Featured in Colorado Review
After DreamlandFeatured, Fiction
Published Summer 2016
“You know that dog, son?” Emmet’s father says.
“No, sir,” says Emmet.
“Ever seen him? Even once?”
“Then you don’t just go up to him, Emmet. You were going to march right over there and put your hand out because that dog reminds you of King—am I right?”
“I guess so, sir. Maybe. Yeah.”
“That’s not how you approach a strange animal, son. That’s why I called you back. But I can’t always. Your old man won’t always be here to keep you out of trouble, you know.”
Emmet’s father says this all the time now. Nobody wants to hear it—not Emmet’s mother, not his sister, and definitely not Emmet, who figures it’s one of the reasons his father’s had to get his own place up in Moab.
Emmet peers through the sun haze at the old quarry sign, feeling his father’s eyes on his cheek. Frederickson Stone, the sign says in slanted letters, the metal pocked and battered. Under the name you can just make out CLOSED TO UBLIC FO BLASTIN ON TU SD YS, half the letters blanked out like some kind of word game. It looks to Emmet like someone’s unloaded a twelve gauge right into the steel.
The quarry’s tapped out, nothing left but muddy groundwater and basalt, the sandstone long since cut and sold. Frederickson Stone’s blasting out a new pit a mile north now, the whole operation concealed behind a razor wire fence and a guardhouse his father thinks is manned by ex-Blackwater. He says the place is tighter than his base in Fallujah ever was.
“You can go meet the dog, son,” he says now, “but do it right. Remember how I taught you. Show me how it’s done.”
Across the arroyo, near the ATV trail that claws up into the parched hills, the dog sits next to his camouflaged owner, eyes alert as a sharpshooter’s. Emmet can feel the dog’s concentration from twenty yards out. There’s plenty of prey in the area—prairie dogs have dug burrows under the quarry tailings, and some are sitting up on their haunches chirping right now—but the dog isn’t even tempted. Through force of will he’s earned the privilege of going without a leash. When a scrawny punk Emmet’s age climbs out of the pickup behind him, the dog looks over his shoulder and tracks him until he sidles up and tweaks his ear. The ear twitches as if to shake off a fly, then springs back to attention as the boy slaps the truck keys into his father’s hand.
“What do you do first, son?” says Emmet’s father. “Before you even approach him?”
Emmet knows the answer to this question but lets it dangle. The other boy, rail thin and dressed in a sweaty long-sleeved shirt and cammie pants like his father’s, has noticed him and nodded from across the arroyo—not a friendly nod. Think you can take me? it says.
To look at the kid you’d think there wasn’t much to worry about—though he’s probably sixteen, he can’t weigh more than one-ten, one-twenty—but Emmet knows better. Assholes like him deal in every school Emmet’s ever attended, sometimes beating the shit out of the Indian dealers because the Utes cook better product than they do. The whole reservation’s like one big meth lab. One of them even killed a Ute kid once, for nothing—no money involved, no product, no girl, nothing. No reason given, just cut him with sheet metal shears and dumped him by the lake in Spanish Valley. Emmet nods back, keeping it slow, because you can’t back down. Try me, he means to say. The other boy is talking to his dog now, maybe about Emmet.
“Emmet, you hear me? What’s the first thing you do?” His father lays a hand on his shoulder, squeezes it. His mother never touches him in this way. He’d like the hand to stay where it is.
“Read him,” says Emmet. “First you read him.”
“Good man. So, what’s that animal saying to you? What’s his breed? His temperament? Where’s his attention right now?”
There’s a quaver in the atmosphere between the dog and where they stand, the midday heat coming on strong and fast, the loose desert scrabble bouncing it back in waves. As Emmet studies the situation across the way, he becomes aware of the sun’s crackle on his skin. There’s no cover anywhere, Frederickson Stone having blasted every living thing out of the ground decades ago. Emmet studies the dog, ignoring the punk as best he can.
“German shepherd?” he says, but knows it’s not quite right. His own dog, King, was a shepherd, but more barrel-chested than the dog across the way, stocky until the tumor made him stop eating. Emmet’s been angling for a puppy, but his father says it’s got to wait till he and his mother sort things out. Too much up in the air, he says, though he doesn’t know the half of it. And King, he’s only been gone a couple of months.
“Maybe not a shepherd,” Emmet says, reconsidering, “but some shepherd in him.”
“Close, Emmet. That’s a Belgian Malinois over there. Same mask as a shepherd, same ears, but leaner and lighter. See how he’s narrower in the waist? That’s your indication.”
