Why was he so angry today? It wasn’t because of the violence at home. Charles hadn’t beaten him this morning, even though Aaron expected him to. Inexplicably, that was what made Aaron so angry. He wished Charles had beaten him rather than holding out a teasing glimpse of something he could never have again. He was angry at Charles for giving him false hope.
Aaron trudged past several historical homes downtown, some of which had been converted into small businesses. Some houses (were they colonial or victorian in style?) had signs dangling over their doorways to attract passersby to the dentist, the homemade jam sale, the palm reader, or the funeral home. Aaron passed by each one. His destination was further down the road, and he dreaded reaching it almost as much as he dreaded thinking back to this confusing morning.
Only about an hour ago, Aaron sat at the kitchen table going over polynomials and fractions. Charles sat down across from him, set down his toolbag, and started taunting him — your very existence is a waste of space and oxygen, and why don’t you just step in front of a car? — the usual. Aaron stubbornly ignored the man until his stepfather reached across the table and placed one hand over his.
Aaron gasped in pain. Charles’ smoldering cigarette was squeezed between two of his fingers, and the burning, ashy tip hissed against the back of Aaron’s hand. Aaron leaned back, eyes widening, teeth clenching. He felt as if a live match was boring a hole right through his flesh. Even the rapid-fire thought of endure, endure, endure did not make the sudden, sharp pain any easier to stomach.
With a startling amount of force, Aaron yanked his hand back and then snatched the cigarette from the man’s fingers. Before Charles realized his prey had moved, Aaron pressed the cigarette into his half-empty glass of water until the black end crumbled apart. Charles made a furious grab for him, but Aaron predicted it. He moved back, grabbed up the cigarette again, and pitched it across the room. It fell through a crack barely an inch wide at the top of the trash can, which was mostly covered by a lid that rested slightly off-center.
Now Aaron knew he had guaranteed himself a heavy pounding. He might have to skip school again.
Charles had caught Aaron’s wrist, but now he released it and leaned back. He chuckled.
Aaron just hunched over and poured the remains of his ashy water over his burn. He waited.
Charles crossed his arms. “You have some aim, twerp. I haven’t seen accuracy like that since I was your age.”
Aaron wrapped his hand in the bottom of his shirt.
“Don’t believe me?” Charles rose to his feet.
Aaron flinched, and the man laughed again.
Charles opened his toolbag on the table. Aaron dreaded what he might pull out — a cord, a wrench, a bicycle chain. They all hurt. He did not expect what appeared, however, and he gripped the sides of his chair with terror.
Charles held a sleek, black-and-silver revolver with a four-inch barrel.
His greasy finger ran down the smooth barrel, like one might stroke a favorite pet. “Smith & Wesson Model 15-2,” he said. “Issued to me in the Air Force. Still shoots better than any other .38 I’ve handled.”
Aaron just nodded to show he was listening and didn’t want any trouble.
“You know what?” said Charles as he slowly rolled the gun from hand to hand. “I once got a medal for marksmanship. I shot a one-inch bullseye at thirty yards. Put everyone on the range to shame. Are you impressed?”
“Oh yes.” How could he not be when the man looking for praise was holding a gun at the other end of the table? He assumed Charles was exaggerating (thirty yards, really?) but he didn’t dare argue. Not when he was only five feet away from the armed braggart.
Charles then raised the gun and stared down the sights at Aaron. Aaron threw both hands over his face, palms out, and sank down in his chair.
Charles snorted. “You’re killin’ me, kid. Sit up. Don’t you know the first rule of gun safety? Never point a gun at anybody.”
Like he was doing now.
“Okay,” Aaron stammered. “Got it.”
“Good.” Charles opened the cylinder and shook six bullets out into his hand. Then he spun the cylinder and clapped it back into place. “It’s clear. Understand?”
Aaron dropped his hands to the table top. “Yes.”
Charles smirked at him. “Did your daddy ever show you how to use a gun?”
Aaron looked down. “He was planning to, but he died before he got the chance.”
