|Publisher:||Central Avenue Publishing|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.10(d)|
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THIS IS THE STORY SHE TOLD HIM.
It was before dawn when she arrived, so dark she couldn't make out her stepfather in front of her, just hear his footsteps scraping through the underbrush. The woods were still quiet. It smelled like burnt leaves and the threat of rain. Evelyn Gunter travelled the well-worn path by memory, avoiding holes and jagged limestone. She'd walked this path thousands of times before, hauling pails and shovels and rakes from the barn to the garden, from the garden back to the barn. To the east, she knew, was Bluestem Lake. To her north, the plains of Kansas. The west, the panhandle. In between were ravines, knolls, and miles of Blackjack Oak. The land was dotted by coyotes, white tail, and rabbit. Oil rigs churned in the nearby fields, and gravel roads sparkled with empty Busch cans and broken-down Chevys. She'd been raised here. She'd toiled here. She'd grown stronger here. It was the exact place she was supposed to be.
The barn was already prepared. Dried hay covered the floor like a threadbare carpet. Fluorescent lamps illuminated the room. The light was iridescent, almost purple. In the middle her stepfather had prepared a pallet underneath an old blanket, stitched together by her grandmother when she'd been a child. Evelyn remembered wrapping up in it when the adults were busy with dominoes or spades, laughing at jokes she didn't understand, drinking gin and tonics until they got boisterous, accusatory, angry even. That morning, it offered little support, worn thin throughout the decades, the ground hard underneath, the hay stabbing her, but she didn't complain — she just lay and breathed and stared up at the loft above her.
Her stepfather draped a sheet over her and lit four candles, placed them above her head, by her shoulders, and the last at her feet. He'd always been a mystery to her. He'd shown up in her life after she was grown, having one day materialized out of thin air, already a permanent fixture in her mother's life. She didn't even remember the first time she'd met him, really. Just one day he was at Thanksgiving, then Sunday service, and then Thursday dinner, cutting his pork chop with a knife long worn dull. He rarely spoke, prayed often, and taught her and her mother the value of being a good Christian. She didn't know much about his past. He'd spent some time in the army, served in Korea. Was once a long-haul truck driver. Just stuff she'd been able to glean from pictures he had tucked away in books and shoeboxes. He didn't speak of his life before, and she didn't ask. He just was, and that was all right by Evelyn. He stabilized her mother. She no longer took pills. She no longer burned things for no reason. And, for that, Evelyn could spare him interrogation.
The candles emitted pockets of warmth around her, but most of her body remained frigid. Goose bumps formed on her exposed arms, little hairs standing on end. He sprinkled water over her forehead, over her hands, and down her torso in the shape of a cross. It was cold and pooled on her skin, and he then began to pray. His prayer was barely audible but grew louder as he continued. His eyes rolled back into his head, and he convulsed, the words rising from him like a root out of the earth until Evelyn swore she felt the consonants vibrating her insides. It started out like a static electric charge and spread from her heart to her lungs to her womb. She could feel it vibrating, growing stronger, just like she could feel the hard wood underneath her, the smell of cow manure stinging her nostrils, the fibers of her grandmother's blanket underneath her fingernails, and then it began to burn. A fire raged inside her belly, and she panicked. The pain was immense, worse than childbirth, worse than when she'd had the miscarriage, worse even than when the doctor had told her she couldn't have any more children. It consumed her. It was eating her alive. She screamed, and she writhed, but her stepfather held her down. She pushed up against him, but he was stronger than her. A scream formed inside of her chest. It grew and bubbled and was pushing out of her throat until she didn't think she could take it anymore. She was going to die. She was sure of it.
But then it was done.
It was over faster than it had arrived, and when her stepfather was finished with his prayer, he helped her to her feet.
"Rest," he said. "You're going to need your strength."
Eleven weeks later her doctor told her she was pregnant. He called it a miracle. Evelyn didn't have the heart to tell him he was more right than he knew.CHAPTER 2
PAPA AND GRANDMA LIVED IN WHAT HAD ONCE been the Osage Reservation on the outskirts of Pawhuska. They'd moved there when Caleb had been very young, the family farm having gone the way most things do when given enough time, worn decrepit and abandoned, and so it was the only place he ever knew his grandparents to live. The neighborhood consisted of small homes, all of them identical: single-car garage, ranch style with a flat roof. Storm shelter in the backyard. No trees. Uncurbed streets. Papa and Grandma's house was no different. Inside, it was dark, smelled of garlic, chicken noodle soup, and chores. Every time Caleb visited, he had to mow the lawn or rake the leaves or clean the gutters. He'd earned blisters there. He'd grown muscles.
Inside it was cluttered. Caleb figured his grandmother hadn't thrown anything away ever. She had two pianos pushed up against the wall, old box-type things that needed to be tuned. At their legs was stacked sheet music reaching Caleb's waist. There were broken clocks and cookbooks and decades' worth of newspapers. Caleb liked to dig through these when he visited, reading news stories that had happened before he'd been born — Watergate, the moon landing, the Tet Offensive — imagining these events were happening in real time, what things would be like then.
