When it’s my weekend with Audrey, she wanders the yard as she pleases. Her mother is a child psychologist and we’ve had countless spats about what’s best. “These are formative years. What happens now establishes a scaffolding for the rest of her adult life,” her mother says unbudgingly. I’m for structure and boundaries. She thinks Audrey should be encouraged to explore every curious whim completely untethered. Which, I’ve talked myself into being fine with. Her mother’s got the bulk of custody and the grad degree. I’ve got my weekends when her mom drops her off, not out of love, but necessity.
My neighbor let his Rottweiler roam without a leash again and I’m an inch away from planting razor blades inside my tomatoes. I sit on my veranda with a paperback and keep a soft watch on Audrey. She wants to have a go at my garden. I hand her a trowel. Lately, she likes planting rocks. “Daddy, have you ever seen a rock tree?” I tell her about my trip to Arizona. I tell her there were rock trees as far as the eye could see. Rock trees so gigantic the locals mistake them for mountains. Her eyes light and she pats the dirt tight and flat. She has a method with the watering can I can’t begin to fathom. I only interfere in situations like when Audrey dangles a squirming earthworm over her open mouth.
Kirk paces his property shirtless, a pump bottle of aloe vera cradled in the crook of his arm. He shouts something through the shrubbery. I can never make out what the hell he’s saying. I yell back, “You’re telling me!” and watch him rub a glob of lotion into his shrapnel-embedded chest. It looks like a grotesque flower. His dog shoves its muzzle through the opening it’s clawed beneath the bush. Audrey says, “Why hello there little puppy!” even though the dog is old and arthritic. To Audrey, all dogs are puppies. This puppy bares its teeth and snarls. Audrey’s unphased but violence begins to make an uncomfortable amount of sense to me.
Her mother calls to check in. I say everything’s fine. I tell her about rock trees and she laughs. “Oh Aud,” she says. And I say, “Yeah.” She says she’s gotta get running. A client’s been threatening suicide and she’s expecting a call from his mother any minute. I call her a filthy, no-good, HIPAA violator. She laughs again, less authentically. We hang up.
Around noon, I let Audrey pick what she’d like on her sandwich. She peruses the garden with a finger to her lip, deciding. She belts a rhyme she’s invented:
If I had a nickel to spare, would I buy an apple or a pear? Oh, what’s the difference?! I don’t care! I’m just a monkey wearing underwear!
and comes back with an onion, a leek, a tomato, a sprig of rosemary, and a cucumber all cradled in the basket of her pulled out t-shirt. From the fridge, she selects honey glazed turkey and peppered bacon. I put ciabatta in the toaster and don’t question the apricot marmalade or pork rinds she places on the counter. I prepare an iced coffee and remind her she’s not to tell. “When have I ever told Mommy about my wonderful drink?” she asks. I kick myself for not trusting her.
Her mom’s dating this much younger guy who’s climbed his way to the top of a pyramid scheme. They’re spending the weekend at one of his many timeshares. He got her into hunting and it’s now a form of release for her. When she gets stressed, she flees to the mountains, decks herself out in designer camo, and shoots forest animals. She and her boyfriend will grab either end of a hacksaw and work through the neck bones of dead deer until the heads are ready to be taxidermied and mounted. Audrey’s mom doesn’t keep any of the heads for herself. Says it’s not something she feels comfortable explaining to our daughter just yet.
Drunk on caffeine, Audrey starts screaming. “I am the queen of the Earth and you’re all my servants!” She spits into the nipple of an anthill. She whoops my butt in tetherball. Kirk’s ancient pup’s got murder in his eyes and a thick rope of spit whipping around in time with our every spike. Kirk yells something about an aerial strike and taking cover. Audrey tells me I suck at tetherball. My phone rings and it’s not her mom. I ignore the call.
Audrey’s not supposed to know about Bianca, the recovered heroin addict I met at the library, who I think I'm in love with. I rush to the veranda and grab a coloring book and a fistful of Crayolas. I tell Audrey to stay put while I take a shit. “Shit isn’t a very nice word!” she says and I ask “Then why did you just say it?” and we both crack up. She sits obediently cross-legged in the grass and begins her busy work with a stubby burnt orange.