He’s heard his father talk admiringly about the breed but has never seen one with his own eyes. “You use them over there?” he says.
“Nowadays that’s the military’s favorite dog, son. Kick-ass tracker and hard to spook, though sometimes they’ll spook at ordnance. I knew one spooked at the twenty-five on his own Bradley. Everyone’s got a breaking point, including them. One too many rpgs and mortars and that’s it—they run off somewhere where you can’t find them. Lose their battlefield effectiveness. Remember how King was, right at first? Slam a door and he’d disappear for hours.” His father shakes out a cigarette, lights it briskly. “Imagine what a mortar must sound like with a dog’s hearing, son. Just imagine that for a second. But if they get adopted into the right family, they do all right. Might panic at thunder, like King.” His father nods across the way. “I bet that dog’s retired military. Looks like a solid temperament, though you never can tell. Depends what he’s been through. Trained, regardless. See it?”
Emmet sees it: the way the Malinois sits bolt upright awaiting orders, the way he keeps scanning the barren terrain. He’s doing his fives and twenty-fives just like any other soldier. When his owner spits a gob at a rock, the dog tracks the wet projectile like a spotter tracking an air strike.
“Now, where’s that dog focused, son?”
“And what’s going to happen when you cross into that perimeter?”
Emmet imagines the sleek animal rocketing toward him, launched like a missile toward the intruder. Something hard shoots downward through his legs, as if his body’s driving stakes into the ground. “He’ll come at me, sir.”
“No, he won’t, son.”
“But look at him! He’s a natural-born killer.”
“There’s no natural-born about it, Emmet.” His father pauses, as if waiting for Emmet to catch on, but it’s not making sense yet. “You got to assess his handler, son. That dog won’t move an inch unless the handler says go.” Emmet guesses his father’s sized up both dog and owner at a single glance. That’s his training again. They’ve had the discussion more than once. You do your threat assessment in one scan because it could mean life or death. This isn’t Iraq, but the training’s the training. It’s in you. All this his father has explained, because unlike most of his friends’ fathers, he’ll answer just about any question Emmet asks. Now Emmet sees that while he’s been focused on the dog, his father’s already taken stock of the owner, whose eyes are hidden behind wraparound sunglasses. His father pinches off the ember of his half-smoked cigarette and saves it for later, his version of trying to quit.
* * *
As if on patrol, the man and his son and the Malinois have started walking toward the rusted footbridge that leads across the arroyo toward where they’re standing.
Behind Emmet runs a cool creek, which is the only reason people come here, unless it’s to hit the ATV trail. When the government went after them, his father says, Frederickson Stone spent serious money to convert the old blasting ground into a recreational area, diverting water from the Colorado River and building up the banks with jumbled sandstone slabs. At the lip of the high dam, there’s a waterfall that pours down in thick, cold sheets, the water too tough and fast for a grown man to stand under—on the bank there’s a skull and crossbones sign that says Fast Water! You Will Die!—but other than that there’s not much to recommend the place. If it weren’t the halfway point of the hot ride between his father’s apartment and his mother’s house, there’d be no reason to stop here. When cooler weather comes they’ll just blow right by it, assuming his father hasn’t moved back in by then. Today, Emmet’s happy to stop because it gives Dwayne Murphy that much more time to clear out of his mother’s bedroom.
It’s mostly other riders they run into here, old dopers who park Harleys next to his father’s rice burner and sit on the rocks with joints and beers, or wade out and bounce empty cans against the waterfall to see how high they’ll get launched. Before hitting the road again, they rinse their do-rags out in the creek for one last blast of cool. Apart from them it’s just stray tourists who show up because they saw a green squiggle on the map and needed a break from the endless miles of scrubland. The locals know the fishing’s no good because there’s no vegetation for fish to spawn in; mostly it’s just crawfish and rat snakes. Emmet wonders if there’s something wrong with the water too, some kind of poison from all the quarry blasts, and tries not to open his mouth when he’s swimming in it.
The big man nods at Emmet’s father as he and his boy walk up, a man’s version of the nod his boy gave Emmet. But with his sunglasses on, you can’t read his eyes. He’s carrying a tackle box and two poles.
“Fish any here?” he says, the dog glued to his thigh like a sidearm.
“Not much point,” says Emmet’s father.
“Looks piss-poor,” says the man, surveying the stream. “No use stocking it, that’s for damn sure.”
A silence hangs in the thick air, the sun screaming down. The Malinois is staring at Emmet and so is the other boy, whose face, Emmet notes, is sunburned the color of a dog’s asshole. He’d like to know what the boy said to the Malinois about him. The sharp bones of the boy’s face push at his skin like they want to break right through it. Even the teeth want to cut loose, chewing hard at the kid’s cheeks. Despite the glare from above, the kid’s pupils are wide as dimes.