“Isn’t that a shame.” Charles walked around the table so he was at Aaron’s side. “Let me show you some basics. Surely you’re not too dumb to grasp that much, are you?” He chuckled as if he really thought Aaron was too dumb to learn about handling a gun.
Aaron didn’t know what to say. He wanted to learn, but he felt like this was a sick joke of Charles’.
“Well, stand up,” ordered the man.
Aaron did, and Charles handed him the revolver. It had more weight than Aaron expected, and the handle felt warm from being in Charles’ claw. Aaron’s own hands were clammy. He switched the gun between them so he could wipe one hand at a time on his jeans.
“What do you think it is, a banana?” Charles gripped Aaron’s hand and forcefully adjusted his fingers. “Hold it like this.”
Aaron tried to get it right. He didn’t want the strong hands to correct him again.
“Finger off the trigger,” said Charles. “Keep your finger up here until you’re ready to shoot.”
Aaron felt oddly excited. He never would have expected either guardian to trust him with something like this, and it was something he had wanted to learn ever since he first saw his father cleaning his own shiny wood-handled revolver. These were the last circumstances he would have expected to learn this skill in.
“I’m gonna tell you the three things you have to remember when you’re shooting,” said Charles, “which you’ll never in a million years actually get to do. Three things: front sights, trigger press, follow through. I do those every time, and I never miss.”
Aaron nodded, concentrating.
“Where’s your target?”
Aaron looked around the kitchen. His gaze fell on a clock beside the curtained window. He pointed.
Charles leaned close. “Alright. Pretend it’s my face.” He snickered to himself, as if at some private joke. “I know that’s what you’re thinking anyway. Pretend we’re at war and you finally get the chance to shoot back. You’d never win, but pretend anyway.”
It wasn’t hard to picture Charles’ face beyond the barrel as Aaron raised the gun and tried to hold it steady with both hands. He could see his front sight wobbling at the very tip of the barrel. He focused on it until it became central in his vision. The clock blurred in the background, and he could more easily picture Charles’ face in its place.
“Steady.” Charles again placed his hand over Aaron’s, trying to hold his aim still. This time he was gentler. His hand felt warm and oddly comforting.
A chill paralyzed Aaron’s spine.
“Are you aiming?” asked the man.
Aaron nodded, not trusting his voice anymore. He couldn’t quite picture anybody’s face up there now; it was just a clock. Trying not to choke on the smell of nicotine that always hung around his stepfather, Aaron focused on his front sights. Front sights, trigger press, follow through, he recited in his mind.
It felt strange having a grown man stand so close to him and teach him so attentively. That hadn’t happened since Father helped Aaron hold a fishing pole on the pier of their favorite lake. The feeling of the man’s hand over his, guiding his tool, was too reminiscent. For a moment, Aaron felt an unexpected paternal connection to the man he despised.
“Deep breath,” said Charles. “Now what’s next?”
“Trigger press,” whispered Aaron.
“Go ahead. You saw me clear it.”
Aaron took a deep breath and pressed the trigger. He felt the mechanism shift into place and heard a soft click. And that was it. His finger relaxed.
Charles shook his head. “Come on, you dummy. What did you forget?”
“Uhh, follow through. What does that mean?”
“Hold the trigger back for about two seconds after you fire. It helps you maintain your aim. And it’s really not that hard, I tell you. Even a dalmatian could do it.”
Aaron kept breathing deeply and raised the gun again to aim.
“Hold it higher, steady...” Out of excitement or an apparent need to have some control, Charles placed a thick hand on Aaron’s shoulder. Aaron tensed, then relaxed, feeling the hand’s warm squeeze. He closed his eyes.
“What are you using for bait, son?”
“I’m trying the grasshopper this time.”
“I think I’ll catch more with these minnows.”
“We’ll see, Dad.”
“Need help casting your line?”
Two strong hands folded over Aaron’s. The fishing line whirred and arced over the shining surface of the lake. Aaron watched his father’s reflection wrinkle away in the spreading ripples until he had completely vanished.
“Try again, go through each step,” said Charles somewhere to his left.
