Pa wont ever be the same after Grandma Judy killed herself, I reckon. He tried to hide it behind those lifeless eyes of his, but he always looked like he was thinking something heavy. I doubt we'll ever know why she did it; it's like one day she woke up and the weather didn't suit her so she figured it was a good day to die. I came back from playing with Joe, the neighbor's boy, on account of it starting to rain, and there she was in her rocking chair on the front porch, her scalp blown clear off. I'll never forget it — the top half of her head missing, open at the top just like a rusty water pail, and her brains all over the ceiling. Looked like a bucket of paint dropped from a scaffolding, except all the splatter was mealy and grey. There were horseflies all about her, coverin' her nose and mouth like a funeral veil, and I wished to God I could have swatted every one of 'em. I don't hold it against her, but I hate the way she did it. If there's one thing I could change in my life, one single moment I could alter in this universe, I'd have given Grandma a .22 instead — the shotgun just made the whole situation so much worse, so much more vivid. Dyin' is never pretty, but that doesn't mean it's got to be a goddamn mess, neither.
When I got Pa from the work shed he didn't say nothing, just took me in his arms and buried my face in his stomach, but I still saw it in my head and I haven't been able to wash it off since. The knuckle of her big toe was caught in the trigger guard of Pa's double barrel and you wouldn't of known it was her if it weren't for Granddaddy's pendant hanging around her lonely neck. I could hear Pa's heart, hear it beating like a midnight train, but he didn't cry a lick.
The coroner came, the police too. We offered 'em drip coffee, and they said OK, but they set their mugs down here and there and they were tepid and brimming when they left. They hauled her off to the morgue and Pa put his shotgun back in the closet. In the following years, I'd sometimes catch Pa glancing toward the porch, usually before sundown, and I know he saw the blood-stained pine as good as I did. All the lacquer in the world couldn't cover that up.
I've always had a few questions — a few items that keep me up at night when I can't keep my mind from wandering off like a mutt does for a bitch in heat. I know why I didn't hear the gun go off, but I can't say so for Pa. I was young and empty-headed, and Joe and I were off in the woods buildin' a fort around the top of the well. Joe swore he heard something, but I don't believe him. The point is, we were off a ways. Pa's work shed, on the other hand, is only about a 100 yards from the porch, and Pa should have heard the blast. Should've gotten there first. I guess he was using a saw at the time; I've never had the heart to ask.
The other thing I can't shake, can't seem to put right like sand back to stone, is why he kept that damned gun. It was his daddy's gun, and his granddaddy's gun before him, but as far as I'm concerned, he should've taken that gun and buried it in the deepest hole he figured he could still climb out of. Instead he kept it, never took it out or polished it once, but he kept it all the same. That 12 gauge sat it in the corner of the closet by his old coats and what-nots and its barrel sparkled like a crystal ocean when the hall light hit it. It cut me down at the knees every time. I'd see that gun, and then I'd see Grandma Judy dead as dead and the memory of her head painted all over the porch. I can't fathom why a man'd keep such a thing.
But men do all sorts of strange things. They respond funnily when they're confronted by pain, and it's the only explanation I have for why Pa changed. Maybe change is the wrong word, it's more like he just shut down. He wasn't the only one. Quite a few in our family dealt with pain of the psychological sort, and I reckon that's what made Grandma do it. I can remember his brother, Uncle Charlie, and his weathered face, little crow's feet all around his eyes, and with one look at 'em you knew he was contemplating something dreadful — something deep inside him, in the recesses of his head where only he could go.
Uncle Charlie hit the bottle a lot. He took to smelling like whiskey, even in the morning, and Pa told him to clean up or stay off the property. I almost wish Pa had taken to the bottle, at least I'd have known there was something in him still livin'. Something down in there he was tryin' to kill. He might as well've been stuffed with cotton and sewed together, like Raggedy Ann, 'cept Pa didn't smile much ever again, and some days he didn't speak a word till supper. It stayed that way, until 'Pass the biscuits' started to feel like a hug ... There must be something lonesome in this blood of ours.