In the corner was a cracked leather chair. Papa sat there, trails of tobacco smoke leaking out of his nostrils. He typically didn't pay too much attention to Caleb when he was around, and that was all right with him. His Papa scared him. He rarely spoke, and when he did, it was often one-word sentences. Rake, he'd command. Water. Shovel. Plant. Weed. Now. And Caleb knew better than to disobey. Out front was an oak tree, and if Caleb or his older brother, Jonah, ever misbehaved, Papa was quick to tear off a switch and lap their thighs until they bled.
"You've heard the story of Abraham?" Papa asked Caleb. Jonah sat next to them but wasn't paying attention, instead engrossed in Saturday cartoons. Batman was playing, and the caped crusader fought the Joker's henchmen, walloping them with a Bang and a Bam highlighted in cartoon bubbles. When Caleb was alone with Papa, he often questioned Caleb about the Bible. It was a test, Caleb knew, and he always grew nervous when his Papa quizzed him. It felt like an interrogation in a way, like he was being accused of something.
"Yes," Caleb said.
Caleb's mother and father were there, too, but they were off in the back of the house with Grandma. They weren't visiting for a special occasion. It wasn't Memorial Day or Thanksgiving or a birthday, just a trip, but his mother and father hadn't offered any more details. They'd been doing this more and more lately, keeping things from their kids, not telling the whole truth. Caleb knew they were hiding something by the way his mother wouldn't look him in the eye that morning when they'd told Caleb and Jonah to get in the car, the way his father wouldn't talk, jaw muscles hardened. Caleb had asked Jonah about it, but he'd just shrugged. "If something was wrong," he'd said, "we'd know about it by now."
"Abraham was a man of God," Caleb continued, "and God told him to sacrifice his son. Climb a mountain and slit his throat."
"That's right. And why would he do that?"
Caleb didn't know why. This had always bothered Caleb about the story of Abraham, and his ignorance, most of all, caused him shame.
"Think about it, Caleb. It's not enough just to know the scripture. You have to understand it. You have to live it. Do you understand what I'm saying? It's important."
Caleb looked to his older brother for help, but he didn't offer any. He munched on a banana muffin and blinked at the television. "I don't know, Papa. What about the commandment? Thou shall not kill."
Papa took a drag of his cigarette, let the smoke fill his lungs. Caleb fought the urge to cough. "What about it?"
"God tells us not to kill. It's a sin. It just doesn't make any sense why God would tell Abraham to murder his son."
"Think about the nature of it. Is it murder if God commands it?"
Caleb thought long and hard about it, but he kept coming to the same conclusion. It was. If you took another person's life, no matter the reason, it was still murder. To do otherwise contradicted everything he'd always been taught about sin, and he told his Papa this.
"No, son. The Commandments are God's law for man, not God's law for God. God commands obedience. He demands it. You would do wise to remember this."
In the back, Caleb could hear his parents with Grandma. They were talking, their voices animated and urgent, but he couldn't quite make out what they were saying over the television. He wished Jonah would turn it down so he could hear them, but he was too afraid Papa would think he was trying to change the subject. It was faint, but he thought he could hear his mother crying, and this troubled him. He'd never seen his mother cry. She'd always been strong, resolute, determined, and the thought that she too could hurt shook him.
"But God is merciful. God is love," Caleb said. "Why would he command such a thing?"
Papa coughed. It was guttural, deep, full of phlegm. He was unable to cover his mouth before the fit started, and blood splattered the front of his plaid shirt. He tried to wipe the beads away with his hand, but he just smeared them into the fabric of his shirt, staining it.
"I am but a man, Caleb. I have no idea."
A few weeks later, Caleb's mother woke him and his brother. She told them to get dressed, to hurry, and so they rubbed the sleep from their eyes and got dressed. Caleb pulled on a sweatshirt and jeans but that was it. His father yelled for him and his brother to hurry their asses up, counting down from five like he'd get his belt if they weren't buckled in the car by the time he got to zero. No time for scarves or gloves. No time for socks, just sneakers, and Caleb hoped it hadn't snowed that night, or, worse yet, sleeted. That mixture of slush and ice would numb his toes and make his skin wrinkle and peel away.
Mom hadn't told them why they were being summoned, but Caleb was too tired to wonder. Caleb's head filled with sleep, the remnants of his dream still rattling his insides. In it he'd been following Moses out of the desert, and he kept questioning why they continued. He was torn between following or returning from whence they'd come. Both, he was convinced, would result in his death. Whatever or whomever waited for them at either destination would destroy him and his family and his friends and there'd be nothing he could do about it. He'd be helpless, and that frightened him more than anything. He never did come to a decision, though. He just stood in the middle of the desert, throngs of his people filing past.
