Happy Family by Benjamin Toche

I heard Destiny, for the first time that day, through the wall. Her voice rose, and her mother’s matched course, and soon they had crescendoed into a screaming match. Jake, her brother, sat on the sofa with me, looking over my shoulder as I played Grand Theft Auto on his PSP. The racket from the kitchen stopped, and I wrote it off as the usual nagging from her mother: stop sinning, act right, get a job, move out already. It was always the same. Destiny stomped out of the kitchen, wiping her face and muttering that we had to go and we could come back later to pack our stuff.

I put down the PSP on the coffee table. “Why?”

She looked at me, a little disbelieving at my ignorance. “You didn’t hear?”

“Hear what?”

“In the kitchen.”

“I was playing GTA.”

She rolled her eyes then outed the horrible revelation that fell into my face like a cinderblock. Her voice smoldered from yelling, and her eyes were watery yet powerful at once. I thought it all a bad joke, a hidden video made with the sole purpose of sending it to America’s Funniest. They were so clever, so cunning. They suckered my rube self into a sick joke and expected to catch my reaction on camera. It was all an elaborate set up. Call me over. Stage a fight. Submit the video. Win $10,000. I told her she was full of it.

“Really? How else do you think I look like this?”

She lifted her shirt. Bra-less, the bottoms of her breasts, laden with her professed maternity, peeked from the edge of the pulled-up flannel. Jake didn’t look away, and I had time enough to notice both her swollen abdomen and his interest in it. Her skin, Nordic and snowy, seemed to glow.

“I thought you were on a period bloat,” I said.

“For four months?”

“Or just getting fat.”

“Fuck you.” She started crying and dropped her shirt. Her mother, who everyone, including me, called Moms, plowed through the kitchen door into the living room. She glared at me, and I looked around the room where I had suddenly become the stranger. Jake picked up the PSP and moved as far away from me as he could on the sofa.

“What’s the meaning of this?” Moms pointed at Dest. I stood and went for the door. Thinking that I had to get high that instant, I plunged into the blistering sun. Moms followed and stood in the doorway, screaming about rape charges. I went to my car, driver’s side, and got in to look for the one-hitter that I was sure was in there somewhere. The search had given them, Jake included, time to descend upon my car. I gave up and rolled the engine over. As I laid down pedal and shifter, the old Buick’s tires bit into the stones of the driveway, and she jerked back from the apartment complex. Moms loped after, obesely, half-hearted, for a few paces. The fat rolls of her exposed upper arms billowed like canvas sails or strange, hyper-dimensional beings that my eyes couldn’t resolve correctly. Her mouth moved, raging, and I heard the word rape screamed again. I whipped the Buick’s nose around and put out for the open road. In the rearview they stood together, a bastion of solidarity against the fleeing Buick. I couldn’t stop myself from laughing as they grew smaller and smaller until I turned the corner for the highway on-ramp. They were gone, and with them, my laughter.

On the highway, the Buick pulled me along, heading to Mick and Taco’s trailer. The day was perfect: hot, steamy, and now, full of nothing. I cranked the volume until the speakers rattled through the bass line of a 70’s butt-rock ballad. The window was down, and the inrushing air blasted my cheeks. It felt good, and so did I, and to hell with everything else. So she was preggo. Rape? I had been staying at Moms’ most nights for the past six months. What kind of rapist sticks around for six months? I started laughing again, but that collapsed into a scream buffeted by the backwash from the window. Summer had just begun, and the weather was gorgeous, and the gas tank was full. As yet, I was free and wild and open, on my way to get totally high.

 

MICK SAT OUT FRONT OF HIS TRAILER, watching the sky with glassed eyes. Knowing Mick, he’d been smoking bowls since he rolled off the couch that morning. We tried to slap hands, but Mick kept missing mine. He laughed with no sound, and I took a seat on the trailer’s iron steps next to him. The laughter died, and he said we should go in before Taco burned down the trailer.

“What’s cooking?”

“Burritos. But he ate so many ‘shrooms already that maybe we … check on him.”

