Excerpt

“Soldiers”

Scott O'Connor

February 13, 2018 
The following is from Scott O'Connor's collection, A Perfect Universe. These ten stories take place in and around Los Angeles, following characters confronted by chaos and searching for redemption. Scott O'Connor's previous novels are Untouchable and Half World. He is a recipient of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award.

My dad and his friends spent Saturdays drinking. Twenty years before, they’d all gone to high school up in Eagle Rock, and Denny and Rey still lived in their old neighborhood, a few blocks from the bridges crossing the arroyo into Pasadena. Denny and Rey had each been divorced a couple of times and finally ended up just buying a place together. Their house needed what my dad called a shit-ton of work. Every Saturday morning he told my mom he was going over to help them with the house, and Mom would give him that wrinkled, sour-mouthed look, like, Yeah, right. Around dinnertime he’d come home, blotchy-faced and weaving, and she’d ask him what they’d worked on and he’d laugh and say about a case apiece. Then he’d get really quiet and just stand in the kitchen, swaying a little in his work boots, staring at her, as if daring her to say something else. Usually, she didnt. She knew better than to push it when he was like that.

My dad worked on crews for movies and TV shows, driving actors and equipment around the set. By that Saturday in May, though, a couple of weeks before I turned twelve, he’d been out of work for months. My mom had to drive up to the farm stand in Santa Clarita and ask for her job back. “I had to practically beg them,” she told us. “I had to just about get down on my knees so I could sell fruit by the freeway.”

That Saturday morning, my mom didnt know what to do with me. I was supposed to be grounded, but I couldnt go to work with her and I knew she didnt want me hanging out with my dad at Denny and Reys. She wouldnt let me stay home alone because the last time she’d done that, when my dad was away on a movie shoot, I’d set off an M-80 in the backyard and the garage roof caught fire. The neighbors saw the smoke and called 911. My mom was grocery shopping and when she got home the fire trucks were just leaving. As they pulled away, one of the firefighters leaned out the window of the cab and told her to keep a better eye on her kid. We stood together in the kitchen, and she looked at me, holding her car keys, already late for the farm stand. We could hear my dad calling from out in the driveway, ready to leave. Mom looked like she was going to scream or cry.

“Frank,” she said, “what can I do?”

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I didnt know what to say, if I was supposed to answer or not.

But then she pushed her lips together and shook her head.

“Just go,” she said. She sounded resigned, like she’d had enough of him, of me. Like she was finally giving up.

*

The day before, my mom and I sat in the principal’s office with little Curt Lin and his parents. Curts parents were both tall and thin, well dressed, his dad in a dark suit and his mom in a jacket and skirt and heels. My mom was wearing the denim shirt and jeans she wore up at the farm stand. She kept her hands folded in her lap, covering the raggedy, bitten ends of her fingernails.

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Curts mom told the principal that Curt didnt want to go to school because his stomach hurt so much in the mornings. They hadnt been able to figure out what was wrong. They’d even taken him to the doctor for tests. When nothing came back he finally told them the truth.

Neither of his parents looked at me or my mom when they spoke, but I could feel how angry they were. It was like heat in the room. Curts dad told the principal I either needed to leave Curt alone or I should be kicked out of school. The principal said that wasnt how things worked, but she would see to it that I didnt go near him anymore. She told me to apologize. I looked at the scuffed toes of my sneakers and said I was sorry. “Eyes, Frank,” the principal said, so I turned to Curt and his parents to say it again, but as I started to speak they all turned away.

Driving home from the principal’s office, my mom stared out the windshield, her fists tight around the steering wheel, knuckles round and white like little sand dunes. Neither of us spoke, until finally she said, Whats wrong with you, Frank? Why would you do those things to him? Do you like when those things are done to you?”

“No,” I said, but maybe my voice was too low. It didnt seem like she heard me.

“I didnt want you to go this way,” she said. She still wouldnlook at me. Nobody would look at me—Curt, his parents, my mom. “I didnt want you to be like him.” Like my dad, she meant. She’d said this before, but it wasnt until later that night, home in bed, that I realized what was different this time. Before she had always said, “I don’t want you to be like him,” and this time she’d said didn’t. Like it was too late now—it was a done deal.

