The last time I had seen him, the pounds came at eleven at night during a rainstorm, in true dramatic fashion. Chung and I were still awake. Chung was playing Majora’s Mask for the fifth time, and though he was eleven, and though he knew every monster and every creep-creep-creep of the red-eyed Moon closer to Termina, he would wake up in two hours laughing and wailing and pleading for one of us to exorcise the demonic Mask from his room. I was reading, which I only ever wanted to do when Kansas thunder rattled the thin walls of our water-warped apartment. The pounds on the door came shortly after my page-bound heroine discovered her lover-to-be was actually married, actually evil and a liar, and so with this real-life shock I, too, became paranoid.
Chung and I sat in silence. The knocks returned, booming louder than thunder, harsher than the wind against the walls. Chung dropped his controller and sunk into the blackened couch. Lightning hit somewhere nearby and at the worst possible moment, the lights flickered off, Chung’s game progress lost, and stuttered back on.
Our mother was catatonic in her bedroom. Not sleeping, really. Neither of us sought her out in our terror; we knew she couldn’t help.
Again, the knocks came. Again, we waited for certain death. Until the storm rolled back and the thunder ceased and somewhere, a faint gold light cast upon the nighttime sky.
“Soo,” a voice moaned across the threshold. An open palm coveted the door. Our hearts slowed. The specter became familiar.
It was our father.
He was drunk and yet had driven the ten miles from the farm into town, over the failing parking lot of our two-bedroom apartment. When still we didn’t say anything, weary of this never-ending battle, he took out his keys and searched them for minutes trying in his stupor to find the right key. I could hear them clashing, metal to metal, from the other side.
He wasn’t supposed to have a key. He had told me weeks before that he could make a better copy of mine decorated in Jayhawks, and though I should have known better, I let him. When our mother saw the new key and asked how I had gotten it, she nearly busted the countertop in her rage. This was her life one year post-separation. Tirade or trance. Retreat or be trampled had always been the rule, but now a chemical cloud brought new escape, for us and for her.
Our father was still struggling at the door. Finally, I got up and unlocked it, holding its thin edge to my chest: No Entry. He didn’t expect me, I think. His swaying stopped for a moment and his eyes focused just enough to recognize me.
“Give them to me.” I pointed to the keys.
“What?” He steadied himself against the wall.
“Give them,” I said and so he did. His own copy of the apartment key was decorated in Jayhawks, too, and I suppose I should have felt some father-daughterly affection at this. I didn’t. I pried it off the ring and pocketed it and told him he needed to go take a nap in his truck.
“I just need to talk to your mom for a few minutes.”
He didn’t try to push past me. I could have toppled him with a finger if I wanted to.
Before I could say anything else, our father’s eyes wandered and he stared behind me and in a devolution of five or six expressions began to weep.
Our mother had surfaced from the bedroom. She was drugged to hell on Lorazepam, Pristiq and God knows what else, so that her eyes, too, could not focus. She clutched her bed comforter to her stomach and, probably unaware, came to us topless, her breasts scattered, cockeyed, too, and in this great vulgarity I turned to my father, screamed at him to leave, and slammed the door.
* * *
It took our mother two days to remember the incident. When she did, she called him up and told him no more. No more visits. No more calls. Not until he got sober, which we all knew would be never. He’d already been to rehab once.
Three months later, she had a change of heart. Or she remembered how useful it was to foist her belligerent daughter off on someone else.
“Bite his ear off,” she said, picking up the landline. “I don’t give a fuck anymore. Maybe he’ll care what you have to say about my druggie habits.”
I had been administering her thrice-daily medications for the last week, because one made her forget that she had taken any of the others and led to mild overdoses. It also led her, when I was in control, to believe I was lying to her. I was keeping her from her medications. This brought the tirade, and when a bedroom door proved unsuitable for protection, I had hopped down the stairs leading to the parking lot, hoping that the greater the distance between us the sooner she’d forget. Then I tripped down the stairs and spilled the pills and it was like toppling a cart of fresh-cut gems, all colors and reflected light against the asphalt. Treasure beyond identification lost, smudged, dirtied.
She sent me to stay with him after that. Three days. Chung was away at DARE camp, and so my journey would be a solitary one.
* * *
The chug-chug-chug of a diesel truck and I knew it was him. Red-striped Ford F150, 1992. Whenever I heard diesel, ten, twenty, thirty years down the line, I would think of this truck. I limped down the stairs, knees still bruising over, shins aching. I didn’t say goodbye, because my mother was too engrossed by her Law & Order: SVU and dirt-stained meds to care. At the bottom of the stairs, I saw my father waving sober and sappy from inside his F150. Inside the cabin, he turned down the radio and rattled my shoulder.
