“Who wants to go for a walk?” my dad asks, leaning back in his chair as my mom clears the plates. She glances at him and then very quickly at me, then says she’s too tired to come along, but that we should go without her. My sister says she has homework and needs to go to her room, but I know she’s going to call Brandt, her new boyfriend. I stick my tongue out at her. She rolls her eyes at me, but I’m pretty sure she smirked, too.
“Aren’t you studious lately!” my father says, and I wonder if he’s impressed with Shelly’s supposed study habits, or if he’s onto her. God, I hope he’s onto her.
My mother sighs through her nose and purses her lips. She’s definitely onto her. The face Mom makes is exactly the same one she makes when mocking her own mother. I wonder if she knows she’s doing it, or if she’s subconsciously channeling Gamgam. I wonder if I’ll end up making that same face too, one day.
“How about you, kitten?” my dad turns to me. “You wanna go for a walk?”
He says it in the same too loud, jovial way he talks to Mr. Winchester, our old yellow lab mix. Mr. Win even notices, and gets halfway up, tail thump-thump-thumping for a few beats before he realizes no one is talking to him and turns his back to us with a sigh and lies down again.
“Daddy, stop calling me kitten, I’m too old for that,” I say, but I realize I’ve slipped up and called him Daddy, not Dad, so my point is moot. Shelly and I decided that once we were in middle school, Daddy sounded too babyish. She’s done a better job of sticking to Dad than I have, but I’ve only just started sixth grade, and she’s almost in high school. Still, I’ve got to work on it.
Dad smiles at my slip-up, but he doesn’t mention it. Instead, he tousles my hair and says, “Sorry, I keep forgetting you and Shelly are young ladies now,” with a stress on the young ladies part that I can’t quite decipher. Then he immediately makes an exaggerated goofy face and starts smoothing my hair back down. “Oops, sorry. Young ladies don’t like their hair being ruffled, do they?”
“So, you guys gonna go for a walk or what?” my mom interrupts. “Stay here any longer and you’ll have to do the dishes.” Dad and I jump up, grab Mr. Win’s leash, and the three of us rush out the door in a giggling barking flurry, Dad shouting something about escaping our slavish overlords.
Outside, the night is crisp and clear, and Daddy points out the constellations as we walk. He only knows Orion and the Dippers, but I don’t know any other ones, either, so I just go with it. Mr. Win poops, and I pretend to be looking at something else so Dad will pick it up. I hate how it feels through the baggy, warm and too soft, and I hate having to wait to get home before scrubbing my hands. I know picking up after your dog is part of being a Responsible Dog Owner, but if I don’t see him poop, I can’t be held responsible, right?
Dad asks if I want to walk to the old golf course. I haven’t been in years. It was abandoned after the storm; they built a new one further into the park, and the old one became a sort of common area. Some of the more crunchy types, as mom calls them, have planted vegetable gardens there with little signs saying “Victory Gardens Are Back!” but mostly it’s used as a dog park now. Mr. Win likes to swim in the old water hazards.
I used to love it, but since the monster showed up, I haven’t been back. It’s not a real monster, of course. (Come on, I may be young, but I’m not that young.) No, it’s a huge spray painted mural on one of the bathroom buildings. It’s blue and yellow, mostly, and exceptionally well done. It looks like an almost human face, coming out of the earth, mouth open and not entirely emerged. It has huge teeth, but the mouth itself is painted with so much skill in the shading that it looks like an actual hole was knocked out of the wall to make it. Like someone could walk right through it, or fall in. You can’t tell if it’s open ‘cause it’s screaming, or ‘cause it’s hungry, or just ‘cause it’s stretching out of the earth, but whatever it is, I hate it. The yellow eyes follow you around like an old painting in a Scooby Doo cartoon, and it’s horrible.
“Sure,” I say, “we can go to the golf course.”
I have no idea why that came out. I’d meant to suggest going the other way, towards the levee, but now that I said it, I think, maybe this will be good. Maybe if Dad is with me, the monster might not look so scary, and then I can get over it, and go back to walking Mr. Winchester there by myself. It’s easy to not see him poop when he’s running off-leash.
