The loud crash of his revolver going off woke him up from the alcoholic stupor he needed in order to sleep. He really had fired the gun — he could smell it and it was hot in his hand. Usually he hid it at suppertime because otherwise he would do exactly what he had just done. It was PTSD, he understood that, but he hadn’t been able to control it. The VA was no help. It was already hard to find a place to live and shooting in the night would get him evicted from any apartment building. But he must have been too drunk too early to remember to hide it.
Now he heard a thin wail from behind the sofa. “Don’t kill me, mister! Please don’t kill me. I’ll do whatever you want me to do.” His head swirled, pinwheeling through the realities and fantasies, memories and imaginings, symbols and . . . What the hell was a child doing in this little old house he had rented?
“Come outta there,” he shouted, juiced with adrenaline. A bare-chested and ribby little boy came out, very slowly with his hands up. Information came to the man like words forming underwater. This boy was his son, a boy he had never known, who had been born while he was fighting in Afghanistan. He’d hardly even known the boy’s mother who had died after her own long hard-fought war with health. Paperwork sent him the boy. He was the only relative of record. For a long time the kid had disappeared and he didn’t turn up in a good way. Actually, in Juvie. Even after feeding him and taking him home to sleep on the sofa, the man could hardly recognize his son,
What registered with him now was huge eyes with hair falling over his forehead. He saw that the kid had big ears and his nose was snotty from fear and tears. “I didn’t do anything, honest,” he said. “Don’t shoot me.”
The man was deeply ashamed. He threw the gun into the nightstand drawer and slammed it shut. Sitting on the edge of his bed, also bare-chested but hairy, he rubbed his head and closed his eyes, trying to find some kind of reference point. Then there were small hands on his knees.
“I would never hurt you, kid. You are my son.”
“I can’t even remember your name. I forgot you were here. I’m so very sorry.”
“Don’t send me away. I’ll do whatever you want.” He ran his small hands over his father’s furry chest.
“What are you doing?”
“I could comfort you, make you forget your troubles.”
The man stared. The boy hands wandered down over his stomach until they came to the boxer elastic. “What the fuck are you doing?”
“Men always like this. I’ve made a lot of money.”
He grabbed the boy’s hands. “Not me. I’m your father. It isn’t right.” It wasn’t that he hadn’t . . . but the others were adults.
The boy was crying again. He didn’t make a face, just wept. There were scars on his little chest. The man was overcome with pity, very close to being love. He enfolded the boy and rocked him.
That night changed everything, but slowly.
As the boy grew more accustomed to the man and felt a little more secure, he began to ask questions. “Is it because you have PTSD?” he asked. And then he wanted to know about the shot fired. “Was there someone in the doorway, very big, coming to get you, to make you scream with pain? That’s the dream that makes me want a gun.”
The man stared. He said, “It’s not quite a dream, is it? A sort of hallucination.”
“Yeah, like drugs,” the boy said matter-of-factly. He was not like Americans think boys are like. More like an Afghani boy. “Everybody knows about drugs. They make things seen lots better. Less pain when they go in you. If you get the right drug. Afterwards, weed is always good.”
The man had a quick thought that if this kid found his weed stash, he would smoke it. What really happened was that the kid hid the gun in a place so clever that that the man never could find it again. The boy promised that he hadn’t ditched it — after all, the boy might need it himself. He didn’t even look for the weed. Clearly he was safer if his father used it.
Over the months the pair grew calmer. The boy tried school, though he sat in the back not saying much. It wasn’t as bad as he remembered. The man found a group for sharing.
Then one evening, the boy asked, “Are we Indians?” He’d been watching the trailers for “Jimmy P” and “Winter in the Blood.” He was sitting cross-legged on the floor with the man’s iPad. With his head bent forward, the nape of his neck showed, tender and vulnerable. He had black, straight hair and his skin was fawn-colored.
“You are. I’m not.”
“Then what are you?”
The boy glanced back to see what that meant. He decided he couldn’t get it. “Let’s do something Indian,” the boy said. “There’s a pow-wow here on Saturday.” It was Laura Grizzlypaws, the only woman bear dancer. Paws — not claws. She stood for peace, harmony, belonging. When she danced, she WAS a bear. He found the vids and watched them over and over.
They did go. The man wasn’t Indian but he could explain the powwow. The boy was enchanted. “I thought bears were scary,” he declared and then his eyes brimmed over. His father understood and his own eyes welled up. “Thinking of your mother,” he said and the boy nodded.
That night the man didn’t get drunk, so he lay awake in that twilight state before sleep. He was sweating and hearing the woman screaming. The Afghani one who had been raped and decapitated in a small building while he and his comrades were held down behind a wall by gunfire from inside. They were very close to the house. An eviscerated man lay by the front door. It took them a while to realize that the small piles of rags in the yard had been children.
They could hear her screaming but if they raked the building with gunfire they might kill her. What they imagined was happening was worse than what they might have seen — but they could guess because they had seen remains before. Finally, one of them couldn’t stand it any longer and risked throwing a grenade through the open front door into the house. After the explosion everyone inside was quiet, both the criminals and the woman. The silence was paradoxically loud. “She would have wanted it,” declared the man with the good throwing arm. He was that man.
Through the horror replay in his mind, the man felt the boy’s hand on his shoulder. He sure could creep around really quiet. “I’m scared,” admitted the boy. “Can I get in this bed with you.” The man just swept him under the covers without saying anything.
They lay side-by-side, not touching while their breathing synchronized. Then the boy asked, “Do you know any bedtime stories?”
After a bit of thought, his father said, “I’ll tell you one I learned from your mother.” He could feel the boy grin. “It’s about a Bear Knife Bundle and it’s a warrior’s tale. A Bear Knife is a really big knife and the handle is decorated with a cluster of brass hawk’s bells among other powerful things. It is kept in a Bundle which is transferred from one man to another. That means it is Holy and handled with respect. It carries power which is why it must be properly transferred, or people will die.”
“In fact, besides the receiver learning certain songs, gestures and taboos, the way it is transferred is by the previous Keeper throwing it at the head of the receiver. If he can catch it safely by the handle, he is the new Keeper of the Power. If he cannot catch it, he will be killed.” The boy sighed with satisfaction. He admired power.
The next day when the man came home after his day of looking for work, he found the biggest kitchen knife on the table, decorated with a cluster of Christmas jingle bells and ribbons. “Hey, dad,” said the boy. “We’re both kinda dangerous, but I think we’re Keepers. Like, for keeps.”
“Yeah. Survivors.” Their grins were nearly identical.