“Happy to see you, kid.” When I winced and pulled away he saw the bruises along my arm and scratched chin. “You really took a tumble, didn’t you?”
“Mom told you about that?” I asked. I didn’t want them ever knowing when the other was in a bad state. It was contagious between the two of them.
I instinctively searched for a whiff of beer, a pink tinge spreading behind his eyelids. Nothing. When he drove his steering was straight, as if careful to prove his sobriety.
Past the edge of town, the land rolled into gentle mounds, blanketed in grass that shimmered green-gold against the sun and gave way to sheets of red, brown underneath, thistle, sunflowers, and unseen life scurrying from the deafening charge of the vehicle.
I expected the farm to be somehow different, for the corrugated steel sheds and gargantuan silos and ancient fifty-gallon propane tank to have fallen to ruin in the three months I’d been away. Everything appeared the same.
He rushed inside, said he had a surprise for me. In the meantime, I searched for the cats. Before our mother, Chung, and I abandoned the farm a year ago, back when our father was in rehab, there had been twenty cats. Before the mountain lion and her cubs came, there had been thirty-five. Each with their own name. Each not fixed or vaccinated and all bred from the same five or six cats over the years. I didn’t expect any familiar faces, and I didn’t find any.
There were two orange tabbies, a few black kittens licked with white, and a Russian Gray, sturdy and scarred. I had never seen any of them before, but farms attracted strays—all the animals townies decided to dump on the side of the road instead of the shelter.
I was halfway through naming them when my father called through the screen door to come inside already.
The kitchen was the same, cleaner. An unfamiliar smell scattered, close to oranges but not quite, and I had never seen the windows gleam so bright.
“In the living room,” he said, sounding so hopeful I had the instinct to flee.
I found him kneeling by the TV, a 60-inch our parents had bought one year when the crops were good, probably the last time they were good, three or four years ago. Before him was a Nintendo GameCube. The console had been out for almost three years and for a short time we had one at the apartment, until our mother took it by the handle one med-free afternoon and sent its frail casing across the room and into the kitchen cabinets (which would cost a fortune to repair whenever we moved out).
I wondered if he knew about this. Had she told him? Had she felt remorse after the fact?
“I’ve got Super Smash Bros. Melee, Wind Waker. I was even able to find a Master Quest version of Ocarina of Time.” He started unraveling one of the controller’s cables and plugging it in. “I was hoping Chung would be here, too. Do you want to play?”
I had the feeling that I was being manipulated, that beyond this pixelated bliss there was some horror, some bald admittance waiting on the other end.
“No thanks,” I said. “I’m going to go on a walk.”
“Okay. All right, Jordan.” He stood up and didn’t make his usual turn to hide his face, his disappointment at my unfeeling rejection. He smiled at me and said he’d have lunch ready in an hour. Could I be back by then?
“Sure. I’ll be back.”
* * *
July in Kansas is either a hundred-and-ten heat index or black and storming. That day was neither. Was it divine intervention? No. It was the land, remembering me. Greeting me with open arms as its kindred daughter, back from a long, terrible voyage. The breeze cooled the sweat against my arms. The sun nestled behind potent but small cumulus clouds, shielding me from its blaze. The cats, though unaccustomed to me, followed close. We carved a path through bush and bramble, past the lake that once housed carp and bluegills and into the prairie. True prairie, unadulterated by my father or his father or those who came before them. This was the real world, the land of promise and prosperity. Though mired with death and disease like any other part of the earth, here grass whispered admonitions and the sun droned along and in the rough scrape of the night all bred communion: The crickets and locusts, the coyotes and cougars, the cows and the hares and the turtles and the pheasants and the wild turkey and the no-longer-domesticated cats, called home to the Plain. And if you came in that tepid black and fed your fingers to the earth, you reached communion, too. You felt the flesh of the world as it was and had always been, and you came up holy for it.
I was home. I had been starved. I had withered, and in turn the land revived.
An hour later, I returned blackened with mud and bleeding grass and my father did not notice. I showered, and when I resurfaced the dining table was furnished. Hamburgers, made-from-scratch onion rings, baked beans. I could tell he’d been itching to cook a proper meal, to please his children with the delicious gift of his culinary talents. I thanked him for the meal and in secret I said Grace, but not to a heavenly god.
