It’s my turn to guard the vending machine from the bedroom window. There hasn’t been a car on the road for three days, but Dad says foot traffic will increase when gasoline becomes impossible to buy, which in his defense, could be any day now. He made off for the store at dawn and left a note on the fridge:
At the stor can of green beens in the cubberd Git yer water from the rain barrel Member to aim small miss small Shoot strait.
Baby is sleeping on the bed because it is my turn on guard. It is always my turn. Dad thinks I’m going to one day teach her how to shoot, but she’s too afraid. The boom makes her scream for hours, and that’s the last thing we want, because good God, what a set of lungs on that one. She’ll scream herself into passing out sometimes. I figured out, though, when her face gets too red, you just have to fan her mouth to show her how to breathe again, show her how to make the air go down.
So what I did instead was give her a “special job.” When she wakes up in the morning and before she goes to bed, she’s to sing us a song that’ll keep the Vultures away. She can do that. If the church was still open, she’d be the best in the whole choir. But right now, she’s still sleeping. She’s still dreaming of the days when we went to school.
I don’t hate Dad. Dad’s not a bad man. He’s just terrified of everything. He’s lived his whole life the way you act in the hallway on your way to the bathroom before you find the light switch: arms out in front of you, always ready to jab the first thing that whispers out your name in the dark through stalactite teeth. That’s why he gave away our dog to Uncle Jack. I don’t hate Dad, but that’s the closest I’ve ever come. Growff was our brother Benjamin’s dog. When Ben was taken away, Growff was so upset he chased the militia van a mile down the road before giving up. And then once Dad knew Ben wouldn’t be back, he called Jack.
“He’s actin’ funny,” he said to Jack over the phone. “I don’t think he trusts me.”
Growff never liked Dad to begin with on account of the dog was so accustomed to Ben and us girls being the only people in the house. After school, we’d go to Ben’s basketball practice, and after basketball practice, Ben made dinner. Tuesdays were for Chicken Twisties. Those were our favorite. The day after Ben was taken away, Baby asked the lunch ladies if they knew how to make them, and all the kids laughed at her. That night I tried to make them myself, but I was only allowed to use the microwave then. Dad didn’t know how to make them either. For someone who spends every minute of his life at the grocery store now, he’s still a lousy cook.
Baby is finally awake. She stretches her arms up, up, up, and yawns like a cub, but then gets immediately to work:
♪ No lamp switch flick / No roads of brick / No sun to kill the sick / The taste of milk / The feel of silk / The smell of your last matchstick / Vultures! VULTURES! / Can’t you read the sign? / If you don’t have no money / Then you best not waste my time / Vultures! VULTURES! / The cans in there are mine / If you’re not gonna pay for them / God’s gonna shoot you between the eyes! ♪
She scampers to the bathroom as I give her a little applause, though I know she didn’t write that one. I don’t hate Dad, but he’s not much of a lyricist. And I really don’t appreciate him using my little sister as a propaganda machine against me. I think he thinks I wouldn’t shoot a Vulture if the opportunity presented itself.
“They’re real, ya know!” he said to me once. “They’re real as you and me. And when you’re lookin’ down the scope at’em, you’ll start to see their Vulture wife and Vulture kids, and they’re gonna look an awful like you and your sister. Then your hands are gonna shake, and they’ll make you forget what God does to thieves, and then they’ll leave with my cans!”
But the more he has to preach their realness, the less I think I’ll ever have to see one, never mind shoot one and leave some baby Vulture fatherless.
He seems rather confident someone will know how to break into his vending machine. Dad was a business man at one time. Not a successful one, but that was how he made a living. That’s how he once provided for us, and Ben before they took him away, and Mama before she made off for God knows where.
When they blew up bridges on the highway, and the trucks couldn’t move past to get to the stores, Dad ran off to Food-Quik with a dozen milk crates before the morning’s news broadcast was even over. He came home with cans. Hundreds of cans. Mostly SPAM and green beans and tuna fish. Then the next day he did it again. And then again the day after that. He kept going and coming back as other people began to catch on.
Then one day, Dad came back with a big vending machine strapped down in the back of his truck. Baby asked him where it came from, and he said, “Just found it lyin’ outside on some guy’s curb! Big sign on it that said FREE PLEASE TAKE. How ‘bout it, Baby?”
“Wow!” Baby said, convinced enough. She didn’t ask Dad about the teeth marks in his arm, or the blood soaking through the painter’s tape wrapped around his hand. She was afraid of blood, too.
Dad made Ben help him load the machine up with cans and lug it out near the road with a cardboard sign that said “3$.” They ran an extension cord into the windmill-powered generator Ben made for the school science fair before he was taken away.