We stood and entered but left the door open. The heat inside felt double that of outside, and the sound of Taco’s fumbling with utensils and giggling came from the kitchen. Mick called to him, and he stuck his head into the living room. Wild eyed, he dropped an egg beater and stumbled toward me. His hug crushed me deep into his chest.

“Bro,” Taco mumbled, and his legs slackened, threatening to pull us onto the floor. I dumped him into his recliner, and his head lolled back with closed eyes. The perpetually ready and multicolored glass bong sat on the floor in front of the sofa, and sitting, Mick grabbed it. After a huge hit, he passed it to me. I sat, inhaled, and soon our smoke and the dim light from the yellowed curtains cast the afternoon in a strangely fuzzy illumination. The couch sucked at my jeans, drawing me down so that passing the bong grew difficult. We pulled one final hit, and Mick put the bong back on the floor.

The time stretched out, and we sat for eternity. Mick, as if divinely inspired, mumbled something about snacks. He rose and went to the kitchen, and I, feeling a sudden thirst, followed him. The fridge held beers, Budweiser, and I took one. The temperature differential between the beer and my stomach put a film of sweat on my forehead. Mick rummaged in the cupboards, and taken by a sudden desire to tell him my news, I broke it. Ignoring me, he found a nearly empty bag of chili cheese flavored Fritos and dove into it. I thought I might not have said anything aloud so I repeated myself.

“Mmm,” he said. “Best thing ever.”

“Serious?”

“Yeah, here.” Mick handed me the bag.

“Oh, right.” I scooped out a pinch of the crumbly dregs. The explosion of the spices obliterated the weak hops of the beer and the dank aftertaste of the weed. Flying high, I asked for a cigarette. Mick took one from the box on the counter and gave it to me. He took one for himself and, leaning against the counter, we watched the smoke furling through the kitchen’s still air. We were halfway through our smokes when he turned to me. “Hold up, a rapist?”

“Yeah.”

“Heh.”

We crushed our finished cigarettes in the sink and went back to the living room. Taco had disappeared, and we sat on the sofa again. “Maybe we should go find—”

“He’ll be back,” Mick said as he picked up the bong. He smoked and turned to me. “What are you going to do about your thing?”

I took several moments to place his words into context. “Destiny?”

“Yeah.”

“I don’t know. Nothing.”

“No chance they’ll kill it?”

“Moms is too God-crazy for that.”

“What about giving it away,” Mick asked.

“What do you think?”

“Whatever. Don’t end up like John.” Smoke bloomed from his mouth as he spoke. “I can’t remember the last time I saw him.”

“Me neither.” I ripped from the bong and sat it on the floor again.

After some time spent staring at the curtains, Mick asked, “What’s the plan for tonight?”

I sighed.

“Yeah,” Mick said as he turned on the television. We watched book reviews on CSPAN as the afternoon stretched out. Eventually, Taco stumbled through the front door. Looking like he had swum in his clothes, he fell into the recliner and stared at us. He said nothing and flinched whenever we moved to hit the bong. The program ended, and I stood, saying I needed to go. Mick and Taco looked at me but said nothing. Outside, the sky had dimmed to sunset, and its color, no longer the carefree afternoon blue, was the terrible inflamed red of a god’s eye. In the Buick, I spun down the highway, and for some reason, I smiled as I headed back to Moms’ and the storm I felt sure was waiting there.

 

THE APARTMENT PARKING LOT SMELLED of cooling asphalt and rain-soaked trash. I didn’t bother knocking before I opened the door and found Moms, by herself on the sofa, right where I had been forever ago. Arms crossed, she glared at me.

“What do you aim to do?”

I didn’t say anything and closed the door, standing just in front of it.

“You got a baby on the way.”

“Yeah.” My voice sounded like it came from the bottom of a dry well.

“You got to get a plan for that little one. And a job.”

“Right.”

“I ain’t playing with you.”

I felt like saying something, but all the words were eels.