Emmet’s father points at the dog’s tapered head with its perked ears. “This guy ex-military?”
The man’s face doesn’t move a muscle. “Retired Marine. Went by Aladdin over in Iraq, but my son calls him Max, from some dog movie. Ain’t that right, Darryl?” The kid comes up with an ugly smile, his gums already half-rotten. Emmet knows the signs. He can smell the rot from six feet away.
“How about his owner?” says Emmet’s father.
“Third Marines. Three tours in the sandbox, man. Haditha, Barwanah, Fallujah.” The man spits with great efficiency. “You?”
“Eighty-second Airborne, first of the 505th. One tour in Fallujah, then back home for Katrina, then over to Tikrit. Then out the door. Got my discharge in June and come out here to clear my head. My wife’s from down in Bluff.”
“Right on. Paratrooper?”
“Jumpmaster. Not as dumb as I look.”
The other man laughs, something clattering in his lungs. “Master blaster, huh?” he says, and extends his hand. “Jack O’Connor. Jocko.”
“Rafe Taylor,” says Emmet’s father, and the two men shake.
“The 505 was out of Dreamland for a while, wasn’t it?” the Marine asks. “I was stationed there on my last tour. Liked it so much they had to medevac me out. Along with this guy.” A hand goes to the dog’s head, whose snout rises like an artillery piece. “One good thing, the handler gets priority when they adopt a dog out. When were you at Dreamland?”
“My first tour, way back in ’08.”
“Missed you by a mile, bro. Max and me been out a year now. Us and a hajji mortar got too familiar.”
Emmet feels his father stiffen. The asshole-faced boy glares at them both, then over his shoulder and all around, paranoid from the meth. When he looks back at Emmet, it’s like Emmet’s pulled a knife on him. He’s ready to fight to the death. Someday, the kid will get his fuck kicked in, acting like that. Maybe someday soon. Emmet can see burn scars on his hands—lab accidents—and wonders how he’s explained them to his father, although it’s hard to believe Jack O’Connor hasn’t figured it out. Why else would his son wear long sleeves out here? For a second Emmet feels bad for the kid, who’s just some poor fuckhead from Nowhere, Utah, some kid with no future at all. He wonders if his father’s tried to beat the meth out of him. And good luck with that.
“Shit, man,” says Emmet’s father, “sorry to hear you got hit. We had so many guys get lit up right outside the wire at Dreamland. Camel fuckers in every rat hole. But I don’t have to tell you how it was.” Emmet’s never heard his father speak like this, in all the times they’ve talked about his deployments. He has to think fast to follow his meaning.
“Embrace the suck, brother,” says O’Connor. This doesn’t mean anything to Emmet, either. The other man looks up as a hawk flicks across the sun, then looks back at Emmet’s father with a slow smile. “Miss it, though?”
Emmet’s father doesn’t answer. In the silence he lays a hand on Emmet’s shoulder and keeps it there. “It’s good to get some time with my son,” he says after a while.
O’Connor looks over at his own boy and doesn’t say anything. Emmet’s father changes the subject. “Hey, mind if my son says hello to your dog? He’s practicing. Wants to be a handler someday.”
The other man takes a long time to answer, as if still waiting for a reply to his own question. “What say, Darryl?” he says finally, looking sideways at his kid.
“Maxie don’t like strangers,” Darryl says.
“Maybe that’s a good thing,” O’Connor says. “A handler’s got to work with whatever dog he’s given, don’t he?”
“That’s a fact,” says Emmet’s father. “It’ll go fine as long as you don’t show any concern,” he says to the other boy. “Son?”
Emmet’s not so sure he wants in on it anymore. He’d like the other kid to say something to the dog about how it’s okay. But the kid just stares at him with hollowed-out eyes, waiting.
“Okay,” Emmet says, and crouches down into a low squat. “Tell him to come over here.”
“What the fuck,” Darryl says with a raw laugh. “What are you, a fucking girl? Taking a piss?”
O’Connor cuffs his kid’s head hard, making the dog flinch. “Shut the fuck up, Darryl. This young man’s got it right. Watch him and you might learn something.” The dog looks from father to son to see who’s in charge. “Let Maxie go over there, now.”
Darryl’s face goes hard, and he bends down till his mouth is at the dog’s ear. “Release!” he shouts, as if it’s an attack command. The jolt confuses the dog, and he stays glued to the ground, unsure of himself. Emmet can see the sharp mind working, trying to solve it—as if Darryl’s a problem that can be solved.