*

My mom had the car, so my dad and I took the bus up to Eagle Rock. I was wearing the helmet my dad had given me when he got back from his last movie shoot. It was a new version of an old space movie that took place on this desert planet. All these scientists had gone there from Earth to try and see if they could create water so people could live there, but there was this other group of people, these terrorists, who were trying to destroy the water machine, so the scientists had a bunch of military guys guarding things. The helmet was part of a guard costume. It was sort of tannish orange, the color of sand, with a cool-looking insignia, the silhouette of this ancient armored warrior inked onto the front. With the chin straps tightened all the way, it fit pretty well. I wore it just about all the time when I was home. I think my dad liked to see it on me. It seemed to put him in a good mood. When he’d first given it to me, I asked him if it was a gift from the movies director or something, if everyone had gotten one. He looked at me like I was the biggest idiot in the world and then laughed through his nose and rapped me on the side of the helmet. Nobody else got one, he said. This was the only helmet that left the set.

We got off at a stop on Colorado Boulevard. It had rained a little the night before, and now a fog hung just overhead, like a gray layer of cotton, wet to the touch. We passed a wine shop and an art gallery, and then a bakery on the corner. I could smell fresh bread and cookies as we walked by the windows, steamed from the warmth inside.

When we reached their house, Denny and Rey were sitting in plastic lawn chairs on the little cement porch, drinking. “Started early,” my dad said, swinging the front gate open, and Denny lit a cigarette and said, “Dont you know it.”

For a while, before they’d bought their own place, Denny and Rey had come over to our house almost every weekend to watch boxing or cage fighting on TV. My mom didnt like them coming around, but when my dad had a job he could always say that he was the one who paid the bills, so who he chose as guests in his house was his business.

Denny was a big guy, with a round, shaved head. He had giant teeth, yellow because he smoked. Rey was shorter and skinnier, and Mexican, I think, though when I asked my dad once he said that Rey was American like everybody else. Rey didnt talk much. He had a thin, wiry mustache, and dark eyes, almost black. He drank more than my dad and Denny combined, barely swallowing the gulp of beer in his mouth before tipping the can back up to his lips.

 

“I listened to the men talk about high school, the pranks they’d pulled, the girls they’d dated. Whenever I heard a belch and a can crinkling in a fist, I’d open the cooler and deliver another beer.”

 

My dad was right: Denny and Reys house needed a shit-ton of work. The stucco was cracked and peeling, the roof sagged, the windows were old and thin and pocked in the corners from what looked like BBs or buckshot. The houses on either side were in about the same condition, but I could see that things got nicer farther up the street. Up there the lawns were green and mowed, the paint was smooth and bright, the cars in the driveways were newer hatchbacks and hybrids. About halfway up the hill I could see three kids, two boys and a girl, playing in the front yard of one of the renovated houses. They looked to be around my age. I couldnt see what they were doing, but they were moving around very deliberately, with small parts of something it seemed like they were building or fixing.

My dad looked up where I was looking and said, “Neighborhoods changing.”

Denny nodded from the porch. “Lot of white people moving in now,” he said.

I said, Arent we white people?” and Denny took a pull on his cigarette and said, “Different kind.”

An old red pickup sat in Denny and Reys front yard. Its bed was a jumble of tools, hardware, extension cords. A blue plastic cooler sat in one corner. “Lets get to work,” Denny said, and for a second I thought my dad was going to grab a screwdriver or a caulk gun, but instead he popped open the cooler and pulled out a beer and tossed it across the yard to the porch, the can trailing a ribbon of water as it flew. Denny shot up his hand and caught the can. My dad pulled another from the cooler and tossed it the same way. Rey had to lean way out of his chair, almost falling to the ground to catch it before it bounced.

“Jesus, bro,” Denny said to my dad. “Your arm’s for shit these days.”

Rey laughed at this, popped open the beer, began to chug.

My dad grabbed his own beer and joined them on the porch, taking an empty lawn chair. I stood by the chain-link fence surrounding the yard, not sure what to do. I watched those kids playing up the street. I listened to the men talk about high school, the pranks they’d pulled, the girls they’d dated. Whenever I heard a belch and a can crinkling in a fist, I’d open the cooler and deliver another beer.

