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If You Don't by Rob Bass

 

Rob Bass is a writer/musician living in Austin with his wife. He writes songs and stories and reads comic books and novels as fast as he can.

When Ryan is four and Colleen is two, another toddler comes up to her in the sandbox and kicks over the upside down bucket mold she’s just finished patting down to perfection. She throws her hands up in the air and lets loose with a great wail and Ryan stomps over to push the offending party down into the sand. Colleen’s daddy Dan is first on the scene, the source of wailing belonging to him. He picks his daughter up out of the sand and dusts her off. The antagonistic toddler is still in the sand also crying and it is perhaps the bizarre juxtaposition of this and must be the Nutcracker Suite playing out of the daycare’s mounted playground speakers that strikes him so funny when he turns and sees the way Ryan is staring up at him, fixated. Dan doesn’t understand how unnerved he is until he realizes he’s honestly trying to screw up enough courage to ask a preschooler which mommy is his when she tumbles into the picture in a way recalling sudden spring storms, or flash floods. All it takes is a glance at her boy and her eyes shoot over and up to Colleen, cradled in his arms and quiet, now that she’s being rocked. The woman’s eyes find his, flick down then back up in a way that’s reptilian, its economy disturbing to him, the efficiency with which she reads him, sizes him up in the dart of a snake’s tongue. Her lips at last break into a smile and he loves her, all at once. This moment seals up around his life, a valve separating Before from After.

Sure is a pretty little girl you got there, she says and means it.

You’re right about that, he smiles back, Handsome boy you got yourself. He seems a bit taken with my Colleen, here.

Seems like, she barely takes her eyes off the girl herself, this boy falls in love with a different color or shape every five or ten minutes.

Well, he looks about as smart as a whip, Dan purrs back.

He does pretty good so far. Listen, I’ve got to keep moving—

Before you go! Dan lays it on thick, too thick. He palms a card up from out of his sleeve, magic.

What’s this? she asks over her shoulder, already herding Ryan off to the next gig.

My number! he shouts back, and feels like an idiot, because most of the parents know that even though he hasn’t slept in the same bed as Sheila in, God, six months now, he still isn’t technically divorced from his wife, in terms of the proper papers being filed at the appropriate times, etcetera and in perpetuity.

Well I’ll call you if I need, she squints for a closer look, a tax lawyer! Nice meeting you, Daniel James, CPA!

He stands there stunned, entranced, for a few seconds more then rallies, realizes he’s still holding Colleen. Didn’t even ask the lady’s name. Just hurled his information at her like the world was falling at his feet. What came over him?

We got to get Daddy a damn hamburger and you some mush, champ, he says like she’s his best friend. And, really, she is. His only friend, right now. The only one who’ll listen. And he loves her more than he does the rest of the world combined.

. . .

When Ryan is ten and Colleen is eight, after the most wonderful series of box forts and action figure wars and doll autopsies and afternoons spent dressing up as all the superheroes and tea parties and massacres and innumerable games of Hide and Seek and Motorcycle and another one they made up called Liar and archery chicken-fights and multidimensional scavenger hunts and always a round of Army to close things out, then the whole mess comes tumbling down when Ryan’s dad Jim finally confirms his long-harbored suspicions that the debonair English chap who’s been turning up too often for way too long is not in fact English but has in fact been rogering his wife for probably exactly that length of time. Immediately setting in motion a chain of events ending with the immaculately lit commingling of the brains and blood of the conflicting parties upon the otherwise white ivory mantle bounding a fireplace you could fit three people into with Ryan’s mother as the sole witness to and survivor of her husband’s homicide/suicide with her lover, Colleen’s daddy Dan.

Nobody takes it harder than Ryan. And it’s only because of what it does, the gap it puts between them. He loves his daddy, he really really does, but losing her, spending the long and lonely afternoons without her, it’s so much worse. And she’s actually still out there, can make it better. Daddy’s just dead.

