Rockets by Justin Carter
Assistant fiction editor Eli Hemmila on today's bonus story: I remember watching the bombing of Baghdad from the couch in my parents’ living room. I was thirteen and, man, it was Rock ‘n’ Roll. It was nighttime in that far-away city, and so the truth of what I was watching was veiled by the dark, only briefly illuminated by the flashes of our bombs and rockets. In “Rockets,” Carter challenges us to close this distance we keep. He rejects the buffers we create in skin color, culture, and language, bringing the narrative into the readers’ backyards, living rooms, and bedrooms. The story does the work of good fiction, turning the reader inward to more closely consider the external.
Rockets My father built rockets.
Designed, he'd correct me when I'd ask him about work. I only designed them. Someone else puts them together.
In this way, there was never blood on his hands. Even after the war began, the rockets he designed used to crush Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver--even then, he'd say I was just doing my job, would say how this country uses those rockets is their own choice. And then he died, hung his body in the back closet of our home while my sister and I were at school, while my mother was buying a chicken breast and sweet peas for dinner. Behind, he left nothing--no notes, no will.
My mother says it was the guilt. My sister says he had no guilt.
This is true. At seven, when he took me to buy my first pair of cowboy boots, I was left alone in the shop for an hour while he snuck away to the bar next door. Don't tell your mother. She doesn't want me drinking.
Someone could have taken me.
And if they had, would it have been anything like Taken? Would he have hunted me down? Or would he have crawled back into the shop, drawn up more blueprints for more ways to destroy.
My wife touches my forehead before I fall asleep every night. As a child, she'd come down with a fever that lasted months, had become obsessed with preventative measures. We threw the milk away two days before its expiration. We took plates of vitamins each morning with our orange juice.
Though I know he touched my sister, we say nothing about it. When she calls, every Tuesday morning, to let me know how she is, how the kittens are growing into full cats, we don't speak our father's name. We let the silence speak. It's better at it.
I was fifteen when he did it. America was breaking through the walls that the Canadians had built around their cities. On television, one channel praised the prowess of the rockets, how they'd taken more lives than we'd ever have imagined they could. Another channel showed still images of Canadian children, their faces buried in their mother's laps, the small body of another child at their feet.
The blood looked so red. I reached for the remote to turn the contrast down.
My wife was one of them, Canadian. When the war ended, when the government let the survivors choose to either assimilate into our culture or face deportation to Greenland, she chose to stay, wanted to study biochemistry at an American university. Instead, after the No Canadian Students Act, she worked retail jobs in New York, Columbus, Memphis, steadily moving southward, one side of her brain hoping she'd find a way to sneak into Mexico. We met when she was working the counter at Macy's in Houston. We had dinner, pizza and fries, and made more plans--coffee one morning, beers another night. And when the nation finally decided to give Canada back to the Canadians, to end the blockade, she stayed in Houston. We married. I never mentioned my father to her. When she asked about him, I said he'd worked in Research, that he'd died when I was a teenager, made vague references to cancer.
We'd been married nineteen months when she found him. Google. She printed his Wikipedia page off, brought it to me in the kitchen.
What the fuck is this.
I should have told you.
He fucking did this.
I held the counter, prepared myself for the leaving, but instead watched as tears started to form in my wife's eyes, as her body slumped down to the floor.
I didn't know how to tell you. I was ashamed.
My sister's dating another new man. She calls on Tuesday mornings, tells me his name is Ronaldo. He's Portuguese. He's got a house on the lake. She might be in love with him even though it's only been two weeks.
He treats me well. He doesn't scream when I track mud onto his floor.
Our father wouldn't let us into his office unless we wiped our feet with a wet washcloth first, then dried them with a fresh towel. He didn't want anything to be out of place. He said the future of our nation depends on nothing being out of place in here. His desk was stacks of folders. There were no photographs in the room.
I'm happy for you.
Hold on, I have to text you a picture of the cats. They've gotten so big.
The next Tuesday, my sister doesn’t call. The next Tuesday, she calls just to say it's over and I'm sad about it but he wasn't perfect. I want perfect.
The television set shows a news program, the words Reparations for Canadians on the bottom of the screen.
