"Daddy?" I asked. "Is that blood?"
Mom waved a hand at me, shooing me out of the bathroom as she pulled the door half closed. I could still see Dad propping himself up on one hand while the rest of him sprawled out on the tile floor. His free hand stayed pressed hard into the deep red stain on his shirt, down near his hip.
"Run and get me some towels," Mom said. "In the hall closet. The small ones, hand towels, you know what kind I mean?" She made small squares in the air with her hands to illustrate exactly what she wanted. Her palms were smeared in red.
"Yes, Momma," I said.
"Then go on and get 'em, boy." She turned her back on me and went through the door to tend to Daddy again.
Walking to the closet I tried to process what I'd seen in the five minutes, less probably, since my parents came home. I was all of thirteen that day. But what a day it turned out to be.
I opened the linen closet door and stood on tiptoes to retrieve the right sized towels. I heard Dad grunt through the walls. I'd never seen my Dad in pain before. Not that I could recall.
I piled five small hand towels in the crook of my arm and walked back to the bathroom as Dad let out another low growl. He sounded mean, like he was choking on anger.
I knocked lightly at the door. For a moment I thought Mom didn't hear me, then she jerked the door open and held out a bloody hand for the towels. Her other hand held a pair of tweezers and I noticed a tiny lump of metal swimming in a pool of blood next to the sink. If the TV shows were accurate, it looked like a bullet slug.
"Momma?" I let the questions go unasked. Too many to sort out in my young brain.
"I don't have time right now, baby." Mom bent her knees to get closer to my level and rubbed her tweezer hand against my shoulder, smudging it with blood. "Daddy's gonna be okay. You might run downstairs and get him a beer from the fridge. Would you do that darlin'?"
I nodded and stole glances past her to Dad who had moved all the way down to the floor. His one hand still pressed hard on his abdomen, his other clenched in a tight, pulsing fist.
I walked down the steps, careful to avoid stepping in any of the drips of blood Dad trailed behind him when they came in. I didn't buy the fake sincerity in Mom's voice when she told me Dad would be okay. But beyond wondering if my father would live or die, I tried to figure out how in the world he ever came to be shot.
I look a longneck bottle from the fridge, rooted through the third drawer from the sink for an opener. I found it and popped the cap off, then stole a sip for myself. I figured I was due for a little liquid courage as much as anyone in the house.
When I reached the foot of the steps on my way back upstairs, the doorbell rang. I jumped, jerking my shoulders up high and letting the beer slip from my fingers and fall to the floor where it banged off the hardwood and fell over on its side, gushing beer onto the living room rug.
I turned and saw the shape of a large man through the frosted glass of the front door. He pounded three times. "Police! Open up."
I turned and sprinted up the steps.
When I reached the bathroom door, Mom was already out in the hall. "I heard," she said.
I stood in front of her like a fish on dry land, my mouth gaping open and shut, mute and short of breath.
"Here's what I want you to do," Mom said. "Go down there and open the door, but don't let him in. No matter what, you hear me? You do not let him in. If he tries to come inside, and he will, you ask him if he has a warrant." She stared me deep in my eyes in a way she hadn't since she told me our dog, King, had died. "You ask him that, okay?" I nodded. "You tell him your Dad and I are not here and you don't know when we'll be back. You got that? Say that and nothing else. Can you do this for me?"
I nodded again. "A warrant," I said.
"That's my boy." She turned away from me as the policeman hammered on the door again.
I padded fast down the steps. I opened the door only as wide as my body, and stuffed myself in the opening. The cop was tall. I'd always been short so adults usually seemed tall to me, but this guy was extra large. My eye immediately went to the gun on his belt, jutting out from his side. A big, unnatural growth.
"I need to see your Mom and Dad, son."
"They ain't here."
He eyeballed me. "They're not?"
"How long have they been gone?"
Mom didn't coach me on that one. "All day, sir. Won't be back until later."
"And you're here all by yourself? No babysitter or anything?" He'd stopped looking at me and peered inside the house through the small opening I gave him.
"No, sir. Just me. I got my own key for when they're at work and stuff." I pointed past him to the small potted flower on the porch. He followed the tip of my finger and stepped over to the pot, lifted it, and removed the key underneath.
"You shouldn't keep a key right there, son." He flipped the key once in his hand and held it out to me. "First place a burglar is gonna look."
I took the key and stuffed it in my pocket. "Okay. I'll tell my Mom and Dad."
"You tell them I stopped by too." He tried to get one more look over my head. "Maybe I'd better come in and look around."
"You got a warrant?" I asked. At the time, I barely knew what a warrant even meant. But I was a good boy and did as my Momma told me.
The cop gave me suspicious look. I noticed for the first time two more cops in the yard, each with a hand on the butts of their guns.
"Son, I don't need a warrant if I got a reasonable suspicion of illegal activity." He rested the heel of his own hand on his gun. "Is someone in there with you?"
"No, sir. I told you."