Youre getting to be a tough-looking fucker,” Denny said, after I’d handed him a can. “Can you still take a punch?”

“Try him,” my dad said, and Denny cocked his arm, but I backed off the porch before he could swing.

“Smart, too,” Denny said, and they all laughed.

The men were getting drunker and louder. Denny wanted to know what the deal was with my helmet, so my dad started talking about the job he’d finished a few months back. He told the men what he’d told me and my mom, about how making a movie out in the desert was like fighting a war, all the people and machines and dust and heat. Before he could get very far, though, Denny held up a hand and told my dad to shut up. He’d been in Iraq, he said, for a real war, and my dad didnt know what the fuck he was talking about.

“Come back up here,” Denny said to me then. “I want to see that helmet.”

I unclipped the chin strap, lifted the helmet off my head.

“I didnt say to throw it.” Dennys stare was level. He looked me right in the eyes. “I said bring it up here.”

I clipped the helmet back on and walked toward the porch. The men waited, watching me. I stepped up onto the cement and closed my eyes because I didnt want to see it coming, didnt want to flinch, and then a big hand hit the side of my helmet and my head jerked and I stumbled off the porch, using the momentum to back even farther away toward the pickup. I didnt want to get caught in that circle again, like back in our living room those times with some cage match on TV and Denny and Rey and my dad sitting on the edge of the couch, pushing and slapping me back and forth, like I was the one in the cage.

“Come on, you little pussy.”

I didnt recognize the voice so I opened my eyes and saw that it was Rey who had spoken. He was leaning forward in his chair, like he’d been brought to life by Dennys punch.

“Get back up here,” he said.

I backed away until I was on the other side of the truck, hidden from view.

“Come on, Frankie,” Denny called. “Dont take it so hard.”

I grabbed the top of the fence and pulled myself over onto the other side and started walking up the hill. I could hear Denny calling out a few more times and then laughter from the porch, but by then I was far enough away that their voices were just buzzy noise, blurring with the rotor chop of a police helicopter passing overhead.

Those kids were still out playing in their front yard. Their coloring was lighter than anyone I’d ever seen. The girl was so pale that a thin blue vein was visible running beneath the skin of her cheek. The boys’ hair was butter-blond; the girl’s was nearly white. They wore what looked to me like school clothes—clean khaki pants and navy-blue collared shirts. They had dragged a picnic table bench out onto the middle of their front lawn, and the boys were kneeling at its side, working at something on top. The girl stood behind them, wrapping what looked like a long length of gauze bandage into a tight ball.

I thought about Curt Lin, the glimpse of him I had once when I passed the nurses office, the nurse pressing gauze to his bloody lip. The older boy at the picnic bench said something over his shoulder and the girl laughed; the younger boy smiled. I tried to imagine what it would be like to be one of those kids on their lawn, playing together. To be so clean and light. To be part of a group like that, a team. As I passed their driveway I slowed, hoping they would call out to me, ask my name. I didnt have any friends, even in my own neighborhood. Other kids only paid attention when something was happening like with Curt Lin.

They stood around me then, and cheered me on, but the rest of the time they’d barely even look at me.

The girl had finished with the gauze and was filling a metal canteen from a hose attached to the side of the house. The boys had disassembled a couple of toy machine guns on top of the picnic bench. All the parts had been laid out carefully—the stocks and grips and triggers, the bright red plastic tips that were supposed to show that these guns werent real. The older boy was lifting each part and rubbing it clean with a washcloth, then handing it to the younger boy, who set the part back down in its place. They were too busy to notice me, so I faked a cough, and then they all looked up, in order it seemed, the two boys and then the girl.

The older boy called out, “Cool helmet.”

I stopped walking and stood at the edge of their lawn. The boy said, Whats your name?”

“Frankie,” I called back. “Frank.”

The girl started down the lawn toward me, still holding the canteen. “I’m Brittany,” she said, “and this is Luke and this is Liam. Liam and I are twins, but Lukes a year older.”

“Sixth grade,” Luke said.

“What grade are you in?” Liam said.

“Sixth,” I lied. “Like your brother.” I didnt like to be around older kids. Even if they were shorter than me, they made me feel small.