But she might as well be, too. No one ever answers when he dials the right numbers and Mommy shushes him every time he brings it up, every time. Hurts so much more without, just to know what he’s missing. The lines of her face, those pretty pretty curves. Oh, how much he loves just the idea of her, a picture of her face. The real thing makes him want to burst.

. . .

When Ryan is fifteen and Colleen is thirteen, all of his plans come to fruition, too much hard work paying off to even begin to acknowledge here, let alone explain. Certainly not fathom. Suffice to say, even though they have been separated for a period of roughly sixty-two months, he has not let her slip away from his scrutiny for more than days at a time and securing himself a slot on the roster for Camp Ya Hah feels like the crowning achievement of his life. She’s been living in a home down by the border but he tracks her name into the enrollment drives and signs himself up right away. Mom’s so busy with Michael, she’s glad to be rid of him. And Camp Ya Hah is a pretty great place. Wonderful, you might even call it.

There’s hiking and fishing and archery and swimming and cliff diving and spelunking and this big old swing they built and an artificial hot spring and a guy preaching about how all this is from God and they can most of them pretty much get behind that, why not? They actually keep the girls on the other side of the lake from the boys, just like in an old horror movie, so how can he not rise or in this case submerge himself to the occasion and scuba on over to his intended?

But something’s wrong, immediately. When he gets across, all the counselors, the ladies supposed to be in charge are floating in the lake or running around the shore, laughing and falling down, a couple in their underwear…Ryan, determined as he is to reach his beloved, so close, weighs this gift horse and allots it the requisite minimum two minutes, just floats there, his goggles the only thing sticking up out the water. Watching.

He makes landfall around the corner from where the counselors are falling all over themselves, crawls up on the sand and hunkers down, waiting for them to come for him. When no one shows, he creeps up into the camp. No one’s in their cabin. He pokes his head into three empty rooms full of bunk beds but waits outside the fourth one. It’s hers. Red Poodle. The eponymous mascot crouches out in front of the cabin with a vigilance that can be judged oblivious but loving. Everyone’s either at Mess or on a hike. He’s had the schedule for weeks now, this plan has been revised and rerevised, actually bearing great resemblance to the fourth of fifth draft of the original even though this is something like the twentieth.

He leaves them under her pillow. A burnt-eyed sawed-off Barbie head, some new cousin calling herself Candace actually. A tiny broken piece of China that might be part of a fine cup of tea, held by smaller hands than even Candace’s. And an old Princess Leia action figure, just the torso up, in her slave girl steel bikini. Long ago, ritualistically, burned in the same places as Candace. All part of the same experiment. The Matador Trials. Something about taking pain and flinching.

They’re all folded up in a skewed sort of crab origami and on the paper there’s a note telling her to meet him tomorrow night out at the Skull Island the boy counselors rigged up in the middle of the lake, to do who knows what, a couple of years ago (even the owners still have no idea about it, everybody says). But she’ll meet him, she’ll come. She has to.

And she does. She almost explodes into a million pieces there in the dark when her hands find the smushed paper and unroll these old things, lost forever. Touching them now, she realizes how much more a part of her they were than she realized, more prominent inside than out at this point. She’s missed Ryan.

But Daddy. Just the briefest flash of him and she wants to burn these things the rest of the way to Hell. It was his Mama, his mama did it.

So she lies there for the better part of the night; when she does get to dreaming, it takes more of a toll on her than the insomnia, visions of falling out and away from a great but distant light into a darkness whose vastness is far more boundless. The next day, crawls by tough to get through. But she makes it, finally makes it, her bed and her sheets. Wakes up in a cold sweat right on time, twenty minutes to midnight, just long enough to get out there. But she’s so tired. And doesn’t know what she’s doing.

He’s hugging the bottom of the lake when he sees her sinking, fires himself up at her and breaks the surface in seconds. She’s not breathing when he checks her on the girl’s side of the lake but after some CPR pseudo-kissing, he’s got her coughing and spitting up water, a good sign, certainly. But then she starts talking.

Wha—what’re you—?