“Release!” the kid says again, even louder than before. The dog can’t help itself: it gives up a whimper of distress, not at all the kind of sound you’d expect from a military animal.
“It’s okay, Max,” says the father. “Release.”
Emmet realizes he’s been holding his breath and lets it go slowly, fixing his gaze on a rock in the distance to avoid the dog’s eyes and any suggestion of a challenge. “C’mere, boy,” he says calmly. And calm is how he feels. Something in the other boy’s anger has stilled him. The dog senses it: with a few careful strides he crosses to where Emmet is crouching and begins to sniff behind his ear. Emmet keeps his breathing low and slow and his eyes on the distant rock, waiting it out. The dog explores his shoulder, his hair. Finally, he sniffs Emmet’s neck and, with a furtive tongue, licks his cheek. “Good boy,” says Emmet quietly. “Good boy.”
“Heel, Maxie!” Darryl says in a high, reckless voice. “Get over here, boy!” But the dog stays put, licking the closed hand Emmet’s offered.
“Your boy’s got a good way about him,” Jack O’Connor says to Emmet’s father, impressed. “A level head and brass balls. Make a good Marine someday.”
From the corner of his eye, Emmet sees the other boy storm off and head for the creek, not saying another word, the roar of an ATV coming across the arroyo to blot out the silence.
* * *
When the Marine says brass balls, Emmet thinks about the first time he laid eyes on Dwayne Murphy. The thought of Dwayne makes his stomach tighten up, especially now that his dad’s back from Iraq, but he bites his lip and gets past it. Like the dog, Emmet doesn’t like problems he can’t solve. Dwayne Murphy is exactly that kind of problem.
It ain’t because he’s Dwayne, Emmet thinks for the hundredth time. It’s because he ain’t my dad. Dwayne Murphy’s always seemed like a good enough guy, starting with the day he came out to fix the air conditioner and took the time to explain the innards of the unit to Emmet. The two of them crouched under the porch for an hour while Dwayne traced out every pipe and gave Emmet an education in air compressors and evaporative cooling and the partial pressure of gases. The guy knew his shit. He had a moustache like a pitcher’s, which made him look even skinnier than he was. Emmet wondered if he’d ever played ball for money, maybe in the minors—he had the look.
“Don’t tell your mom I let you do this,” Dwayne said when he let Emmet recharge the Freon. “Don’t tell my boss, neither.” The rubber hose thunked away, the portable compressor running smooth as a mechanic’s Sunday ride. This was a man who knew how to keep his machines in top condition. “It’s Dwayne, by the way,” he said as the Freon came onboard, and held out his hand.
Dwayne Murphy’s brass balls came into play as soon as he shut off the air compressor. About a second later they heard a snake rattle, and Dwayne pulled a .38 from his toolbox and blew away a fat sidewinder like it was all in a day’s work. The whole crawl space smelled like gunpowder. “Tricky fucker,” he said with a smile, and turned back to the ac unit, though Emmet’s ears were ringing so bad he couldn’t concentrate on what Dwayne was saying. All he knew was that it had nothing to do with rattlesnakes, because now Dwayne was pointing out condensation on the copper coils. He was already past the snake, which lay up against the foundation wall peeled apart like a cheap retread. When Emmet’s mom showed up to find out what the gunshot was all about, bending over in her cutoffs to peer under the porch, Dwayne just said, “A little backfire is all. Overpressure on the compressor. Happens. Good thing I got my helper here to watch the gauges so it don’t happen again.”
“Hope he’s not getting in your way,” Emmet’s mom said, and Dwayne Murphy shook his head with a slow grin. “Not at all, ma’am,” he said. “Far from it.”
“He taught me all about air conditioners, Mom. It’s cool.” Emmet looked at his mother and then at Dwayne to see if either one got the joke, but they were too busy looking at each other. “Cool,” he said again. “Get it?”
“So I guess you just let the clock run while you were giving your little lesson,” Emmet’s mom said to Dwayne, but she was smiling. “Dragged it out real good.”
“I would never,” Dwayne said, and climbed out from under the porch and wiped his hands on his jeans. “Point of pride.” Then, “Tell you what. How about I come back Monday and we’ll check your dew point free of charge, off the clock. I can teach your son here how it’s done.” Emmet nodded and Dwayne laid a hand on his shoulder. “Monday’s my day off, but it’s going to be too hot for fishing. And that’s damned hot.”