"We're here to help, boy. If someone is keeping you against your will . . ."
I felt a hand on my shoulder and I nearly jumped out of my skin. Mom breezed past me, filling up my space in the door.
"Officer, what's the trouble?" She knew I was losing it. She had to step in.
"Ma'am is this your son?"
"He told us you weren't home."
"I just got back. Came in through the back door. What's the trouble?"
"Ma'am, I need to speak to your husband."
"He's not here. What's the matter?" Mom got a convincing sound of panic in her voice.
"Do you know where he is, ma'am?"
"At work I suspect. Why won't you tell me what's wrong?"
"Ma'am, I need you to come with me." The officer held out a hand and Mom shied away from it in a way I'd never seen from her. She was full of surprises that day. I looked at her hands, expecting to see blood, but they were clean with little drops of water in the thin hairs on the backs of her hands. The air around her smelled like soap.
"Yes, of course. Will you tell me what's going on when we get to the station?"
Mom bent down to speak to me. "You'll be all right, dear. I'll be home in time for dinner. If your father comes home, tell him where I am and that the police wish to speak with him."
Her words flew through me without meaning. I read her eyes. They pleaded with me to help Dad. To not give up her secret. They told me she had to go, to lure the cops away if Dad was to have any chance at all. I understood.
"He can come too," the cop said.
"I'd rather he not have to see a police station when he's so young. Besides, he has homework to finish."
"I'll be okay," I said.
Watching her climb into the police car was like watching her drive away in the back of a hearse. As I closed the door I noticed three drops of blood in a cluster on the threshold. One look down from the cop and we would have been sunk.
I went upstairs to Dad. I eased the door open slowly. Only when the hinge creaked did Dad look up from the floor. His skin was pale and glazed with sweat.
"Your Mom?" he asked, his voice a dry creek.
"She went with the cops."
Dad coughed, swallowed something back. "In handcuffs?"
"Good, good." He pushed himself up with a stifled groan until he could lean his back against the bathtub. Over his shoulder, in the basin of the tub, I saw pink stains of blood mixed with the water used to wash it away. Down the sides of the tub ran long red veins of drying blood. Near the drain was another crumpled metal slug rimmed in darker blood and something thicker.
"You need to do me a favor, boy." Dad gave me detailed directions to a hiding place in his bedroom and a description of the box I was to find there.
I found it no problem. I brought the small wood-carved box to him. He lifted the lid, revealing a shiny pistol nestled in a moulded case. Two neat rows of six silver bullets glinted in the bathroom light. I'm sure the bullets were nickel or some other metal, but to me right then, they were pure werewolf killers.
I wanted to ask about the gun, about his wounds, about what the hell was going on, but I kept my mouth shut.
The doorbell rang again. Dad jerked his head up from looking at the gun and immediately went into a coughing fit. The box slid off his lap and I picked it up and put it on the counter next to the bloody slug.
"What should I do, Daddy?"
He tried to get out the words, but he kept on coughing. A spray of blood came out and I felt tiny droplets on my face.
He never had time to answer. The door downstairs burst open, the frosted glass shattered and fell to the floor. I heard it and turned to my Dad with terror in my eyes.
"Duke?" a voice boomed from the first floor. Dad coughed more, betraying our location. Wasn't much of a hiding place anyhow.
Feet thundered up the steps like a rodeo bull got loose in the house. Two men turned into the hallway and marched toward the bathroom. Both tall, in jeans and heavy work jackets. Each had a gun in his hand. The man in front wore a goatee trimmed to a point below his chin, his partner wore a greasy baseball cap with a car parts logo.
They ignored me as they stepped into the doorway. The goateed man smiled when he saw the blood, my Dad slumped over against the bathtub.
"Guess I did wing you, huh?" He turned to his partner. "Told ya'"
I stood by wondering why Dad didn't shoot. These men obviously came to do him harm. Then I saw the gun box on the counter. I'd disarmed my Dad and he wasn't up for lunging for a gun or any other acts of heroics.
I heard my Mom's first name so infrequently I didn't immediately know who he was talking about.
"Fuck you," Dad said. I heard my Dad curse even less frequently.
"Tough talk for a guy with half his guts on the bathroom floor."
Being small, my Dad felt the need to teach me a thing or two about fighting bullies. I'd never had cause to use any of the lessons, but Dad drilled them into me anyway. His basic premise was: fight dirty.
I stood there, not knowing a thing about what was going on, only that my Mom and Dad were in trouble and these guys were here to finish a job they started. Dad's training took over.
I lifted my right leg and planted a foot into the crotch of the guy with the goatee. He bent in on himself like a crushed soda can. His friend with the hat jumped forward and made a move to pistol whip me. I guess shooting a thirteen year-old was where he drew the line, violence-wise.
When his arm reached above his head I threw a straight jab with my left hand into his balls. He also bent in half and his gun fell from over his head, nearly striking mine.
Dad never trained me for the next part.