Things went on that way for as long as I can remember, and everyday I reckon he grew more distant. There were times when I'd find Pa laid down in the tub staring up at the ceiling with the water up to his lips. I'd knock on the door and he wouldn't answer, so I'd go in and he'd be lyin' there like a corpse and I'd tell 'em goodnight, and there wasn't a ripple to be made. I knew he heard me. Afterwards I could never sleep, I'd just be thinking that Pa might kill himself too. I'd toss and turn, waiting to hear the other round of the double barrel Grandma never got around to, and I'd have to go through it all all over again.
Eventually a time came when I knew Pa won't ever changin' back — that I was stuck with this shadow of a man. Grandma had always read me my verses on Sunday, and I kept readin' 'em even though she committed the worst sin of 'em all. One day, maybe a couple months after she'd left us, I was sittin' in the living room after breakfast. It was Sunday, but Pa still worked it. He came in from his work shed and saw me reading, and looked at me for a good long while. I felt his eyes on my neck like hot wax, so I turned to him and asked if he was alright.
He responded, "What're you readin'?"
He sucked at his teeth, "What for?"
I looked at him and he stared back at me and we did so till everything started to go out of focus and I had to look away. I regret looking away.
"I don't wanna see it out again" he sighed, "you ought to know... He's gone from this place."
I kept that Bible and it's sittin' in my nightstand, and sometimes when I'm feeling particularly unsettled I'll take it out. It doesn't have the impact on me that it used to, at this point they're just stories, but stories are meant to be read. I didn't keep much else from all that time, I guess it's cause I don't like to think of it. I sometimes wake up at night and I'm covered in sweat and shivering and my lungs are sore from screaming, and Lisa is lookin' at me like she's scared as hell, but she lays me down and rubs my back till I'm asleep again. Back asleep and back to where I'm susceptible to the memories I thought I'd buried. Dreams have a way of working themselves into the crevices of your thoughts, as if they were fluid, and they seep into the sutures of old wounds you thought were healed and behind you, pulling out the muck and dried blood and you've got nothing but a mirror for company. They've got a lot to say, that's for sure, and I reckon my sutures run deep.
The only other thing I kept was my Grandma's wedding band. The coroner had a little bag with her possessions, and it didn't look like much. I gave it to Lisa, my wife, after all those years. Lisa was mighty pretty, still is, and I figured at the time that I needed to settle down. Pa gave me the ring three days after Grandma had done it, and I put it away for safe keeping in a little box Pa had whittled out of an oak stump. It sat their gathering dust, just like Pa, and it's the only thing he ever gave me worth holdin' on to. I still have the box, and on the bottom it says 'For my only son' in jagged letters, carved with the tip of his pocket knife. The ring ain't nothing special, just a gold band about as thin as a tree sprout, but Lisa don't mind and I don't think Grandma did either.
It's been more than 20 years since I been home, and he's plenty old now. I'm not a spring chicken anymore, but once I moved out, I felt younger. Pa couldn't force his silence on me anymore, he had to face it himself, confront the reality of it all. I've moved on the best I could, and most days I don't think about Grandma one bit. It's only the dreams that haunt me still, and only once in a while, but those visions bubble to the surface and burst something vile. It's a toxin coursing in my veins, and sometimes my body can't put up a fight. Can't resist the cottonmouth or spider bite that resides somewhere in the innards of my mind, and maybe one day it'll prove fatal.
My Pa called me today. He'll sometimes call out of the blue to check in, ask how Lisa and the grandkids are. His voice sounds like gravel sloshing in a wheelbarrow — maybe from lack of use, and his coughing fits are getting longer. He has been in and out of the hospital, on account of the cancer, and when I visit him we sit there staring at the television like these moments are infinite and there's no hurry. You'd think after all these years of silence, we'd have something to talk about. I wasn't sure what prompted his call this time, but he fell silent for a spell, and then he asked me if we'd like to come visit him — come to the house and have some supper.
I was silent for a while. Felt like an eternity. And when I came to, I sucked at my teeth, and asked him, "What for?"
Born in Raleigh, N.C., Aaron Wood moved to Charleston in 2013. He is a husband, dog-dad, full-time cook, part-time student, and a writer.
Richard Drayton has been an illustrator, designer, and visual artist for the last six years. He finds intense enjoyment collaborating with friends and clients.