Aaron nodded, feeling the tickle of a single tear running down the right side of his face, thankfully out of Charles’ view. He blinked and focused. Front sights. Trigger press. Follow through.
He released the trigger after two seconds. Then he set the gun down on the table and stepped back.
“Finished?” Charles said. “You’re just catching on!”
“I think I got it. Thanks.”
Charles clapped him on the shoulder, same place he had left a bruise the night before. “What a waste of talent you are,” said the man. “For a second I thought you really had this.”
Aaron nodded. Then he turned away and walked silently to the front door.
“Not bad for an idiot,” Charles called after him. “Next time we’ll try the rifle, if I’m feeling charitable.”
You won’t be.
Aaron reached the door and opened it.
Charles threw in one last word. “Don’t forget you owe me a cigarette. You hear me? Hey, I’m talking to you!”
Aaron just went outside and shut the door. His hand was burning again, so he put his mouth over the wound. Head down, he walked down the street and tried not to think about anything. He had left all his books and homework back there on the table, but there was no way he’d turn around for them.
He didn’t go to school. He went downtown feeling very upset and angry. His father was supposed to teach him how to shoot a gun. His father never would. And now that filthy man — the man who influenced his mother to drink more, the man who sought to break most of Aaron’s bones — he had allowed Aaron to believe for the briefest second that he still had a chance at having a father figure who cared. Why had Aaron given in to the closeness of the mentoring? Why had he let the man fool him into thinking of days gone by?
He had imagined his father back in that kitchen. But how could that be? Charles was not and would not ever be his father. Aaron dreaded the thought of the two men melding together in his mind. That was why he had to get out, and that was why he now felt so angry at Charles.
Aaron reached the end of the block and walked up to the tidy white church around the bend. He passed through an unlocked gate in the chainlink fence and headed across the smooth field of yellowing grass. Square blocks of stone lay perched in the ground every few feet, some surrounded by flowers. Aaron walked slowly through all the rows, glancing at names of mothers, children, siblings, fathers. He hadn’t come here in a very long time, but he still remembered the way.
Father’s grave rested about two yards from the shadow of a red-leaved maple tree. Veteran, Husband, Father. Dearly Loved.
Aaron sat cross-legged in the grass. The occasional leaf circled down nearby and the chilly breeze whistled around him. Guarding against the cold, he hunched his shoulders and folded his hands in his lap. The cool wind — or emotions? — caused his nose to run.
Aaron looked up at the overcast sky. He sat there for a minute, breathing deeply and blinking against the wind. He had so much to say, he hardly knew where to start. So he simply asked, “How’s the fishing up there?”
It seemed like a silly question now, but Aaron knew his father wouldn’t mind. He sincerely hoped Father didn’t have to see what his son went through on a daily basis, but he prayed that Father would be allowed this one brief moment to look back on Earth and hear his boy’s lonely words. He didn’t even know how that worked, or if it did, but he hoped he was heard anyway.
Now Aaron didn’t know what else to say. He wanted to explain what happened this morning and how conflicted he felt. How he wanted so desperately to have his father around he was willing to let Charles teach him something important. And how guilty he felt at having even slightly associated Charles with his real father.
Aaron sat quietly for another minute. He was glad to be alone for once, alone with the good memories. Maybe he should focus on that rather than complaining about his awful situation.
Aaron took a penny from his pocket. It was marked with the year 1944, and he carried it with him everywhere. He had spent most of his childhood searching for a penny from that year, and he finally got one when Father found it in the pebbly creek bed.
Now he placed the penny on top of his father’s headstone. He had heard of this being done on military gravestones right after the war as a sign of respect and remembrance. Different coins held different meanings. A penny meant he knew the deceased soldier. Aaron didn’t think anyone knew Father better than he did. At very least, Father knew Aaron better than anyone else in the whole world could possibly know him.
And for old time’s sake, Aaron placed his rusty fishing hook on the headstone next to the penny. He didn’t have flowers to give, and he knew that these small items were far more significant. Father would understand.
He sat back again and folded his hands. Closed his eyes. “I miss you,” he said.
Then he broke down and wept.