy’s dad looked over and found me, and jerked his head a couple of times, calling me over.

“Would you like to take a verse?” he asked.

We carefully switched places, making sure to support Amy’s weight as we did so. Her eyes and nose were red from tears, but she smiled at me before wetting my shoulder. I held her in my arms and we slowly swayed. And I knew exactly where I would be for the rest of summer.