Story Excerpt

Lucky Stars

by Karen Harrington
 

excerpt2_Lucky-Stars
Art by Shutterstock.com

Milton says to me, “It’s been a long day. Get on over here and wash my feet.”

“Milton, I’m not.”

“This ain’t no negotiation. Remember last time?”

I get the bucket and fill it with soap and water. Because I remember last time.

When the filthy job is done, he says to get him some cold iced tea to drink. He sits outside like a king with bare feet. Says he likes to feel the grass underfoot. What I do is carry the bucket to the kitchen. I make him an iced tea with the dirty feet water, half and half. It’s hard not to laugh when I watch him down his own grit.

“See then.” He smacks his lips and you can see his dead brown tooth. “Was that so hard?”

“You want a refill?”

“Now, that’s a good girl.”

I smile while praying he chokes. You can do that if you practice. I have tons of practice. He leaves me alone and afternoon-naps in the sun like the dog he is. I sit staring at the TV, wishing I could escape into the stories there.

Later that night, Milton says, “Come here and let me show you something in the sky.”

Milton thinks he’s a genius because he knows the stars. He points out constellations and movements in the sky. He tracks the orbit of the International Space Station and we eat dinner according to when it passes over our crappy neighborhood. His telescope is almost always set up in the backyard.

“Don’t you want to learn something?”

It sends a ripple of fear through me when Milton is hankering to teach. Because Milton is a jerk who is supposed to be looking after me while Daddy is at the oilfield camp. Milton is Daddy’s stepdad, so I don’t know what that makes him to me except rotten.

“I don’t want to look,” I say.

“At the stars?”

“Seen ’em.” I try to go back inside. He’s two beers in. This could go either way. Two beers when Daddy is here is okay. But Milton and me and two beers could be trouble.

“That’s what’s wrong with you, Reese. Think you saw somethin’ once and you’re all schooled up.”

“I got housework.” That is how bad he is. I would rather scrub a toilet.

“Now? Now you got housework?” He slugs back a sip of beer from the amber bottle. Shiner. That’s what he likes. “Bring me one more.”

There’s a red cooler at the base of the telescope full of beer. This is a trick.

I hate Milton with the fire of the blue stars. They burn at about 72,000 degrees Fahrenheit. How about that for knowing something? Milton would be dust. But I’ll do what he says right now. If I don’t, it might be shed-city for me. He likes to lock me in there to teach me “wilderness training.” He says it will toughen my bones. He says a person should learn to sleep anyplace.

Did I mention I hate Milton?

A dog barks a couple houses over. I go to the fridge. It’s stuffed with beer and cold cuts and a family pack of raw chicken drumsticks. I grab a Shiner by the neck. It’s cool beneath my hands. I wish it was a Dr Pepper, but Milton never gets what I want. I’ve read books where girls have grandparents who dote on them. Don’t go thinking I’m book smart. I had to look up the word dote in the dictionary. Milton doesn’t dote.

“You dawdling, girl?”

“Coming,” I shout.

I hate Milton.

*   *   *

Outside the air has cooled. The breeze rattles the chimes next door. And the sky is clear and bright.

“What you can see here is Scorpius,” Milton says. “You can only find it in late summer, like as now.”

I move to the telescope and have a look. Milton puts his hands on my waist and tries to move me just so as he outlines a scorpion made of stars. Those stars go on shining like nothing’s wrong.

“Cool.” I have to say something or else Milton will get riled up. “Well, I got to get the clothes out of the dryer before they wrinkle.”

I step toward the house. Fifteen steps. I’ve counted. If I make it to the cement pad next to the sliding-glass door, I’m safe. If not, he’ll call me back.

“Wait, girl.” My blood freezes. “Come here and let me show you something else.”

Shit.

“Milton, I really got to go work.”

He slurps back beer number three or four. Then he starts to pace. A speech will follow. Milton thinks he could give TED talks on how kids are weak. They are today’s problem. Too soft, too doughy. Don’t know enough about nature and don’t even carry a pocketknife. He asks himself questions and then answers them his own self. Why do I even need to be here?