Luke looked down the street to where my dad and Denny and Rey were sitting on the porch. You live with those guys?”

Just my dad. We dont live here. Those are his friends.”

Were not supposed to go down there,” Brittany said. “To that part of the street.”

Where’d you get the helmet?” Luke said.

“Its from a movie.”

“I know its from a movie. Weve seen it a bunch of timesThat water machine that looks like a giant octopus.”

“My dad worked on the set,” I said. And then, “Hes an actorHes one of the stars.”

Luke nodded. It seemed like he was impressed. He gave Liam a nudge.

Were about to go out on a mission,” Liam said. You want to come?”

“What kind of mission?” I said.

Luke finished screwing the muzzles onto the plastic guns, leaving off the red warning tips. He lifted a rifle, resting the barrel on his shoulder.

“Like in your dads movie,” he said. Were the rebel group that wants to blow up the giant water machine.” He looked at my helmet. And youre one of the machines guards.”

Brittany thought about this for a second. “But maybe hes really helping us,” she said. “Like he gave us the plans on how to blow it up.”

Luke scowled at her. “Why would he do that?”

Brittany shrugged, ready to let the idea drop, but I looked down to Denny and Reys house, then back to the kids. “Because,” I said, “maybe I’m secretly joining your side.”

*

We started up the hill. Brittany wore a pink Hello Kitty backpack, the canteen swinging from a Velcro strap on the side. The boys carried the guns stiffly, muzzles down, the same way I’d seen soldiers carry weapons on TV. Along the way they waved to the adults they saw working on their yards or houses, and the adults waved back and called the kids by name.

At the end of the street we turned off onto a little dirt trail between two yards, passing a couple of younger kids in a sandbox on one side, a man and a woman working in a garden on the other. Luke turned to me and asked what time I needed to be back. When I shrugged, he said, “I mean before your dad gets worried.”

“Before dark,” I lied. “My dad gets really worried if I’m not home by then.”

“Good,” Brittany said. “Same for us.”

There was a thick line of cypress at the back edge of the yards. Liam went first, holding the branches up so the rest of us could pass through. On the other side was a clearing, wide and flat and soft with clover. A line of electrical towers stood in the center, their tops lost in the fog.

Brittany sat on a rock and unstrapped her backpack. She drank from the canteen, then passed it to Liam, who passed it to Luke, who took a long guzzle and wiped the metal lip on his shirt and then passed it to me. He looked out over the clearing. “Radio silence from now on,” he said. Well be completely exposed until we get to the other side.”

We crossed the clearing toward the closest tower. Walking through the knee-high clover felt like wading through water, our feet lost below. The boys held their rifles high over their heads as they marched. Passing under the first tower, I could hear the low hum of electricity moving above. Luke whispered, “Dont stop,” and tapped the steel support with a knuckle. The metal rang where he’d hit, the vibration carrying up the beam and away into the fog.

There was another line of trees on the other side of the clearing, taller and scragglier than the cypress. As we got closer, I could see the pale bark peeling like dead skin. Luke stopped within the tree line and motioned for the rest of us to hurry over. When we were all gathered he whispered again.

“Right through here,” he said, “is the water machine. Well make two teams.” He held up a pair of fingers. “Liam and me will take out the guards on the other side. Brittany and you—” He pointed another finger at me.

“Frank,” Brittany said, as if maybe he’d forgotten. “—Brittany and Frank will set the bomb.”

Brittany nodded and the boys ran off through the trees, Luke calling out with different bird whistles and Liam responding with the same. After a moment the fog had taken them completely.

“This way,” Brittany said. We walked in the opposite direction, into our own patch of fog, and then Brittanys hand was on my arm, tugging me to the ground. “Hold your breath,” she whispered. “Here we go.”

We each took a gulp of air. She started to crawl, so I followed alongside. After a few moments I felt the landscape open in front of me, sudden space, and Brittany let out her breath and I let out mine and after another few feet I could see again. We stopped crawling and lay with our heads beneath the fog, looking out over the drop down into the arroyo, the steep dirt walls that led to the wide, dry riverbed below.

Were here,” she said. “Come on.”