So far on window guard, I’ve seen a feral cat, crows picking at a dead, dried out snake, and a red squirrel that’s been bouncing around in the pines. What I wouldn’t give to crack one off right into its stupid head. All I can taste in SPAM and green beans anymore is the sodium blistering my mouth. Mama used to do up red squirrel in a white gravy in her crockpot and then put it over biscuits. Just to see, I scope the wiry little one. I’m curious about what kind of shot I have. He sits on his back legs, cheeks full of pine nuts, nibbling away, oblivious to everything. Squirrels don’t even know what a store is, and they certainly don’t eat any food from a can. Just to see, I put the crosshairs over his fat face. My heart is on a po-go stick, and I’m starting to sweat, and I turn the safety off with a click, just to see.
The bedroom door flings open, and when Baby sees me in shooting position, she begins to whimper. I set the rifle on the windowsill and rush to her. She stamps her feet with her fingers in her ears.
“Honey,” I say. “Baby girl, look at me.” Her eyes were swelling and pink. “Look,” I say, showing her my empty hands. “Look. No boom,” I say, a little too sing-songy. “No boom. See?”
Her nose starts to run into her mouth, and her little chest swells and deflates in failure like a dollar store latex balloon.
“Baby,” I say. “Are you hungry? Did you have something to eat?”
But when I put my hand on her shoulder she shrugs it away, ears still plugged, and scrambles for the bed so she can hide under it.
“Baby,” I say, “why don’t you sing us a song?”
“No!” she shrieks. She squirms away again and jumps onto the bed. “No!”
“Baby!” I said. “Get down from there! Now!”
This is the first time she listens, except she trips over her own foot jumping down and hits the wall with her face, shaking the window pane. I watch the rifle fall like Wiley Coyote from a cliff, but before any cloud of dust appears, BOOM.
The murder of crows scatters into the grey, and a banshee enters the room through the fallen angel writhing around on the floor in terror. One of her little teeth is stuck into the wall. I scoop her up and onto my shoulder now covered in blood and spit. My ear already aching, I make for the cellar as fast as I can, hoping its damp, clay walls will do their best to trap her screams hemorrhaging into the roots, where, if any luck, the sweetgum trees will turn the evil into oxygen.
When I jumpstart her lungs, when the roaring fire in my ears lowers to a whirr, I take her up into the kitchen, pop the top off the can of green beans Dad left us, and she eats them with one less tooth. I comb her hair with my fingernails, because she likes the way it feels, and I like to pretend I actually know how to French braid. When we go back to school, Melissa will have to teach me like she promised. I wrote her letters to see how her family is holding up. But I have to wait to send them. There’s no mail either.
“And she just sneaks under my pillow while I sleep?” Baby said. “Does she have a key to our house?” She looks at the hole in her smile in the reflection of her spoon, inspecting her swollen gums with her tongue.
“Eat your beans,” I say. “Please?”
I told Baby the tooth fairy will credit her with a new pair of socks. They’ll be the ones I got for the upcoming softball season, but she doesn’t know that. She’ll die of joy. Her only socks look like cotton candy that got kicked around the fairgrounds. So while there’ll be no authentic tooth fairy experience this time because Dad keeps all of our money taped to his leg, she’s still got plenty of baby teeth left in her head. I don’t hate Dad, but you only get one first lost tooth.
“It’s getting cold,” Baby says. “I hope they’re giving Ben enough blankets.”
In my head, Ben is plenty warm enough wherever he is; his insides are burning from all the running, chasing, being chased, and he doesn’t need gloves on account of his gun never going cold.
“They are,” I say to Baby.
“Can I lay in the bed a while?” Baby asks, mouth full. She’s shoveling down her green beans, knowing I’ll let her go if she finishes. Then one bean slides through the new gap in her teeth, out of her mouth, and back into the can, and this might be the funniest thing to have ever happened in the history of the entire world. She breaks first, rocking back and forth on her chair, snorting, and my eyes get hot with new, joyous tears. I tell her she can stop eating. She’ll choke if she doesn’t.
I send her upstairs to put on her pajamas, which is just a big Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt she tucks her knees into and tell her I’ll be right there. But first, I go outside and grab the gun. Disgusted with my own carelessness, I eject the shell of the fired round and check the perimeter. Just that damn red squirrel chirping and cicadas warming up for their nightly performance.
Baby rollie-pollies herself into the covers around sundown. After I pull her tooth from the wall and nestle it under her pillow, I tell her the story Dad always used to tell us at our request. It is his best story by far. Maybe his only good one. It is about a young turtle who gets himself into trouble on his way to school, gets out of it with some help from his slick-talking owl friend, and then miraculously makes it to school on time, only to find out he has forgotten his lunch. It plays to Baby’s exhausted silliness and she falls asleep with tired tummy muscles.
I keep watch in the window as the stars come out. The moon is sliding across the sky and there are coyotes far off celebrating a kill, which for many of them, is probably their first. The calls are short and high-pitched, some of them only a year old, I bet. The song isn’t perfect. It’s a little yappy, shrill even, but that doesn’t matter when it goes quiet. Because when it goes quiet, that means there are full mouths. There are eager teeth nibbling around every tendon and bone. There will be a tomorrow.
