Originally published in the Aperion Review, Winter 2015 Issue.
My father pulls to the side of a quiet residential neighborhood and parks the car. He spins the barrel of his revolver and clicks it in place. “You’re good here, right?”
I nod. He’s left me alone in the car before, sometimes to run into the store, sometimes at night on unfamiliar streets like this. On the drive, I watch the map and memorize the roads, a game my father has me do to pass the time. It’s hard in the dark, but I remember turns, and I’m good at figuring out shadowy landmarks.
When he leaves on nights like this, he’s never gone long. I pass the time by reading comics. Afterward, he always takes me out for ice cream or buys me more comics and lets me stay up late.
He kisses my forehead and steps out of the car. Before he closes the door, he says, “I love you, kid. Stay put.” He tucks the gun into the waist of his pants. The dome light gleams off the polished wood handle before he closes the door and leaves me in the dark.
My father’s boots click across the asphalt. There’re no streetlights here, and a November chill frosts the windows. I climb in the back seat, settle on the floor, pull my knees to my chest and cover myself in our emergency blanket. It smells like dust and gasoline. I click on my flashlight and open the latest X-men. I want to be a hero, want to stop speeding cars with a wave of my hand, want to heal people with a thought. I’m able to get through three of the six comics dad bought for me last week at Kettleman’s drugstore. One I read twice.
When I hear his boots on asphalt again, the sound is different, softer, more a click and drag than the sharp clacking of earlier.
I slither out from the blanket and climb back in the front. His face is pale in the patchy porch lights, and he holds his left hand under his coat. He’s breathing hard, and he slumps into the seat. There won’t be ice cream or comics tonight. “Remember how to drive?”
I nod. He’s had me sit on his lap and steer before, but only in and out of the driveway at home, and we haven’t been home in weeks. The whiteness of his face scares me, so I don’t ask questions.
He licks his lips and turns the car over. “Hop on,” he says. I slide onto his lap, and he pushes the small of my back forward. “Don’t lean back.” He presses the gas slow. “If you want me to go faster, tap my right leg. Tap my left if you need me to slow down or stop.”
“Can’t you see?” I say.
“Not Superman, kid. Don’t got X-ray vision.” He laughs, but the air whips out in bursts, wheezes.
I turn on the headlights. He’s shown me how to do this, how to do the blinker, the wipers, but not the defroster. “The window’s foggy.”
He turns a dial and the fog thins in clear fingers.
“You have to be careful with guns,” I say. “They’re not toys.”
He leans back. “Remember how to get to Uncle Joey’s?”
“I should take you to the hospital.”
“They’d take me away from you, and you’re all I got.”
“You’re all I got,” I say.
The first corner comes fast, and I turn the wheel right. The tires squeal, slip on the pavement. “Slow down,” I say.
“You didn’t tell me,” he says. His legs shake under me.
Uncle Joey’s is miles away, and I worry I’ll forget the way. It takes me a minute to learn the fine art of signaling speed by tapping his legs. It’s all I can do to stay on the road, so I straddle the line, and go over it when I get close to turns. There’s never many cars on the back roads we take, not this late at night. “What happened?”
“Just drive, kid.”
“Are you going to die?”
“Life isn’t like comics,” he says. “Good guys don’t always win.”
“We’re the good guys, right?”
“We’re always the good guys,” he says. “But no one else knows it.” His voice is softer now, like he’s tired, like he’s about to fall asleep. “And you,” he says. “You’re my hero.”
“Dad,” I say. I tap his left leg, but he doesn’t slow. “Dad.”
The car speeds up. My chest tightens. “Dad. Slow down.”
I see the turn coming, the red octagon, the flash of headlights coming from the left.
I stretch out my hand toward the oncoming car. In that moment, I am my father’s hero.