“ . . . so what kind of guardian am I if I don’t pass on a legacy of toughness? Like I did with your daddy?”

I’ve heard this a million times.

“I’d say that would make me irresponsible.”

“Milton, please.”

“So, it’s a nice night for the bag.”

I swallow hard, dig my nails into my hand. “No.”

“You’re too soft. Soft things break. I’m gonna make you tough or die trying.”

“No!”

“Get. The. Bag. You remember last time.”

*   *   *

Now it is pitch dark outside, only one light left on inside the house. I sleep on top of the cool grass, inside the blue sleeping bag, zipped up to my neck so creepy crawly things don’t get on me. The chimes sing again. A neighbor yells at her husband about the trash. Lots of noise is going on at the house next door. And the stupid stars burn with light that has witnessed every stupid thing in this backyard. Guess I can’t really call them a witness since the light I see now left them six years ago. When Mama was here. That light is practically the only thing I have of her now. So, stupid Milton, you try to make this outside school so awful. See what I can do? It’s a star party.

I wake to the spray of hose water in my face. You can tell hose water from regular. It has a dirt tang to it.

“Wakey, wakey, eggs and bakey.”

I sit up slowly. “Milton, can you not?”

“You know how to be a success, Reese?”

I have to answer the right way. “Don’t let the sun catch you asleep.”

“Affirmative.”

“Then why do you nap so much?”

“What’s that?”

“Nothin’.”

He lets the hose drop. Then, as I unzip the bag and get out, he sprays me one more time and laughs.

Inside the house, I wipe the water from my face and neck. On the counter, I see that Milton has packed a lunch. Good. He’s leaving.

“Today’s fishing day, Reese.”

My stomach curdles. Sometimes he goes fishing alone. Those are the best days. They are like mini vacations. I guess my face shows my feelings because he puts a paw on my shoulder, shakes me, and says, “Hey, it’ll be fun. I want to teach you to catch striper.” He smiles. Then he pulls out a six-pack of Dr Pepper. “See, got your favorite pop.”

I smile because I can’t help it. “You’re the only one who calls it pop.”

“Well, color me special.”

We load up an hour later. All his tackle-box stuff. The red cooler. Sandwiches. I scan the house next door and now there are two Animal 911 trucks out front. Three guys dressed in khaki uniforms go in and out of the house, carrying small pet carriers. I knew our neighbor was weird, but this is extra, even for him.

On the drive to the lake, Milton is on a low hum to old country tunes. Mostly Hank Williams. “I ever tell you about my first concert?”

I scan my brain. I don’t think I’ve heard this story. And I say nothing because Milton just goes on trucking with his mouth even if you say, Oh, yes, a thousand times I’ve heard that story.

We get to the lake and he drives around and around over a spillway until he finds what he’s looking for, which I have no idea. “We’re looking for someplace with a little shade,” he says finally.

We unload, spread our goods out, even a little battery-operated radio I didn’t know Milton had. I bait my own hooks. Milton taught me that last year. After a little while, I think that the day is not so bad. Milton mostly talks to his reel, telling it that it’s no good or cheap ass, why won’t you cooperate? That could tell you all you needed to know about Milton. He’ll always blame the tool instead of his own self. I get a good tug on my line and start to reel it in.

“Slowly, slowly,” Milton says. “Do it like I showed you.”

“I know,” I say, excitement running through my veins. It is a thrill to know something might soon pop out of the water. And then, when it does, when it comes up splashing and wiggling, it’s the best thing. I reel it in and it weighs heavy on the line.

“Easy,” Milton says.

I pull it up. It’s a catch. “Take my picture so I can show Dad.” I hand my phone to him and he lets out a huff and then takes a picture, which I can already tell will be awful on purpose. He’ll try to tell Dad the picture made it look bigger than it was.

“There must be a thousand of those in the lake today,” he says, throwing out another line. I unhook my fish, feel it writhe in my hands, and then toss it back into the water.

 

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Copyright © 2022. Lucky Stars by Karen Harrington

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