In the year since, neither Emmet nor Dwayne has said a word to his mother about the rattler, which is for the best, no doubt about it. They’ve never said a word to each other about it, either. They’ve held that secret between them from the day they met. There are secrets you eventually tell and secrets you keep forever, and Emmet’s never been confused about what kind of secret the rattler is. He’ll never tell it.
He’s not so sure about some of the other secrets he’s got with Dwayne Murphy. Maybe his father should know what’s been going on, but it’s not like his mother’s going to bring it up. Maybe it’s better if Emmet warns him somehow, drops some kind of hint that at least gets him thinking it might be a possibility, because if he trips over it by accident, somebody could get hurt bad. Even killed.
Truth is, Emmet’s mother’s not as careful as she should be. It’s like business as usual between her and Dwayne, even though his father’s living just a ways up the road now and not on the other side of the world, and even though he’s been spending all his free time with his son—who knows pretty much everything there is to know about the situation. Emmet’s father says he’s just trying to be a dad again, getting to know the son he mostly knows through Skyping from Iraq, the son he’s always been so proud of. Isn’t she worried that on some afternoon, while perch fishing or eating bologna sandwiches or watching NASCAR, he’ll ask questions that will force Emmet to tell him the truth about Dwayne? His mom should be extra careful, but instead they’ve been taking risks, including Dwayne sleeping over a couple times. Crazy stupid. What the fuck are they thinking? They’re going to get caught—anyone can see it from a mile away. Anyone but them, apparently.
Emmet’s pictured it plenty of times and in plenty of ways. His father showing up without warning, Dwayne standing at the sink in his underwear, his father grabbing a knife from the knife block and coming at him like he’s some crazy hajji over in Iraq. Or Dwayne asleep in his mother’s bed, waking up when he hears the sound of a motorcycle outside but not suspecting any trouble until his father comes barging through the door and it’s already too late. Or, worst of all: Dwayne and Emmet kneeling in the driveway tuning up Dwayne’s midnight-blue Suzuki 250, the carburetor soaking in gasoline in a coffee can, the sprinkler going full blast, his mom pinning up laundry out back, then Emmet’s dad killing his engine and walking up to Dwayne and saying, Who the fuck are you? What the fuck you doing with my son?
Emmet doesn’t want Dwayne Murphy to get killed, but his father could do it. Emmet’s pretty sure he could. And probably would, just because of the shock of it, because the whole thing just ambushed him with no warning. Maybe if he had some hint about what’s been going on, he’d think it through first, cool off a little before he did something. Maybe even try to talk to Emmet’s mother rather than come right after Dwayne, or at least talk to her first, give her a chance to talk him down. Any of it would be better than him walking in on Dwayne when neither one of them’s expecting it.
Most of the time, Emmet thinks, it’s better not to have any secrets at all, because once they get in you it’s a hard fucking job to get them out.
* * *
Now Emmet and his dad and O’Connor the Marine decide to follow O’Connor’s kid to the water, because there’s no point in standing around under the cutthroat sun. Max heels in next to Emmet, ears back, a lilt in his narrow hips.
“Darryl!” O’Connor shouts at his kid, who’s scrambling like a nervous monkey over the riprap near the waterfall, his back to them. “Don’t go in the creek there, boy. Stay clear of that spillway.” But the boy pretends not to hear him, or maybe can’t hear him on account of the water crashing down. As they get closer they can see that he’s using a piece of rebar to lower himself down a sandstone slab.
“Max,” O’Connor says to the dog, “go get Darryl. Go on now, fetch him back.” With a gentle shove he shoos the dog toward the creek. Glad for a mission, the dog trots toward the kid, who’s entered the creek and is whacking at the turbulent water with the flat of his hand. Emmet notices two deep furrows in the dog’s right haunch, the fur gouged out around ragged scar tissue. “Darryl!” the father calls again. “Come out of there now, damn it.”
To Emmet’s father he says, “If it wasn’t for the dog, that boy’d be dead by now. It’s the only friend he has. And no wonder—look at his sorry ass. He might be my flesh and blood, but he’s not much of a son.”
There is nothing to say to this, and Emmet and his father continue walking toward the creek.
“But it works both ways,” he continues. Emmet has the impression he’s mostly talking to himself. “Max seen some action over there that messed with his head, so it’s good he has the kid. He may look rock solid, but any little thunderstorm and he gets the shits for days. Any loud sound, he thinks it’s mortars. It’s not like you just leave it over there, right?”