The red squirrel has finally given it a rest when I hear Dad’s truck rumble down the road. My body shuts down, knowing I will be relieved of duty for a few hours while he sorts through the new cans. When he pulls in, he kills the headlights, but keeps the truck running. Then I hear a voice I do not recognize— a silhouette stepping out of the driver’s side.
“This is the one,” the voice says.
Then another one, wearing a gas mask, comes out of the passenger door. Then two more hop out of the truck bed.
“Make quick work of it,” the driver says, gesturing toward the vending machine. He turns on a flashlight, and I can see more of him in the yellow glow. He is a massive man, wearing gigantic boots, and his face is all crudded up with mud so I can’t see it. I don’t move, just watch the Vulture scan the yard with his light. I hear the other three near the road begin to beat the outside of the vending machine, each thump echoing in my chest.
“Christ,” the big one says to the others. “A little discretion.”
To them, this means abandoning trying to smash it open with their hands, and moving right on to prying at its hinges with a crowbar. Baby snores through all of this.
When the Vulture with the flashlight turns to reprimand them, I tuck myself into the corner of the room, so not to be seen, but still able to peek outside. I keep my rifle to my chest. The big Vulture has the flashlight in his mouth. He takes out a little notebook, and in what scarce light he has, scribbles something down, nodding with mild approval at whatever figures are on the page. Maybe it is a record of all the houses they’ve hit so far, or maybe it is a note-to-self to hire new goons. The Vulture seems resolute in the work he’s done either way.
He looks over his notes as he walks toward our front door. Then he puts the notebook into his back pocket and tries the knob with no luck.
This is where Ben will show up with his ragtag revolutionary captors. They’ll roll up in their van, slide the doors open, and ambush the Vultures with machetes and war cries. They’ll all have attack dogs, and Ben will sic Growff on them, and he’ll gash the Vultures’ throats open. We’ll be a family again. Ben will make Chicken Twisties, and then we can go back to school.
The Vulture jiggles the doorknob at first, then shakes the whole door and the frame. I feel the vibrations at the top of the house. There are no lights on the road. No van is coming. My brother is dead. The dog is dead. And I love my father, but he is dead. And as the Vulture reaches inside his jacket to pull out a ball-peen hammer, I know that more than dead, more than anything, my father is wrong.
This Vulture has no wife. This Vulture has no kids. If he does, they don’t look like me. And they most certainly don’t look anything like Baby, sleeping like a cat next to me.
When the Vulture starts smashing the window, I look to the bed to make sure she does not wake up. If she’s dreaming, I hope it’s a sweet dream. I hope it isn’t so dark outside, and if the sun is out, I hope the wings of an ugly bird aren’t blocking its rays. If there is a song, I hope it isn’t to the rhythm of smashing glass or crowbars scraping in turn to gut some devil machine. If there is a song, she better be dancing. She better be singing along. I can’t stand to think of music playing and her not singing along. That’s not much of a dream at all. But from what I can tell about the look on her face, it is a happy place to be.
I could stop the glass song with the booming strike of a drum made of Vulture skin, but if she wakes to that, she might never sing again, and it would be my fault. If I really love her, I could put the gun to her head and let her sing forever. I hope people are dancing all around her.
“Enough!” one idiot Vulture says. “We’ll figure it out later.”
The three of them try to lift the entire machine into the back of Dad’s truck. One almost gets crushed in the struggle, prompting the big one to pull his arm away from the broken window in a hurry. He runs over to help them heave, bleeding everywhere. At last it topples into the bed and they quickly wrap it in chains. Then they all climb back in and peel out into the darkness. The night takes its turn again, and the coyotes begin to sing something new. When the blood rushes back to my head, I gasp and collapse on the floor, sucking air like a fish. I slide the gun under the bed.
The spackled ceiling looks like a contoured map, like hills we could run into and make a new life in. Baby peers over the bed, her eyes filled with sand, and reaches for my hands. I grab hers, pretend she is strong enough to pull me up next to her and onto the mattress. She lifts a side of the sheets for me to get under and I do, shaking and coughing.
“I had a beauty-ful dream,” Baby says, which slows my pulse some.
“You have to go back to sleep, Baby.”
She tucks her bottom lip under her broken teeth. “But it didn’t come true,” she says.
She lifts her pillow and presents to me the lonely tooth, surrounded by empty space, cold and sockless.
“Ah,” I say, remembering the socks are still in Mama’s old jewelry box. “I see.”
“What did I do wrong?” Baby says.
There isn’t a thing in this world she could have ever done wrong. But I play along. I scratch my chin. I listen to the coyotes across the hills and feel myself getting hungry.
“I think she needs to hear you, Baby,” I say. “I think you need to sing her a song.”
Matthew Boyarsky is a writer and teacher from Pennsylvania. His stories have appeared in BULL: Men’s Fiction, and he is currently working on an MFA at Miami University in Ohio. He loves his family and the Green Bay Packers.