We walk towards the course. Dad says how he likes it so much better now, since there aren’t any streetlights and we can see all the stars. I’m not sure how I feel about the lack of light. It’s true that the moon looks brighter, and after a while, my eyes seem to adjust and I can make out shapes in the moonlight. Trees, bushes, parked cars. But still, it’s pretty dark, and I shudder a bit when I think about what the monster will look like now. Or will we even be able to see him?
“So, tell me about school,” Dad starts.
“Dad, no, it’s fine, school’s fine, I don’t want to talk about it, please,” I groan. “Why do grownups always ask about school? I don’t ask you about work.”
“OK, OK,” he throws up his hands, swinging the baggy of Mr. Win’s poop as he does. “So what do you want to talk about, then?” he asks.
I pause. What do I want to talk about? Suddenly I feel suspicious, remembering Mom’s glance at me after dinner, when Dad first suggested a walk.
“Why?” I ask him, and I feel my eyes narrowing and my hands going to my hips, my elbows pointing out like little wings. “Why do you want to know what I want to talk about?” I realize if this were Mom and me talking like this right now, she’d say something about my defensive stance, and then I’d feel even more defensive, maybe say something about her offensive stance, and then we’d argue, which would turn into a fight immediately, and I’d have to scream and slam a door and play loud music.
I don’t want to have that fight with Dad, I can’t. I try to relax my arms, draw in the dual points of my elbows, but I can’t seem to bring them down entirely.
Dad laughs. “Look at you, bristling and ready to fight. Settle down, kitt–oh sorry, right, not kitten. Settle down, sweetheart, it’s OK.” He puts his arm, the one not holding the poop, on my shoulder, turning me a bit to face him.
“Hey. It’s okay,” he says again. “We don’t even have to talk. We can just walk quietly. I just thought, we never get a chance to talk, just you and me. Your sister and mother are always around, and I thought it might be nice to have a little moment, is all. OK?”
We walk in the quiet for a bit, Mr. Win starting to pant, the jingling of his collar keeping time with us. I know what I want to ask. I’ve wanted to for a while, but now I know I have to ask, I have to know.
“Daddy? Why did you stop coming to church with us? Don’t you believe in God anymore?”
Dad laughs, a short bark, not his usual full guffaw.
“Pulling out the big guns already, huh? Okay, alright. Why did I stop going to church. Well.”
Two bikers pass us, ringing a little chiming bell as they do. DRRRRIIIIIING, drrrrriinnng. It sounds so tinny and cheap, like a toy you wouldn’t even want on a trike. It seems wrong that these grownups are using a rejected toddler toy on their bikes. But grownups on bikes seem wrong anyway. I know they’re the crunchy granola types my mom bitches about sometimes. I can tell from the strong smell they trail, like dirt and raw onions and the reptile house at the zoo. It’s a smell I associate with grownups, that reptile house smell. Grownups doing grownup things, behind closed doors, sounds of skin slapping, giggles, moans. I don’t like it.
“Glaring at the hippies, just like your mom, aren’t you?” Daddy says, sounding amused.
“No,” I snap, “I just don’t like them riding so close to us is all.” Why does it annoy me so much to be compared to Mom? I think about her making Gamgam’s pinchy face, and feel my own face get hot. “Don’t try to change the subject on me.”
“Right. Sorry, sweetheart.” He takes a deep breath, then starts again, “I never liked church. I’m not saying I don’t believe in God, or that I do, but it’s sort of irrelevant to me, and going to church never felt right. Why am I going inside to worship a deity who is supposed to be everywhere? Why would I want to stare at the back of some guy’s head when I can be out here, with my daughter, staring out into the depths of space, pondering God, and aliens, and stars, and weather?” He bends down and unhooks Mr. Winchester, who bounds off across the empty old golf course like he isn’t 11 years old and arthritic.
“Miss Beth at church says only the true believers will ascend to the Kingdom of Heaven, but Miss Gracie told her that once saved, always saved.” I reply. Then, “Were you once saved, Daddy?”