After, I assented. He set up Super Smash Bros. and let me have first pick, which of course was Zelda, a princess who doubled as Sheik, a badass ninja who appeared out of smoke and made lesser enemies crumble beneath her feet. He played Mario, as he always did: the reliable, the familiar. He did a perfect “it’s-a-me” impression that, despite my best efforts, made me giggle every time. There were two multi-player modes before us: Free-For-All and Team Mode. Would we prefer to obliterate each other or work against a common enemy? We chose the former, and the two CPUs and I kicked his ass. I won half the games. The CPUs won most of the rest. Twice, Mario managed to kill us all enough to reign champion.
We played for hours, all that didn’t glitter falling away from the world.
In the evening, dread inevitably bubbled. It was when drunks thrived, when their exploits became more acceptable.
He insisted we watch through The Fellowship of the Ring, which we had watched together and apart ten times at least. After, I kept to my bedroom. I searched my old dresser, my closet for any treasured book or stuffed animal that I might take home. Anxiety grew as the hours wound up. Any minute, he would crack open a beer in the private of his bedroom or, as had often happened in the past, in the living room or kitchen or red-shag-carpeted basement.
I surfaced around ten to use the bathroom, and in my short trek there spied his open bedroom door, saw the TV’s blue light carving into his face. He was asleep.
I can’t justify it, but I crept into his bedroom then. I inspected it for glass or plastic bottles, for deceptively alcoholic glasses filled with clear liquid. Nothing.
In the bathroom, I scoured: high-alcohol content mouth wash or cough syrup or whatever other serum might lead me to discover, to be vindicated that he was still on the booze. That he would not and could not, in fact, become the sober man I faintly remembered from my youngest years.
In the basement, I checked the mini-fridge by the recliner. I checked the deep freeze. I checked the shower room. Nothing.
I met the stairs, where once our father had fallen during a drunken fight with our mother. Where once Chung had sought to break up another fight and was accidentally sent tumbling down the stairs by our mother’s wild arms, and his body was all bruised and pricked by the exposed nails lining each step.
I was halfway to the top when he came into view.
“Jordan?” he asked, rubbing his eyes. “Everything okay? I heard cabinets banging.”
“Sorry,” I said, stopping in my steps. “I was looking for my old hairbrush. The one Aunt Jane gave me.”
“It’s in your bedroom dresser. Top drawer.”
“Oh, okay. Thank you.” The precision of his answer. The weariness of his face, like he knew what I was doing and he could only accept it by not speaking of it.
* * *
In the morning, he made scrambled eggs and crispy bacon and pancakes and orange juice. Everything was good and right. He was trying too hard and he knew it and I knew it and I felt that instinct again, to flee, to make for the hills.
“I thought it’d be fun to go to the mall,” he said as I wiped bacon grease from my chin.
“Well you’ve outgrown most of your clothes here.”
“Barely.” I didn’t grow much anymore.
“And I thought. I don’t know. If you have a boyfriend now, boyfriends like gifts.”
“I do not,” I told him. I was fourteen. I’d never dated anyone, and only kissed three or four boys once at Amy Badillo’s birthday party spin-the-bottle.
And then I told him it was fine. If he wanted to go we could go, but I’d be happier on the farm, rolling around with the cats. He said let’s go, just for reminiscing’s sake. We’d gone to the mall as a family practically every week, back when we had money. Back before the land surrendered us and taught me that all prospects this way were damned.
* * *
Salina Central Mall. It was one of the few malls to survive the early 2000s. To make it to the 20s, if you can believe it. Back then, circa 2004, its big sellers were J.C. Penney, Dillard’s, and Old Navy. My father led me to the latter and said to grab whatever I wanted, no expenses spared, while he browsed some other stores.
Thirty, forty minutes passed before he returned. He paid for the few cheap items I had picked out, jeans and a couple shirts to please him. He arrived with a small plastic bag that he hugged so close to his armpit I wondered if it were a gift meant for me. I hoped I was wrong. Again, I hated the feeling of being drawn in, false promises, impending doom and all.
He asked if I wanted to see a movie while we were here.
“I’d rather go back to the farm.”
“Well, do you care if we stop at Orscheln’s? Need to get some wire and another bag of cat food.”
I said sure, why not, and he drove the few miles to the northeast edge of town where the last of the farmer’s stores was still open. He asked if I wanted to come in, and I was torn by the desire to bend behind the truck seating as he went inside and find whatever thing he had kept so secret, or going into that blissful store and smelling the bulk bird seed and bagged soil and visiting aisle upon aisle of any plastic or metal contraption your farmer’s heart could hope for.
