UP IN THEIR BEDROOMS Cheyenne talks on the phone and Kenny works at cleaning his hunting rifle. She’s had the line tied up for hours, consulting with girlfriends and dialing boys, and it’s begun to drive her mother nuts. Pam’s got the baby fed and everyone else’s dinner going on the stovetop, chicken in the oven, and she’d like to call her mother before it gets any later. They’re in Florida, Homestead, and they’re an hour ahead. She hollers at Willard to get their daughter off the phone. He shouts up the stairs but doesn’t budge from in front of the news on TV. They’re going into Iraq. He can tell right now they’re going into Iraq again and all the fire, the fury that will mean. Collapse of towers and change of regime.
But this comes with expectations, Debbie tells her. Certain standards to meet. Nichole Street, Debbie whispers, and Cheyenne knows just what she means. She imagines the dead-end pavement, the empty cul-de-sac in the field where they never finished the subdivision, never really started. People line their cars up and down the street at night, lay back their seats. She thinks about stretching across Chad’s truck, its bench seat. She pulls her fingers across the inside of her thigh, think of holding, touching, kissing, and her mother breaks in on the line. Off, off, off, Pam says. Cheyenne wonders what all she’s heard and slams the handset on its cradle. Pam clicks the cordless receiver to a dial tone and tries her parents. They don’t answer. She imagines them on the beach, or along the slow lines of a wintertime orange grove. The sun disappears in blood, the gentle froth of an outgoing tide. She pulls the potatoes off the hot eye and peeks at the chicken. Ten more minutes.
Someone told her today the city’s going to be hiring. Receptionists, assistants, the people who sit in cubicles inside city hall and do she doesn’t know what. Their suits and ties and business skirts, and Pam thinks she’d blend in right alongside them. She can’t remember who told her it was happening, doesn’t know exactly who to call. The baby fusses, and she shouts for Willard to get everyone washed up for dinner. He turns up the TV’s volume. She tries her parents again. They’re probably only asleep. She ducks into the laundry room to change a diaper. Willard turns the TV back down. He knows guys at the plant, boys from high school, who toured Iraq the first time and came home unable to sleep, or to eat, or sometimes just walk. Or couldn’t make it through the day without a headache they said split their face like light. They were sometimes good for nothing, even if they wanted to be. He watches the newscast draw a tiny green circle of a target across the belly of the Middle East, Baghdad buttoned at its center. They could bomb anywhere they pleased. Willard runs a finger over the knuckles of his left hand. He fiddles with the wedding ring. They’re going to do it. The end is coming. It’s like knowing someone’s about to throw a punch. You see it, but there’s nowhere to go.
Pam screams. There are nearly tears in her eyes, and it’s all hot on the table. She drops halfway into her chair and feels a subtle rock, a tiny wave, carry her the rest of the way. Willard shouts for the kids. He watches a segment from Israel and mutes the TV, but he leaves the broadcast playing. Upstairs Kenny loads the five long cartridges back into his rifle and shuts it back into its case. There’s nowhere to go today. Cheyenne strips to search herself in the long mirror hanging behind her bedroom door. She shrugs into shorts and a sweatshirt when she doesn’t find anything. She knows exactly where she’s going. They all come down together, arrive close enough to count, to name, to reach. They eat.
MARVIN SHACKELFORD is the author of the collections Endless Building (poems, Urban Farmhouse) and Tall Tales from the Ladies’ Auxiliary (stories, forthcoming from Alternating Current). His work has, or soon will have, appeared in Kenyon Review, Hobart, Wigleaf, and elsewhere. He resides in Middle Tennessee, earning a living in agriculture.