She turned her body in place on the ground, like a crab rotating, then started sliding down the embankment. I was amazed that she didnt care about her clothes. They didnt look like the kind of clothes her parents would appreciate coming home dirty. If my school clothes ever got dirty, I really got it from my dad. Frankie, you think this shit is free? You think I bust my ass so you can piss all over everything? I could hear it in his voice, then in my own—like it was becoming my own thought. I knew thats when things usually started to get ugly, when his voice became mine and I had to get it out, yelling at someone like Curt Lin, or even Brittany. I tried to get the voice out of my head, rapping myself on my helmet to focus back on the mission.

Brittany was about halfway down the embankment, slowing herself expertly with her hands and feet. I turned myself around the same way and followed, but my fingers kept slipping out of the dirt. It felt like I was going to fall. Brittany was a few lengths below. She reached the bottom and I looked down and she looked up and said, “Dont look down. I turned my head back and stared straight ahead at the dirt wall, sinking the toes of my sneakers into the soil, then my fingers, lowering myself like I was on a ladder. This is how Brittany had done it and it seemed to work. At the bottom I caught my breath, and turned to her for some confirmation of the difficulty of what we’d just done, a little shared triumph, but she was already looking away down the arroyo. “The machine is this way,” she said.

 

I tried to imagine what it would be like to be one of those kids on their lawn, playing together. To be so clean and light.”

 

The fog had settled in. It was like walking in a dream, hazy and indistinct. The only sound was the soft crunch of our footsteps in the dirt. At one point Brittany reached back and I could only see her hand, opening and closing, so I took it. I’d never held a girl’s hand before. For some reason I felt like I wanted her to know that, I wanted to tell her, but my palm was wet and before I could say anything her hand slipped free and then the fog thinned and a shadow rose up in front of us, tall and wide and gray. We stepped closer and there it was, the bridge across the arroyo, but to me, to us, it was the water machine, its massive metal legs reaching up through the fog.

We stood quietly and every few seconds I could hear a car pass high overhead, a long, low thrum, the hollow sound holding and then fading to silence.

Brittany knelt by the machines leg. “Keep an eye out,” she said. “This place is full of guards.” She unzipped her backpack and pulled out a pink alarm clock. There were two silver bells on the top, with a little silver hammer standing in between. She set the clock at the base of the leg and then pulled a length of red wire from her backpack. She handed me the end of the wire and motioned for me to carry it around the leg. When I brought the end back to her, she stuck it in her mouth and used her teeth to peel off an inch of the plastic coating, exposing the thin copper threads inside. She wrapped the exposed end around the clock’s hammer, twisting it tight.

She stopped then, and held out a hand for silence, though I wasnt making any noise. Then I heard them, too: crunching footsteps approaching from under the machine. I squatted and ran my fingers along the ground, searching for a rock, anything I could use as a weapon, but I found only stiff weeds sprouting from the dirt.

I imagined Denny and Rey and my dad coming through the fog. I couldnt think of anything scarier than them finding us out here, finding these kids so far from home.

“Take my helmet,” I said to Brittany, unbuckling the chin strap. “They might think you’re one of them.”

She looked at me and shook her head and said, “They’d never believe that.”

The footsteps came closer. I wanted to run. I hated myself for being scared, wondering what they’d all think of me, Luke and Liam and Brittany with her school clothes and Hello Kitty backpack, waiting bravely with her clock and her wires. I could hear my dad yelling at me to toughen up, his voice shouting over and over in my head. Are you going to cry now, Frankie? Cry for me you fucking baby. Show me how you cry. It was his voice, then it was my voice, like when I’d get Curt Lin on the floor of the school bathroom, kicking him, slapping him, squeezing his face in my hand, trying to get that voice out of my head and into his.

Cry for me you fucking baby. Show me how you cry.

Just as I was about to turn and sprint, two shapes appeared in the fog, and I yelled out, a loud roar to blast through the fear. I could imagine the sound blowing apart the fog, the water machine, the entire arroyo, Denny and Rey and their house, my dad on the porch. I was so scared, I just wanted it all to go away.

When I stopped yelling and opened my eyes, Luke and Liam were standing where the shadows had been. Luke had his rifle pointed at me and then he lowered it and said, “Holy shit, I thought you were going to kill us.”