I went in. I couldn’t resist.
After he was done checking out, he found me knee-deep in a mulch display.
“You know, I prayed for a normal daughter.”
“You prayed to the wrong god.”
In the truck we were quiet. On the farm, he retreated to his bedroom, plastic bag close in-hand. I had resolved on accepting whatever needy gift he would present me. I loved him, but I hated his gifts.
He was pocketed away, so I went out. I navigated through the many sheds of the farm, built first by my grandfather forty years before. I relished my days on the farm, even when chaos rained down. Who would want to live on a decrepit, empty farm when all prospect of growth was lost? I didn’t care. It was the only place for me.
Most of the farming equipment was still around, and would be auctioned off the in the coming years, after our father would take a drunken tumble down a bar’s long stairs, so far from now, and break his neck, and his parents would have nothing but to break apart the thing they built, knowing that it would never bear the fruit they had hoped and prayed for.
Then, I could only think about this suspicion, my need for an answer. What was he working me up for?
It wasn’t normal back then for fourteen-year-olds to have cellphones, especially poor fourteen-year-olds, but I had one. In fact, I had saved the number of the camp that Chung was staying at. Call it motherly instinct, which in many ways I was bereft of, call it sisterly duty. I called the camp as I trekked the now-emptied calf-birthing shed where I’d seen my father go elbows-deep to bring new life into this world. Where in the coldest months the cattle would huddle, hot cud-breath clouds, cow pies everywhere, and the lulling moans of the weak and weary. I missed it.
It took a few minutes to connect.
“Hey, what’s up?” Chung’s sweet voice on the other side.
“I just wanted to see how you’re doing.” I could hear horses neighing in the background. “Are you having a good time at camp?”
“Yes. It’s great! I got to ride a horse. I swam in a lake. It was amazing. And tonight we’re learning what drunk driving is like.”
“I think something’s going on with Dad.” I informed him about my stay at the farm.
He didn’t say anything at first. The laughter of children sparked from somewhere in the background.
“You can call Mom and go home,” he finally said. He knew and I knew that this wasn’t an option. Even if she wanted me back, we couldn’t chance our mother and father coming face to face again. Plus, she wasn’t able to drive most of the time.
Another set of siblings, and the brother might have asked Is he drinking again? Is he drunk now? But this was never something we could put into words. It wasn’t the vulgarity. It was the precision. Our relationship subsisted on vague allusions to our parents’ conditions.
Instead, Chung said, “I’m sure it’ll be okay,” and, “I have to go. They’re calling for the crafts session. Sorry!”
Can I tell you how rarely anyone in my family said I love you, except in perverse drugged or drunken displays of emotion. Can I tell you how much I loathed hugs until I went to college and realized that genuine love could be expressed in ways that didn’t nauseate? We hung up together. We were kind to each other in that way and every other way. That was the phenomena of our sibling relationship. Despite everything, we couldn’t be anything but kind, accepting, loving in our treatment of each other.
I returned to the farmhouse. I found my father in the living room, playing Melee by himself.
I searched the fridge and the freezer. I looked deep into the kitchen cabinets, behind the Lazy Susan. I checked the basement again, under couch cushions, behind boxes in the closet. Even the utility room bore nothing. I was heaving, wheezing from all that dust and my pathetic, asthmatic lungs.
Nothing. I found nothing.
In the sheds, deep into the old milking barn, inside tractor cabins and up the cattle-feeder chutes and deep inside the silos fetid with forgotten grain. I couldn’t find anything.
I re-entered the house. He was still playing as Mario in a Free-For-All against computer players. He was getting pummeled by a transformed Sheik.
“What did you buy at the mall?” I asked him. He became distracted enough to get blown to oblivion by a combo blow.
“It’s nothing to worry about,” he said.
“I want to know. I’d rather know now.”
“It’s not important,” he said, pausing the game. I was already down the hallway, halfway to his bedroom.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. He followed after, a bad sign.
In his bedroom, I made my search. I checked under the bed. I checked the dresser. In the closet, finally, I found the bag, its size and color familiar.
As I pulled it toward me I noticed the brand. It was Victoria’s Secret.
I froze and in that brief revelation felt the immense stupidity I had practiced over the last two days. I had thought he was buttering me up, that the worst was to come following the exchange of the gift. But no. No such gifts this time around, only betrayal.
Already, I could tell by the hard frame and the rectangular shape what lay inside. Heavenly. It was perfume. It was our mother’s favorite, and she’d been complaining recently that she was out. In the absence of its influence she emanated cigarette smoke and old coffee.