We should give them all a house and some cash, a man says. We owe them that.
We owe nothing, a woman says. They provoked us when they refused to fight with us in Africa.
I don't know how to repair my wife, but refusing to tell her that my father had been responsible for the destruction, for the loss of her home and her family, the cousin who died fighting, the uncle who was inside the embassy when the military used a car bomb to destroy it--refusing to tell her wasn't the right step. I knew this, but let my fear of losing her take over.
After his death--my mother refused to let us use the word suicide in the house, said it reminded her too much of the war, how the Coast Guard members would sacrifice their bodies in the Canadian harbors--I went into his office, pulled open the drawer under the desk. I expected more files, maybe even a hidden bottle of gin. Instead, it was just newspaper clippings, comic strips--Dilbert, Garfield, Shoe.
I guess he had a sense of humor, my friends said when I told them of my discovery.
The world was such a bad place, I said. Maybe he just needed an escape.
I'm fifteen and don't know how to escape yet, haven't realized that there is no way to escape. I sneak out at night and go downtown with my friends, where we watch boys older than us but still young enough to be boys race their cars down the asphalt. We pay them to buy us cigarettes and pay someone else to buy us beer. We drink it under an overpass, because we think that's where we're supposed to go to drink illegal beer. It doesn't matter, though--we could drink it in the streets if we wanted. All the good cops have enlisted and all the bad cops are too bad to care.
When I'm fifteen, my wife is fourteen. She's sleeping underneath her bed, hoping that, if the rockets hit, the mattress can save her, can be her temporary roof. She's lucky, though. She doesn't live in one of the cities, where the rockets do the most damage. She hears the sounds of war, but never sees it.
She doesn't leave me. She knows there's no truth to the old saying: like father, like son. I'm not designing weapons. I'm teaching online algebra classes. I'm making dinners with basil and sprigs of mint, not microwaving pot pies at midnight. We don't have a daughter yet but if we did, I wouldn't touch her.
Still, she's distant for weeks. In bed, she rolls away from me. When I wake up, she's already in the dining room, finishing her cereal, leaving for work early. The milk cartons start to reach their expiration dates. We eat leftovers for the first time.
My sister calls on Tuesday morning. She's got a new boyfriend. I want to warn her: he isn't perfect.
She marries this one. They have children. They grow old. Eventually, my sister dies. Eventually, her husband dies. Eventually, I die. My father did not start this tradition.
Searching through my father's office after his death, opening each drawer, I keep thinking I'll find a stack of family photographs. Do I?
Short answer: no.
Longer answer: I spread all the diagrams of rockets out on his desk. We've already called the government, made sure they had everything backed up somewhere, so I'm free to do this--I take each diagram and crumple it, then uncrumple it. These diagrams--these are his family pictures, and with my father gone, I want this family gone too. I use an X-Acto knife to slice an X into each page. When I'm finished, I deposit the stack of diagrams into the kitchen trash.
When I'm sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, I'm an American boy. My blood is the blood of war. When I'm sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, my wife is a Canadian girl. She's losing more and more each day. A friend's brother. Her fourth grade boyfriend's mother. Her blood is the blood of war, but not the same blood. Hers is the blood from the television set, the bright red that I can't bear seeing.
Why do you think he did it, I ask my sister. He's been dead a month.
He was responsible for so much death. I think he wanted to feel what it felt like on the other end.
This is the last time we'll talk about this. The government continues sending us paychecks, more and more money as more and more dead pile up across the border. Eventually, our mother stops cashing them. She works in an office and we start working too and the checks keep coming, stacked in his office now, atop his old desk.
I'm sorry, my wife says, months later. I know it isn't your fault.
I'm seven and alone in the cowboy boot store.
I'm fifteen and alone in his office.
I'm twenty-six and touching my wife's face, touching her hands, touching all these things that the war could have robbed me of. I'm twenty-six and I could be alone now. I'm twenty-six and I'm still an American boy.
I'm twenty-six with the war in my blood.
Justin Carter is a PhD student at the University of North Texas. The winner of the 2014 Sonora Review Poetry Prize, his work can be found in Booth, The Collagist, The Journal, and Ninth Letter.