Emmet watches the dog pick his way over the rocks and thinks: It’s down to a fucked-up dog. All that kid has is a broken animal. The dog is skittering to keep his balance on the slick stone, nervous as hell, trying to power through his fears because the kid needs him. Emmet wonders if the pounding waterfall reminds him of some Iraq sound. But he keeps on trying to reach the kid while he splashes around like a baby. When Darryl sees the dog he starts shouting at him to jump in, clueless.
Maybe he’s like that for a reason, Emmet’s mother would say—he can just hear her. But nobody’s born an asshole. “He’s not much of a son,” the father said, which tells you plenty about the situation.
“Think he’ll go in?” Emmet’s father asks O’Connor.
The big man takes his shades off to wipe the sweat from his face, revealing sharp blue eyes. “Dog’s got better judgment than the boy. Plus, he’s afraid of fast water. They trained him for desert warfare, but I guess it never occurred to them there might be water over there, too. He don’t do well with it.”
Emmet can see this: The dog’s half out of his mind with the boy down in the water, but can’t make himself jump in. Instead he starts yelping like crazy, as if to say, Come out of there! You’re killing me. And all the kid does is shout back at him. “Come on, Maxie, you faggot! Jump!”
“Darryl!” his father calls out. “Leave him be. He don’t want to.” Across the creek, Emmet can see a couple bikers watching the whole thing, pointing at Darryl and the dog and laughing. If they were closer Emmet would tell them to shut the fuck up.
“That kid’s got a mean streak and I don’t know where it come from,” O’Connor says. “I never laid a hand on him. Not really.”
Emmet and the two men stop at an opening in the rocks about thirty feet downstream from the kid. This far down, the water’s quiet and inviting. “Think I’m gonna cool off a bit,” Emmet’s father says, and sits to unlace his boots and roll up his pant legs. Emmet does the same, then Darryl’s father joins in. When he rolls his pants up, they see that his calves and feet are a mess of red scars.
The three of them wade out, the water fresh and clean and cool, the sun exactly overhead. “That feels pretty damn good, man,” Jack O’Connor says, still watching his son splash around, keeping an eye on him. When Darryl notices the three of them in the creek, he turns his back and starts moving away, wading through waist-high water toward the waterfall.
“You know what?” O’Connor says. “Let him make his own fucking mistakes.” But at the same time he starts heading toward his son, keeping close to shore, where it’s shallow and he can move faster. Emmet and his father stay put, letting it play out, the dog watching too from its precarious perch on the rocks.
As O’Connor trudges through the creek, a black-and-white magpie suddenly shoots sideways out from under the waterfall, threading the needle between the falling water and the rock face behind it. The dog barks furiously as the bird lofts away, just as startled as they are. Hidden behind the wall of water, there must be a safe place, maybe a nesting site protected by the crashing flow itself.
“Wow,” says Emmet. “Whatever bird figured that out should get a fricking medal.”
“Those are smart birds, son. You know they can recognize themselves in the mirror? Your grandpa taught me that. You never seen anything like it.”
Out in the creek, meanwhile, Darryl’s pissed off and already up to his scrawny rib cage in fast water. Emmet can see he’s having trouble with his footing, now that he’s getting close to the hammering waterfall. On the rocks above him, Max starts yowling like a child, both his masters dragging along through a creek he can’t bring himself to enter. Emmet can’t imagine a worse thing for him.
“That kid better not be stupid and try to cross under that waterfall,” Emmet’s father says. “It’ll drag him right under. Could knock him unconscious. Could damn well kill him.” But it looks like this is exactly what Darryl has in mind. Step by sluggish step he’s fighting the current to get to it. His father’s angled in toward the center of the stream now, cutting toward his son on the diagonal, plainly intending to ambush him before he does damage to himself. Darryl hasn’t noticed him yet.
It’s all happening in slow motion because of the current. Only the dog’s operating at normal speed—faster, actually. Again and again, Max scrambles to the edge of the rocks, almost brings himself to dive in, then scrambles back, crying and yelping the whole time. You can feel how he hates himself for not jumping in. His people are out of reach and separated from each other by just the kind of fast water he’s most scared of. Emmet’s heart goes out to him because nobody’s paying attention to his distress. This could be one of the worst moments of Max’s life, and God knows he’s had some bad moments.
* * *
When Jack O’Connor is almost within reach of his son, Emmet and his father hear an air horn cut through the rush of the creek. It sounds like it’s coming from the direction of the new quarry. One long blast and two shorts, then silence.
“Time to get real!” one of the bikers shouts across the water, raising a beer.