They had been talking recently. This I knew from her willingness to let me stay on the farm, from his knowledge of my wounded limbs. He had eluded with such boyish glee that loved ones liked gifts. I felt sick, before the rage. I felt rage, before the desperation.
The opaque plastic of the bag clicked against my skin as I tore it open.
He was behind me, confused, I suppose. He was sitting on his bed, their bed, and he was still.
Finally, I gripped the box and slipped it out. I expected it to be a familiar pink, to already smell its scent streaming out of its container. Instead, the box was golden, a giant gem showing me its brilliant forty faces. I read the label.
It was cold against my skin, and I realized I had shredded my own finger in my fury, hot blood dotting the box.
I wiped it off and tucked the perfume back into its bag, which was only a little damaged.
“I was going to tell you, but I wanted to wait and tell Chung, too.”
I didn’t face him. The verification I had waited for, the evidence that things were how they had almost-always been, how they would always be, still welled in my chest. I felt the urge to yell out, primordial, and find what hidden truth could free me. I wanted to cry.
I handed the bag to him.
“I’ve been on E-Harmony for a month,” he said, wrinkling the bag between his hands. “And I met a really nice woman. Bethany. She’s an accountant in Lindsborg. I think you’ll like her a lot.”
I was already waist-deep, eaten up. He would get better and, more than that, he would move out of here. I knew it. I knew that his life here, on the farm, was over because no accountant in Lindsborg would come to live on a dead-end farm. His life here was done and that meant that my life here was done, that I was damned to mildew and rot and sulfuric asphalt. That once again I would leave the land and this time it wouldn’t forgive me, it wouldn’t remember me though I would always remember it.
Six years later, at his funeral, I wouldn’t think of this moment. I wouldn’t recall how quickly I had come to believe the worst was behind him and before me. I wouldn’t feel the guilt of taking this small moment of joy in his life and labelling it our darkest day. I wouldn’t apologize to him. I wouldn’t think anything but that this day, this funeral, was coming, had been coming for my twenty years of life. Those short days of pause, of wealth and health and burgeoning prospects get eclipsed by the rest. You don’t remember them until long after, but let me tell you:
Had I been better, I would have taken those glory days and sounded the trumpets so all could relish in their beauty. I would have delighted in their dry, dull faces. I would have told him I loved him just once, so that the splendor might extend another hour, another day, a week or month or year. I would have been deserving of earthly Grace.
* * *
After I spent an hour or two cooling down in my room, I limped, still sore, into the living room. He was sitting three feet from the TV, something our mother had always told us would ruin our eyes. He was preparing for a long journey in Adventure Mode, a solitary fighting mode exploring various worlds. I asked him if we could play together again.
“Do you want to play free-for-all or teams?”
We’d been playing free-for-all in the days previous, fighting against each other and two other CPUs. A subatomic guilt existed in me then. I could only answer one way.
“Teams, I guess.”
As always, he picked Mario. I, Princess Zelda and the wartime maven, Sheik. We played against Samus and Bowser and lost our first match and our second. Massacres. The third time around we really felt we had a shot. He killed Samus a good three times. I belted Bowser straight into the atmosphere within the first ten seconds. Each game we had unlimited lives and a five-minute timer, but three minutes in the game glitched. Mario fell off the platform and never came back. What had been our inevitable victory dissolved into a mad dash just to stay alive. I was stuck as Zelda and though she had a sword and the power of a goddess, she was no match for Samus and Bowser. For two minutes straight, Zelda revived, floated down to the world, and after a few successful hits was sent plummeting to the black below or far back into the blinding sun or straight into the screen, body stuck for only a second before descending. I died twelve times then. Ten seconds before the timer stopped, Mario suddenly appeared again, but it was too late. We would never come back from this, we would never reach a positive score or even a neutral one. We’d been given a raw deal, and all we could do was curse the game and the controllers and the TV and say that we’d never go back, on our next game and the game after that we would triumph and scatter the fields with our enemies’ endless blood and when our battle was over and our fingers were stuck one way and eyes stuck another, we could cut back to the world and look each other in the face and say, “We’ve done everything we can,” and in a way, we would be right.
Chloe Chun Seim is a fiction writer living in Lawrence, Kansas. Her work has appeared in North American Review, Midwestern Gothic, Timothy McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and others. She received the 2019 Best Heartland Screenplay Award and the 2017 Langston Hughes Creative Writing Award in Fiction, and holds an MFA from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.