The soles of my shoes hung just above the ground, so close I could almost convince myself I was standing, my untied laces grazing the grass’s fingertips. Slits of the light crawled through the lower branches, shredding the sun as if by Venetian blinds, and fell into my eyes, squeezing my pupils and building me a harem of flickering white spots. I squinted. The morning breeze hardly shook me, like a goldfish swaying above his fake rocks. The dew soared from the shadowed grasses into the air like graves breathing ghosts from their headstones. It glued to my cheeks. I was reminded of my father, exhaling clouds into the room.
My father didn’t smoke, but his breath was thick and hot and most nights smelled like the bar tile of a TGI Friday’s. Blue knuckles knotted like roots forging a scruff in my shirt collar, seizing me like a hound. Through elongated monologues full of words I didn’t know, he puffed angry clouds of himself through thin lips and a grayed beard down my throat, demanding my attention to stay. The hair on his fingers swept to the side like an unmowed lawn wilting over a driveway. His eyes were that same milky green, framed by bloody roadmaps on copy paper. We didn’t own a weedwhacker.
Before dawn broke I had finished the most violent of showers. I stood, warm water tracing the crevices and cliffs of my face, staring at my palms. I saw filth. So I scrubbed it all off.
The shadows of branches spread like spiders’ legs beneath me, gliding further away as the sun rose. I recalled my mother, domestic, after we had finished eating one night. My father wasn’t home. “Your father planted that tree. Not from a seed. It was already a little, baby-looking tree,” she said, hands in the sink. “When the house was first built. That one was the first tree.” As she finished up the last of the dishes she paused, looking alarmed. That’s a good word — alarmed. Because it wasn’t surprise. It was never surprise. She had the ears of a fox and a pointy nose and hippy voice to match. We’d always be having a chat, just the three of us (me, mother, and Crayola), but then the thud of a car door would jolt her into action and ruin everything. She’d rush me to my bedroom, careful not to step on my heels. “Try to go to sleep, Adam,” she said. “Try to fall asleep, sweetheart.” But of course I couldn’t. It was always just way too loud.
This morning was silent, though. It was too early for neighbors. Probably even for animals. I felt a presence on the top of my head. I knew it immediately to be a leaf. Probably brown, or at least starting to brown. The breeze was not strong enough to keep the alive living. I counted it. One. That would probably be the end of the count.
It surprised me that I had the ability to count — that my brain wasn’t busy, elsewhere. Through everything, I had expected to panic, to tremble and flail, and for the tree not to notice. Instead, there was a certain stillness, even among the goosebumps, standing at attention. The skin of my neck hummed, though, like a sunburn. I thought of my father again.
“Boy!” He clapped the back of my neck, leaning quickly, forcing eye contact, even as I stared over the tile.
He heard a shy gasp break from my mother’s larynx. “Please.”
His eyes flicked empty, just for a moment. Then they were back again, piercing. Hot, and full of ice. “God, you’re lucky, aren’t you?” But he’d walk away, anyway.
They were old now. Not shitting themselves old. They still took the car to church. But they were long past graying and well into armchairs. I pictured them in the chairs. My father reading a newspaper for the third time today and my mother with both bony hands tied around a warm mug of whatever she drinks now, whispering things to her love, hoping one of them would catch and spark. One did, and He spoke without breaking his scowl at the lifestyle section.
I wondered what they were talking about, hoping it wasn’t me. I wondered exactly how much money I had saved by not installing a perimeter fence, even just a cheap one. I wondered just how much use someone could find in an old flannel bathrobe, save the belt. I wondered what color my fingertips were. I counted a second leaf. Two. I pictured my mistakes as a tall beast, guided to a slump by a heavy spine, standing beside me at an alter. He had long red fingers and chubby pink palms, and upon one of those fingers I slid a silver ring. ’Til death do us part. It was only silver. The sun was brighter, higher in the sky, bleeding yellows and whites into the lonely blue, leftover from the night. I tried to swallow, over and again, until the sun couldn’t hurt my eyes.
Lance Milham is an MFA candidate at the University of Central Florida. His fiction has appeared in The Pinkley Press, and his poetry has appeared in Anti-Heroin Chic Magazine. He also maintains a spoken word poetry project under the pseudonym “hold your tongue.”
Spoken Word available at www.holdyourtongue.bandcamp.com/