I lock myself in the bathroom and sit on the lidded toilet. I’m anxious about the dog and don’t let my gaze stray from the window. My phone rings again and lights up with Bianca’s name and picture. I answer and tell her now’s not a good time in the lowest volume I can while still being clearly understood. Bianca cuts me off and goes into a narrative about how she’s relapsed and her car’s broken down and I’m the only person she can call. Audrey’s face is squinched up in focus. My heart beats fast and my stomach freefalls. I have no clue what to do. I ask if her sister’s around. She says her sister’s out of town and regardless, there’s no way she can know about this.
I head out to the yard and tussle Audrey’s wheat hair. She says “Look! Dad, Look!” and I look at a page where she’s colored an entire forest different shades of purple and drew in her own rockets and dragons. I hand her a palmful of pebbles and tell her they’re rock tree seeds and she can plant some in Kirk’s yard to keep him company. “Wait? You mean?! I get to play with the puppy?!” she says, her eyes about to burst, and it pains me to nod my head yes, and it pains me to fetch the jumper cables.
“Hiya Kirk, watcha doing over there?” I ask through a spiderweb in the hedge. I hear the repeated clink of knife against sharpening stick go silent. I’m terrified when his head pops out of nowhere in his ratty camo helmet. He looks possessed. “Attennnn….SHUN!” he spits at me. His phlegm gets caught in the web. I stand at attention and ask if he’d mind watching Aud for a second. He says he doesn’t mind taking on a new cadet as long as they can maneuver the trenches. “You heard the man!” I say and give Audrey a nudge to send her crawling through the hole the dog has dug.
The moment I open my car door, my phone goes off. Audrey’s mother wants to speak to her directly. I tell her she’s taking a nap, she’s knocked out cold. “Cut the shit,” she tells me, “I know about Aud’s ‘wonderful drink’.” I cringe and fess up and she forgives me but still demands to speak to her. I say “Okay, lemme go get her,” I roll down the window and extend the phone as far as I can out of it. I yell our daughter’s name. I yell it again. I say, “Oh fuck, my phone’s gonna d-” and hang up.
“What is it DahhhDeeeeeee??” Audrey yells from Kirk’s yard. I yell back, “Nothing! Play nice with the puppy!”
“When have I EVER played mean with a puppy!” she screams as I put the car in gear.
None of the other neighbors know which war Kirk served in. The woman with the hedges trimmed into flamingos says he didn’t at all. Says she’s lived in the area since he was in diapers. I buy it.
I drive past the motel Bianca calls home until something else lines up and keep heading north. I’m following the map I drew with a crayon on a page torn from Aud’s coloring book. A sequence of rights and lefts superimposed on a line drawing of Hansel and Gretel standing beside an oven, their faces torn so hard into smiles, it looks like they both have to shit.
I drive slow through the untended forest edging the dirt dead end Bianca’s directed me to. Branches reach out and scratch both sides of my car. The sound almost calms me. I see the Corolla with the bumper half peeled off. Bianca’s leg an obtuse angle out the door. She’s got on open-toed stilettos and a plunged rig jutting out the webbing. My phone’s got no service but I think I remember the YouTube Narcan How-To’s well enough.
Her skin’s tinged blue but she’s coherent. Her face looks like stop-motion animation when she recognizes me. Vomit and Babbyyyy drip out the side of her mouth. She takes sleepy swipes at my crotch. I say not now honey pie and head back to my car to repark nose-to-nose with hers.
I open both hoods and get out the cables. First though, I try the key still in the ignition. The key-chained rabbit’s foot dances when the engine clears its throat and makes healthy noises.
“What the fuck!” I don’t have any control over my open palm when it rams against her cheekbone. She has no control over her two fingernails that impale right below my eyeball and pull down all the way to my chin in a lazy way, like they’ve already forgotten what they intended to do. I feel the flaps hanging and decide we’re even.
Her anger smolders but I gotta get back to Audrey. Fuck. Bianca’s not well enough for me to just leave her here. And I can’t just drop her back at the motel. There’s a hospital a few towns over in the other direction. A different one right down the street from me. I’ll take her there.