Emmet looks at his father, but he doesn’t seem to know what’s happening either. The air horn sounds like the electronic ones on freight trains—did Frederickson Stone run a rail spur into the new quarry? A half minute ticks by as Emmet tries to work it out. Out in the creek, O’Connor finally reaches his son, who pulls away and swats at him, backing up toward the crashing waterfall. Even from a distance Emmet can see tears in his eyes, can see how much he hates his father and himself and even Max, who peers down at his two masters as if watching a motorcycle crash unfold, a crash no one will walk away from.
Then Emmet hears an explosion. It banks off the dry hills and rumbles down hard, the creek bed shifting underfoot with a shudder. In an instant he feels his father’s strong arm lock around his shoulders and suddenly the two of them are splashing toward the bank, his father keeping both of them in a crouch. By the time a second blast shifts the rock pile, they’re belly-down against one of the slabs, his father’s hand shielding his head and holding him tight, the smell of sweat and sandstone and the open road in Emmet’s nostrils.
As the second blast’s echo dies out, Emmet can hear Maxie barking frantically, and from the corner of his eye he sees the dog cowering by the creek, ears nailed back in fright. Emmet wishes he could cover the black head with his hand the way his father’s covering his, but the dog is on his own out there, the world blowing to pieces around him just like it must have back in Fallujah. Emmet can sense the frenzy in Max’s mind. The dog’s heart must be hammering like crazy, wanting out.
From across the creek comes a burst of rough laughter and a hoot. The bikers are pointing their way. “It’s the fucking quarry, assholes!” one of them yells. “Blast day.” Another one raises a beer can and yells, “Incoming, motherfuckers!”
“Shit,” says Emmet’s father. “Jesus.” Emmet and his father are eye to eye, and he sees that his father’s eyes are wet and frightened, and in that moment Emmet decides he will not tell his father about Dwayne Murphy sleeping over at his mother’s place, or Dwayne Murphy taking Emmet to drink Coronas and shoot prairie dogs from the tailgate of his f-150, or Dwayne Murphy cooking scrambled eggs with salsa in the morning and singing shitty country songs, cracking his mother up. Emmet decides that he won’t tell his father about anything Dwayne Murphy’s done—not one thing. It’ll be like none of it ever happened. If it comes out one day, he’ll say he never knew.
* * *
Emmet and his father are sitting up on the rocks trying to joke about the blasts, his father fishing around in his pockets for the half-smoked cigarette he’s saved, when Emmet realizes that Jack O’Connor and his son are in trouble.
“Hey,” Emmet says, and points upstream to where the two are faced off against each other near the base of the waterfall.
Even the big man is having trouble with his footing in the wicked current. Darryl’s almost up to his tits in it, the water at his back pushing him into a forward lean like a runner looking to steal a base. But it’s not stopping him from smashing at the water and shouting at his father like he’s stone-crazy. The roar of the waterfall swallows every word; all you can hear is the hate in it. But you don’t need the words to know Darryl’s losing his shit. His hard, red face says it, too—even from a distance Emmet recognizes the look, the way a meth head keeps flashing back and forth between frantic and wasted because the brain keeps kicking on and off like a headlight shorting out. The kid can’t keep his shit in line.
Jack O’Connor’s slowly trying to close the distance between them, which looks, from where Emmet sits, to be about fifteen feet. With his arms out for balance, O’Connor takes a slow step or two forward, but Darryl turns tail and starts to fight his way toward the crashing waterfall, going deeper, pouring all his hopped-up strength into it. Emmet can see that he wants to escape his father if it’s the last thing he does. Jack O’Connor reaches out toward his boy, but the boy has his back turned and can’t see him. He’s too far away to be touched, anyway.
“Shit,” says Emmet’s father in a tense voice, stashing the unlit cigarette back in his shirt pocket. “Jocko could use some backup out there. You stay right here, son.”
“How come I got to stay back?” says Emmet.
“You can see it’s dangerous out there.”
“I’m not scared, sir.”
“I got this, son.” And then Emmet’s father is scrambling to his feet and over the rocks and up onto the creek bank, jogging off toward the waterfall. “Dad!” Emmet calls after him, but he’s out of earshot, the roar of the waterfall shutting everything out for him.
* * *
By the time the final blast thunders in from the quarry, Jack O’Connor has reached his son and tried to lock him in a bear hug. Emmet sees the kid fighting back with all his strength, flailing his arms and trying to take shots at his father with his fists, but the Marine is too powerful for him. O’Connor just waits for him to give it up, for the thrashing and cussing and spitting to stop, like a cougar waiting for its prey to go still.
“You good, Jocko?” Emmet’s father shouts from the bank.
O’Connor tips his chin up to say that he is, and that’s when the last explosion comes.