Outside it was dark. Dad drove, Mom next to him. Jonah's head slumped against the window as he slept. No stars shone. Streetlights were dim. No cars drove past. There were no pedestrians, engines idling, breeze. They stopped at a red light, and his father tapped the wheel and chewed his tongue. Mom told him to go, to run the damn red light, but Dad didn't. He just waited until the light once again turned green. Caleb had never been outside at this hour. He had no idea of the time, but he guessed it had to be after midnight. The world was so still. It was like the earth itself was sleeping, resting its eyes for the turbulence of the coming day.
To Caleb's surprise, they pulled up at Jane Phillips Hospital. He'd always seen it on the way to church or school, but this was the first time he'd step foot in it since he'd been born, and this worried him — he could feel his tongue swell, lodge itself in the back of his throat. The place frightened him. People were sick here. They were in pain here. They'd had car crashes, heart attacks, strokes. He'd seen the result of that. His uncle had suffered a stroke about a year back. Now he couldn't talk, ate pureed food through a straw, and every time Caleb went to visit him, his father told him to talk to his uncle, to tell him about the recent baseball tournament in Dewey, how Caleb had smashed a double in right-center field and drove home the winning run, or how he'd come in second place in the school spelling bee, even getting the word "magnanimous" right, but Caleb just couldn't bring himself to do it. His uncle's eyes lolled in his head, never focusing on a single thing for more than a few seconds, the light of his soul having gone dim, and the only thing Caleb could think to say to him was that he hoped he never ended up like that.
After they parked, Mom and Dad herded Caleb and Jonah through the lobby and parked them in a waiting room on the fourth floor. It was cramped and smelled of McDonald's cheeseburgers. The chairs were bolted to the floor, and the carpet was worn thin. One other family shared the small room, a mom and a dad and two small children, the oldest probably a couple years younger than Caleb, pushing around a toy truck, and a toddler, his diaper wet and full. The parents looked scared, their eyes glazed over as they stared at a late-night infomercial.
"Wait here," Mom told Caleb and Jonah. "And don't touch anything."
Mom and Dad disappeared behind two swinging doors, and Caleb blinked his eyes, willing them to stay open.
"This is about Papa, isn't it?" Caleb asked Jonah.
His older brother shrugged. "Probably." He fidgeted in his seat and tried to get comfortable, resting his head against the cinderblock wall, eyes closed.
"Is he sick?"
"I heard Mom and Dad talking. He's got cancer. Had it for a while now."
Caleb's head felt heavy, his eyelids. In one moment he was back in the desert, the next he was sitting next to his brother. "Why didn't they tell us?"
Jonah shrugged. "Mom's been acting crazy. Guess they figured if she couldn't take it, we wouldn't be able to either."
"You ever know anyone who died before?"
Jonah shook his head. "A guy in my class hit a tree while skiing. Didn't really know him, though."
For a while they just sat there. Caleb fought off sleep, his head drooping toward his chest, then jerking upward. Once, he smacked his head against the wall behind him. It caused the family on the other side of the waiting room to jump, to blink at him, but then they returned to their infomercial, learning more about the weight loss miracle: The Tread Climber.
"Do you think he's scared?" Caleb asked.
Jonah shrugged. "Sure. Wouldn't you be?"
"I don't think so."
"I'd be going to heaven. What's there to be scared of?"
"You really believe in all that, don't you?"
Jonah grabbed the remote from the table between him and the other family and flipped through the channels. The other family looked at him in disbelief, but Jonah didn't pay them any mind. He found an old Western playing, John Wayne in True Grit.
"Nah," he said. "Just seems too good to be true."
An hour later, Caleb visited Papa for the last time. It wasn't anything like Caleb had expected. Tubes plugged Papa's nostrils. An IV was stuck in his arm, the tape stained red with blood. He hadn't shaved, and gray stubble spotted his chin and cheeks. His beard was sparse and thin like he was too weak to grow facial hair, the strands themselves infected with cancer. A machine beeped next to his bed. Beep. Pause. Pause. Pause. Beep. Pause. Pause. Pause. Caleb's heartbeat filled the pauses. He could feel it pounding in his ears.
"If you want to say goodbye," Mom said. "Now is the time."
Caleb tried to think of something to say — a reassurance, a prayer, a simple goodbye — but he couldn't bring himself to form the words. He couldn't bring himself to take a step closer. It took all he had to just look at Papa. He didn't appear to be in pain, which Caleb was thankful for, but he wasn't the same man. He was weaker. Debilitated. Strange. The light and fire that had once filled him had blinked out, and all that remained was a viscous shell. Papa wasn't there anymore to say goodbye to. He was already gone.
Finally, Caleb's mother told him he could go, and he breathed again. Jonah was asleep. The other family had gone home. The television had been muted. The place was quiet, the only sound the soft buzz of an ice machine at the end of the room. Caleb took a seat next to his brother and tried to sleep, but he couldn't. The sun would be up in a few hours, he'd have to go to school, and things would carry on like normal, but they weren't. The world was emptier somehow, a large balloon slowly leaking air.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Into Captivity They Will Go"
Copyright © 2019 Noah Milligan.
Excerpted by permission of Central Avenue Marketing Ltd..
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