I put on gloves and pull the needle out. I swab the spot with an alcohol wipe and lug her into my arms. She punches my throat but her fists feel like pillows. I get her into the passenger seat of my car easy enough. She calls me vile names. I make sure her car is locked, dig a small grave for the spent needle with my key.
When I get to our street, I see Kirk belly-down on his shingled roof. He peeks around his periscope and his face is painted like leaves. He’s looking the opposite direction than he should be if Audrey’s still in the backyard with the Rottweiler. Like there’s something in the city skyline he’s intent on seeing. But nothing could be so pressing as my daughter’s safety and I’ve made a huge mistake.
Bianca drawls along to the radio, making up her own lyrics. I leave the car running at the curb and make for Kirk’s backyard. I get down against the ground and elbow my way through the tunnel below the hedge. A thick, black-raspberry tongue swipes its slime down my face. Aud cracks up. “Silly daddy! What happened to your face!”
I angle my gaze up and see her seated atop the dog as if it were a pony. She’s got a plastic pasta colander on her head and caked mud on her face. She slaps the dog’s hind quarters and it trots around the perimeter of the yard. She dismounts by the back porch and yanks a hunting knife out of a tree stump. Places her palm flat against the wood. Splays her fingers. Says “Watch! Watch! See what I can do!”
My leg’s snagged under a root. I writhe and wriggle, yelling “Stop!” as Audrey starts bringing the knife down in quick choppy motions between each finger. Kirk from his post commands us to take cover. His yard is full of mannequins full of cuts and gashes. A grenade hangs from a wind-chime. I hate to admit Audrey already has a mastery.
I feel a hand wrap around my ankle. I think of medieval torture devices. The fingers dig deep and tug me back. The root won’t give and my shoe is torn from me. The breeze dry humps my sock. I’m caught between two yards of terror. Bianca’s not capable of a grip like this. Audrey moves the knife faster and faster and faster. The phantom hand knocks the root loose and rips me back into my own yard. I look up to the strawberry blonde mop of hair and shit-eating white teeth of my ex wife’s boyfriend. “Whatcha doing down there, buddy?” He pushes his thumb hard against the streak of raw flesh on my cheek.
“Where. Is. She.” my ex-wife spits as I’m full-nelsoned and drug to my garden. He drops me face first on my tomatoes. Their guts splatter. “And what the fuck is your little junkie friend doing out front. You know what we discussed.”
I realize this is what Kirk meant. He was just trying to warn us. He yells “Mayday! Mayday! Abort! Abort!” and I lift my spasming finger towards the hedge. Both their heads whip around. My ex-wife sticks her head through the spiderwebbed hole. “Drop the knife! Audrey, Audrey, my baby! Please!”
Our daughter’s voice singsongs. “Everything’s fine, Mommy! I know what I’m doing!” The boyfriend’s Ivy League football instincts kick in and he barrels through the bush. I’m almost proud of Audrey’s confidence. I almost trust her dexterity.
“Let goooooooo, that hurts!” Aud cries. The prick must be grabbing her wrist. I close my eyes and imagine her burying the knife in his eye sockets. Popping each out of his skull like grapes. I imagine I am the one to tell her great job. My body moves in slow-motion as I rise to my feet. My ex-wife floats through the hole he’s made for her. She’s sobbing.
I imagine Audrey handing me the knife. I imagine the brute force I use to drive it into his solar plexus. An upward tear. A downward tear. I imagine his ribcage an armoire. The ease with which I open its doors to hang my best coats in. I imagine biting into his heart. It'd be like eating a perfectly ripe pomegranate.
I slump along the vinyl siding of my home. I slump to the street. I slump past the pickup with a family of black bears heaped atop each other in the bed. They’re off in the deepest of sleep. The littlest matted most with hard blood. I slump into the driver’s seat of my own car.
Kirk from his roof, hand shoved down his shorts, commands “Cease fire!” And I smile.
Bianca stirs and asks if we can grab milkshakes. I say, “Anything for you, darling.”
Before I drop her off at detox, we sit on the hood of my car. The milkshakes so thick the straws are an insult. We take off the lids and plaster our mouths. In the backseat, a hard plastic cooler keeps ten banana splits with coffee ice cream and sprinkles from melting before Audrey can eviscerate them all.