This one’s closer than the others, plenty loud enough to hurt Emmet’s ears. A shot of adrenaline bolts through his body and he flattens himself against the rock slab on reflex. As he goes down he notices a commotion over by the waterfall, just a sudden flash of silvery movement. It all happens in a heartbeat: blast, drop, flash.
Emmet looks up just as Jack O’Connor makes his move. In a single burst of will the big man pushes through the racing current with his son wrapped in his arms, powering forward through the waterfall. You can see the torrent buck him, almost knocking him down, but he ducks his head and his son’s head and just forces his way through until the waters slam shut behind them. Father and son have disappeared behind the roaring deluge, gone without a trace. It’s as if Jack and Darryl O’Connor have stepped right through a steel door, never to be seen again.
“Holy shit!” Emmet says, scanning the rapids for two broken bodies but seeing nothing in the fast water. If the waterfall’s spat them out, they must be at the bottom of the creek, the current holding them down like you’d drown a rat in a bucket. Emmet imagines Jack O’Connor being battered against hidden rocks, his son still clutched in his arms and his lungs filling with icy water, a Utah creek crueler than anything Iraq ever threw at him.
But then he remembers the magpie. They’d all seen it: the arrow of black and white flying out sideways from behind the waterfall, pointing the way back to its hidden place behind the down-rushing torrent. For sure! Emmet tells himself. That’s where he was going—he knew it was safe back there. They’re probably okay!
But no way did that guy know for sure, another voice in his head says. Just because it was big enough for a bird back in there don’t mean that two people—
As the doubts start coming Emmet notices something dark and lean scramble up the bank and dart off toward the arroyo. The dog’s taken off like a spooked horse, putting his vanished masters behind him as fast as he can. Emmet can sense the confusion in his head, the red panic that must be flooding through him, the terror in not understanding what’s just happened—because how could he possibly understand it? Emmet’s not sure he understands it himself. The disappearance of Darryl and Jack O’Connor into the wall of water must have snapped something inside Max, must have freed him to cut loose and get the hell out of there. Everyone’s got his breaking point, Emmet’s father said, and that includes Max.
Emmet’s dad too, maybe. As a billow of gray smoke rises to the north, Emmet looks for his father and sees him crouching down in the rocks by the waterfall with his head in his hands, just staring at the place where O’Connor and his kid disappeared. It’s obvious that he’s crying. At first Emmet can’t take his eyes off him, and then he can’t stand to look at him. He’d go over and say something, but what would it be? Whatever his father’s going through, it’s private: Emmet can tell that much even from a distance. He’s never seen his father so shut up inside himself, so broken down, and he doesn’t want to see it now. He can’t help his father any more than he can help Jack O’Connor and his son. Maybe no one can help his father—not now. Maybe not ever.
And so he turns around and looks for Max, whose long stride is a thing to behold. At first all Emmet can do is watch him go, admire him as he flies over the footbridge and across the parking area and past O’Connor’s pickup, going, going, going like the devil’s at his back. But as the dog slows to pick his way through trailers parked at the ATV trailhead, Emmet takes off after him, the steel bridge and pavement biting at his bare feet until he hits packed dirt, the air thick as tar. The dog shoots up into the dry hills with Emmet in pursuit, the trail leading up a gradual slope and the sound of ATV engines razoring through the hot afternoon.
Only once does Emmet look back at the waterfall: his father hasn’t moved an inch. The waters rush behind him in a silver blur, revealing nothing of the O’Connors. Get the hell up! Emmet tells his father in his mind, then turns back and takes the trail in giant strides, putting everything he has into the climb.
After a level stretch the trail banks left and Max passes out of sight. On the far side of the turn, the path suddenly gets steep. Emmet hears one of the ATVs coming downhill, its fat tires chewing up the dirt, but he climbs and climbs until he’s too winded to go on, the incline too much in the choking heat. Soon there’s no choice but to stop where he is. Defeated by the Utah sun, Emmet crouches in the dirt trying to catch his breath, his heart exploding and the ATV bearing down from above like a prowling helicopter, louder and louder as it descends toward him. It feels like someone’s inserted a knife between his ribs and straight into his lungs. But then a good breath finally comes, and with it the touch of a moist tongue on his neck, the sort of kiss he’s never known to ask for.
Edward Hamlin is the author of Night in Erg Chebbi and Other Stories, winner of the 2015 Iowa Short Fiction Prize. The title story won Colorado Review’s 2013 Nelligan Prize. A New York native, Hamlin spent his formative years in Chicago and now lives outside Boulder, Colorado.