Saving, I’m saving you.

Wanna go back. Take me back right now.

Back where? Down there? You can’t—

Back away from you. That’s where.

But can’t you see that I love you? That this was the point of the whole thing? We’re supposed to be the good that comes out of it? Do you know what a phoenix is?

If you don’t let me go, right this very instant, I’m gonna scream bloody murder.

Scream all you want. No one can hear you, my pretty. Hah. Come on. We’re already on your side. Let me help you up.

She doesn’t say another word to him. He gets thrown out less than a week later.

. . .

But he still finds her, the pest. She bets he always will, if she ran a million miles, hitched up to Alaska, took a ferry across the Bering Strait, rode a motorcycle around Asia, went out into the African desert and then flew on even further, she would find him crouched in some Irish pub or English bookstore, waiting there weeks for her to quit second- and fourth-guessing herself and just do what she’d always intended, what he’d known she’d do within his first few instants of thinking about it. Waiting for her to catch up with herself. That’s what drives her so crazy about him, if you had to sum it up in just a few words. Yeah, that’s actually pretty good. Just sort of the way he has of knowing about everything. Drives her nuts.

When Ryan is eighteen and Colleen is sixteen, so much has flown right by and set itself up like it’s always been the truth that it’s tough to know where to start. She just can’t in any way believe that it’s coincidence but they’ve both wound up in Houston, her with some fosters, him because She wants to live there because Houston has all the best hospitals for precious Michael, he of jaundiced skin and bone-marrow transplants. Ryan doesn’t even care that he’s a legend at school for stalking a soph who’s not even interested. It scares her, the way he stares at her, when she catches him, even though he stops as soon as he’s caught. He’s such an idiot. Why should she have anything to do with him? And his fucking mom?

But then she’s walking around by herself drunk at this nice little fair they’re having in the middle of the city at this park and of course he’s there, just like always, right over her left shoulder, and he says, Do you want to ride the train? and she says O, why not? Not like you’ll take No for an answer, and how she wants to slap him for the way he looks at her then but she sort of wants to snuggle him up too and what’s odd is that’s not even new, has always been around the back there somewhere, and she never says Yes but they stand in line anyway and wait for the train then finally board but it takes forever for all the moms and crying hollering kids to get on, such a racket. Finally, the five-feet tall cars chug on out of the station, sixty long, capacity of four apiece. She smiles at him without deciding that it’s all right to.

Why’re you always following me?

I’m not. I’m just around when you need me.

Oh yeah? And why do I need you now? To ride this train?

No. To save you from this train.

What’s at? Whadaya mean?

The train. Someone’s going to blow this train up.

The hell’re you talking about?

I am. Me. I’m going to blow this train up. If you don’t marry me, Colleen.

She sees dark spots and feels herself laughing even though nothing’s funny, certainly not. He takes a box out and opens it up and there’s a little gold band inside, dent accentuated by the lampposts they’re chugging by.

I’m not gonna—why would I marry you?

Because you can walk this earth for the rest of your life as fast as you can and you’ll never find a man who adores you more. Or will love you more than I do. It’s you and me. That’s it. You don’t have to see it now, that’s all right. I can wait.

Only you’ll blow up the train.

That. At’s just to get you in gear, rev up the motor. No pressure, really.

She breathes in involuntary and the taste catches her just right, she knows, can see this road burning bright in front of her occluding the other paths, so many might-be’s falling away before the obvious truth that he’s already so much inside of her, she’s just hurting herself to shut him out, and it’s perfect and beautiful and a little sad because it’s over in an instant there in the passenger car, just like that, inside, she ages from the wild angry bitch ready to smash her hands against the world into the same old soul she’ll be when she dies ninety-two years later, the skeleton of her life charted out before her, in front instead of behind, but charted all the same, all the choices of the world burned away even though she can hardly remember making a single one to begin with.

Oh, what the hell, she says to him like she always has, always will, Let’s give it six months and see what happens. How much more fucked up can it get from here?