I picked the gun up and fired. Two shots into the guy with the hat, both chest shots up around his heart which was no feat of marksmanship since he stood all of twelve inches away from me. Then I spun and, before the first man even hit the ground, I put two bullets into the tough talker. One through his chest and one in his neck right below the point of his stupid half beard.
The man with the hat landed and his head came to a rest on top of my shoe. The man with the goatee slumped forward into the bathroom and ended up face down next to Dad's legs, spewing blood from his neck onto the already bloody bathroom tile.
The look on Dad's face was even more surprised than the time he walked in on me with an open Penthouse and a box of tissues.
I put the gun on the counter like I was setting down the toothpaste after brushing my teeth. My brain hadn't yet processed what I'd done. I slid my foot out from under the head of the man I'd killed and his hat slipped off unveiling a bald spot in a final insult to his vanity. Killed by a kid a third his age and now his hairline secret is revealed.
"Daddy?" I said.
"You did good, kid." He closed his eyes and smiled. His smile only lasted a second before another wave of pain gripped him and his face twisted. "Come here," he said.
I stepped close to him, moving my sneakers over the tangle of bodies on the floor. Trying to avoid the blood was pointless.
"You did great, kiddo." He gave another weak smile. "But listen, this isn't the end. These two guys, they're nothing. There are gonna be more." He lifted the hand away from his gut for the first time. Blood dripped off each trembling finger. "I doubt I'll make it that long anyhow. I guess I'll be lucky if I don't. These guys are pretty pissed off." He started to laugh, but it quickly became another coughing fit. He pushed down on his gut again, I thought maybe to keep everything inside.
"Daddy what ... what happened?"
"Son, your Dad's not the guy you thought he was." He looked like he wanted to tell me everything, but the words eluded him. "I made some people mad. It sometimes happens in my job. I was trying to make some extra money. For you and for Mom." He tried to sit up straighter, but the attempt failed. "It's my fault though. Don't think for a second this has anything to do with you."
We both looked down at the bodies and knew it had a lot to do with me now.
"Look, son," he said. "I'm not going to make it. And you need to get out of here." Tears came to my eyes and threatened to fall. "I want you to do me a favor. I've seen how you were just now, I know you're my little man. Scratch that, my big man." He winced in pain. "If they send more guys. No, when they send more, it's not gonna be pretty. I want you to do it for me. I don't want them to get me. They'll make it last. They'll do things. I'd rather you do it."
I took a step back, banged into the counter. I turned and stared at the open gun box and, next to it, the pistol I'd already used. The smell of gunfire still hung in the air, the stench of clotting blood too.
"Daddy, I can't."
"You can, son. I saw what you can do."
"But, they were gonna kill you."
"Exactly. And so will the next bunch."
"What about Mom?"
"If she comes back at all it will be with the police, and they won't make it any easier on me."
I stopped hearing what he had to say. It wouldn't process. The two assassins I'd killed hadn't sunk in yet and my own father was telling me to kill him.
"Do you hear me?" he said.
I snapped out of it and nodded a lie. He gave me directions to a stash of money outside the house. He didn't say where he got it or how much. "Enough," was all he said about it.
"Hand me that box," he said.
I gave him the gun. With two bloody hands he loaded two bullets into the cylinder, but that was all he could manage. He snapped the gun shut and let the box fall to the floor.
"You won't do it, huh?"
"Daddy ... I can't."
"I understand," he said. He swallowed hard, his eyes gone glassy. He lifted the gun and pointed it at me. "Then get the fuck out."
"You can't be here when they come back, or when the cops come. You go find that money. You get out of here and keep on going. You're a man now."
I thought about my friend Steven from school and how he wouldn't stop talking about his Bar Mitzvah and how it made him a man. We both laughed at the absurdity of it all. He would laugh extra hard at this. All he had to do was memorize some Hebrew, not shoot a couple guys.
Dad drew back the hammer on the gun. "Go on."
Right then I knew he wouldn't be alive when more men came. Or if Mom came back. He was damn near bled out by then anyway, but as soon as I got a block or two away from the house, one of those bullets was going in his brain.
There was nothing I could say. No goodbye. The day I learned my father was a criminal, the day he died in front of me, is a day I've thought of every sunrise since.
I took the gun off the counter, the one I'd used. I didn't know what else to do. I stopped in my room and threw a few things in a backpack, then left to find the money.
In a way I regret not saying anything before I left, but to this day I can't think of a thing I would have said.
Mom went to prison. Twenty-five to life. She's up for parole next year. I've never been to visit and we've never written each other.
The money lasted a long time. Ten years before I got a real job, and it put me through college. I toyed with going into law, but it seemed like what I was supposed to do rather than something I wanted. An attempt to balance the scales.
Instead I have a boring job and I like it. I've never fired that gun again. I drive a sensible car, never get too drunk and get to bed by ten. I'm an average guy with a big secret. I guess some things run in the family.
Copyright © 2012 by Eric Beetner