Liam stood trembling. His eyes were wet, like he was going to cry. Brittany had turned to me, too. She looked shocked, as if she now saw me as someone completely different than who she’d thought I was.

Finally she blinked hard, like she was clearing the moment away, and knelt again by the alarm clock, turning it over to reveal a switch on its back.

Wait,” Luke said. “Before we set the detonator, we need to know he can be trusted.”

“He gave us the plans,” Liam said.

“Thats not enough,” Luke said. They were all facing me now. “He could have been yelling for help. It could be a trap.”

“Its not,” I said.

Luke stuck a finger into my chest. You sounded like you were going to kill us just now,” he said. “How do we know that you’re not still one of them?”

Brittany stood and stepped toward me, unafraid, looking right up into my eyes. “Give us something else,” she said. “More classified information. Tell us something you shouldnt tell anybody.”

They all stood, waiting. I didnt know what to say. I didnt want to lie again, but I was afraid that if I told them the truth—the real truth—they’d hate me, they’d be afraid of me. But I didnt want to hold it in anymore, either. I thought that maybe if I told them the truth, then somehow it wouldnt just be mine anymore, I wouldnt be alone with it.

“Theres a kid at my school,” I said, named Curt Lin.”

I looked at each of them as I spoke.

Almost every day I hurt him really bad.”

“Why?” Liam said.

I shook my head. For a long time no one said anything, but no one looked away, either.

Then Brittany said, Are you going to keep doing it?”

“I dont know,” I said. “I dont know what to do.”

We stood like that, watching each other. Finally, Luke cleared his throat and said, All right. Set it.”

Brittany crouched back down next to the alarm clock and clicked the switch on the back. Then she took a deep breath and stood and said, “Go,” and Luke started to run and we all followed. I tried to keep them in sight, but all I could see were shadows in the fog, so I followed the shadows, the sounds of their breathing, until one of them dropped to the ground, and then the rest of us dropped, and we all lay in the dirt covering our heads with our arms. There was a hand on my back then, and I reached out a hand and put it on whoever’s back was closest, and then the hand on my back squeezed, so I squeezed, and Luke said, “Boom.”

*

Luke led us up the embankment and across the clearing to the line of scraggly trees. The fog was fading, revealing a gauzy sun that seemed to throb along with a headache I could feel starting. I hadnt eaten since that morning, a bowl of cereal. The whole day had passed.

We crossed through the line of cypress and onto the path between the backyards. The kids in the sandbox were gone, so was the couple in their garden. We walked in silence. The boys carried their guns loosely, as if the weapons had lost their weight somewhere back in the arroyo.

On the sidewalk in front of their house we stopped, and Luke stepped up to me. You’ve got to go back,” he said. “So the guards will still think you’re one of them.”

I didnt want to play the game anymore. I wanted them just to be the kids on this street who I could visit again the next time I was here. I wanted to tell them more truths, that my dad wasnt an actor, that hed probably stolen the helmet. That my mom had spent the whole day at a farm stand watching cars come down off the freeway ramp, wondering if they were going to stop.

I didnt say anything, though. Instead, I handed Luke my helmet. He asked how the other guards would know me when I went back, and I said that they’d know me with or without it. He nodded, and held his hand up to his forehead. Liam did the same, then Brittany. I held up my hand and we saluted, and then I turned back down the hill toward the men on the porch.

*

It was getting dark; a few lights blinked on in the neighboring houses. When I reached the red pickup, Denny and Rey went back inside their house, leaving a string of empty cans across the front yard. My dad and I walked to the bus stop at the corner. He was quiet, and seemed tired. He didnt mention the missing helmet, but waiting at the stop, he asked who I had been playing with, who I knew in this neighborhood. The bus pulled to the curb, its engine thundering. I didnt know how to answer him, if I could say friends, if that would be true. So instead I said rebels, I said soldiers, but the buss engine was so loud that he didnt hear me. He tilted his head like a dog that didnt quite understand, but before I could repeat myself his hand was on my back, pushing me up onto the bus.

__________________________________

From A Perfect Universe. Used with permission of Scout Press. Copyright © 2018 by Scott O’Connor.




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