“Yes, sweetheart, I was once saved. In front of God and everyone, when I was nine, at First Baptist Holly Oak. So by Miss Gracie’s logic, I’m always saved. But look, don’t listen to Miss Beth or Miss Gracie too much, OK? They don’t know everything. None of us do.”
I look across the field, towards where the bathroom and the monster are. I can’t make anything out. There may be a dark shape, but I can’t be sure, and I’m not even sure that’s the right part of the field, now that I think about it.
I want to ask Daddy what he means about my Sunday School teacher, but something he said earlier is bugging at me, like it’s tapping on the back of my brain.
“Where’s Mr. Win?” I ask instead.
“Mr. Winchester! Here boy! Here, Win Win Win!” Daddy calls. We hear a splash, and then ducks quacking angrily, and Mr. Win’s happy puppy bark. “Come on back, buddy, and leave them ducks alone!”
I take Daddy’s hand as we walk towards the splashing.
“What about aliens, Daddy? Do you believe in them?” I finally feel brave enough to ask.
“Sure, why not?” he answers, and I can feel him shrugging. “Why would we be the only ones here?”
“Do you think they believe in us?”
“Probably. Even if they don’t know exactly what we are. We don’t really know what they are, either.”
“Do you think they’d ever come here, though?” I wonder.
“Why not? Maybe they already have. Maybe they’re here right now,” he says. I don’t like this idea at all. “What do you mean, like they’re here here? Like on the golf course?”
I look around. It’s so dark, and I realize I can’t see the edges of the course, just blackness that gets blacker, all around us. I’m suddenly reminded of a scene in a movie about shark attacks I saw once, where the couple looks up from snorkeling and they realize the boat is gone, and the camera starts panning around slowly, and she kept yelling “which way is land?” but there was no land anywhere, just water stretching out, out, out, until it met sky, and then down, down, down…
I squeeze Daddy’s hand.
“Sure,” he answers again, too casually, but he sounds far away now, like he’s drifting in water or there’s something in my ears. “Why not? They could be right here, all around us, right now, invisible to us, listening, taking notes, who knows?”
He keeps walking, but I’ve stopped.
I see a shape that looks huge towards my right, it’s taller and blacker than the other blackness, and there are no stars there. I stop moving, I can’t look, I can’t tell if I’ve closed my eyes or if I’ve gone blind or if the blackness has consumed everything. I try to call for my dad, try to say Daddy, but I’m so scared if I open my mouth the dark will get in it, and into my eyes, and I think, “what if I’m looking into an alien’s eyes right now and I just can’t tell?” and then I feel something cold and wet touch my leg, and now I can scream. I scream and scream, and I’m not sure what’s grabbing me, or why I’m wet, or why I’m flying, not sure if I’ve been lifted or if the ground opened. I’m aware only of my own scream in my ears and a horrible tightness in my chest like I can’t breathe and the certainty that the darkness got into my mouth and my eyes and that I might never see or hear anything else again.
“OK, OK, down boy, calm down, knock it off, Winchester, goddammit.” Daddy’s voice cuts through, and slowly I recognize the wetness on me is Mr. Win, soaked from the duck pond and rubbing against me. I’m in my dad’s arms, we’re back on the street, and Mr. Win is very excited. He keeps jumping up on us, making my dad angry.
“Daddy? Are you OK?”
“Hey sugar, yeah, I’m OK, are you OK?”
“I think so. Did … did I pass out?” I ask. The street is getting brighter and better lit as we get closer to the house.
“I’m not sure, baby, I think Mr. Win knocked the wind out of you when he came bounding up like that. He–god DAMMIT, Winchester, knock it OFF!” he yells, and gives Mr. Win a hard swat across the nose.
The lab settles down with a whine and stops jumping on me.
“He’s probably worried that I’m not walking,” I say, a little worried about it myself, “so maybe you should put me back down.”
Dad hesitates, then lets me slide gently down and releases me. He looks down at me. “Sure you’re OK, then, Kitten?”
“Yes, Daddy. I’m fine,” I say, and I take his hand and walk with him the rest of the way back home.