“You need to be a man.” She jutted her jaw toward me to emphasize the word “man.” I stared at her. I put my hand on the doorknob as Destiny came in from the hallway and stood at the edge of the sofa. She looked down at Moms, appearing for all the world like a lady in waiting to a grotesque queen. In the hazy afterglow of the afternoon’s debauches, a light shone about her as if she glowed from within. Her hair, short, vibrant, and awful in the pink that she had chosen as that month’s color. She licked her lips, a long and slow movement of the tongue. Something in my groin twitched.

“What’s your decision,” Moms demanded.

I went to Dest and touched her belly. I didn’t need any of this, but something in me felt obliged to ride the crazy rocket to its end. A stupid Eagle Scout holdout, something washed up from a different lifetime. Honor, or integrity, or some other asinine concept that I had managed to avoid for as long as I’d been on my own. I couldn’t decide which concepts applied, and in the moment I took to study the problem, Destiny took my hand and led me back to her room. We closed the door.

 

IT CAME. AT THE HOSPITAL, a nurse had given Dest some intravenous drugs that, when I asked what they were, she winked and said it was a little something to help her relax. Dest fell asleep and remained so through most everything until right at the end when the midwife shook her awake and told her to push. She grunted a few times, and after, they put it on her chest. When Destiny saw it, her face blanched and she reached out for my hand. I took some pictures, and after a while, another nurse took it away somewhere. The nurse had told me where and why and when I could come visit, smiling all the while like nothing was wrong. None of the words she said put themselves together in my head, and all I could think about was erasing the memory of what just happened. Destiny pretended to go back to sleep, and I wandered into the hallway. A nurse stopped me, and I lied, saying I was going for Burger King. Those were the first words I’d said all day.

Despite the lateness of the year, the heat reigned—fat, opulent, and greasy. I put the windows down in the Buick and blasted down the highway toward Taco and Mick’s. Mick sat on the sofa, and I joined him in silence. Mick, obliterated, took longer than usual to recognize me and after mumbling a barely audible hello, kept forgetting I was there. Taco was gone. Working, Mick said, but it could have been anywhere. Rain had fallen, and the swampy smell of the outside crept in through the trailer’s open windows.

“So, is it, you know?” Mick’s head bobbled around in slow motion, sweeping the room, and he focused on me. The tiny, red-flamed slits of his eyes, awaited my answer.

“What?”

“Dead?”

“Not yet. They said a year at most.”

“Anyone ever say what was wrong with it?”

“Yeah.”

Mick waited for me to continue, but when I didn’t, he asked, “You get pics?”

I shrugged.

“Come on. I know you did. Let me see.” I showed him my phone. He took it and thumbed through the images. “Goddamn.”

“Yeah.”

He put the phone on the sofa between us, picked up the bong, and packed the bowl. “I mean.” He paused and sucked down a huge hit. Holding his fist to his mouth, he sputtered and coughed the smoke into the room. “Cinematic.”

“Gimme that.” I hit the bong and sat it on the floor. We said nothing else, and a long time later, Taco came back.

Mick held my phone out to Taco. “Check this.”

Taco said nothing until he finished scrolling, then he let out a breathy, “A la chingada.” He took the bong and ripped a hit bigger than what Mick and I took. He put the bong back and went to the kitchen. I heard him open the fridge, and he came back with two cans of beer. He held one out to me, but I declined. Taco shrugged, sat in his recliner, and killed both beers. The afternoon felt gone, flown away somewhere, and the urge to leave flooded me. I stood.

“I’m out.”

Mick, looking up at me, said, “Come by whenever.”

“Yeah.”

“You could even bring it over here.”

“Sure.”

Out in the Buick, the seats were hot and sticky. The rounded top of the car seat strapped into the backseat crested the bottom of my rearview mirror like some rising moon. I started her up and headed back to the hospital.

 

beardfrost
BENJAMIN TOCHE
is a recent graduate from the University of Alaska Anchorage’s creative writing Master’s degree program. He reads and writes when not suffering from self-induced psychological and/or interpersonal relationship problems. Follow him on Instagram @bptoche and visit his blog: bptoche.blogspot.com

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