I park my truck across the street from Julie’s house most nights. She’s not there anymore, not since graduation. But I sit in the cab anyway with my pistol — the snub nose .38 I saved three months to buy — riding shotgun. The gun isn’t loaded. Yet. Julie’s dad doesn’t know about the pistol. He doesn’t know how close I’d have to stand to use it. Fred, the big, bald mountain of flesh at E-Z Pawn explained the short barrel doesn’t do well at a distance. “That’s fine,” I said. When I decide it’s time for the gun, I want to be close. I want Julie’s dad to know who shot him. I’d like him to know why.
Julie and I have been close since we were four, back when our moms job-shared their fifth-grade classroom. Her mom watched us in the morning. Mine took over in the afternoon. Those were our “salad days,” Julie once said. We dug canals through my sandbox, covered our faces with rain-puddle mud, and trapped beetles in glass jam jars. Once, while we played around stack of bricks on their patio, a mouse squirmed through a crack in the foundation. Julie squealed. I crushed it with my shoe. Blood squirted across the rust-colored bricks. I became her hero and a villain: the savior of the scared little girl and the brute who killed the fuzzy critter.
Julie lived in a world of opposites. Her mother, the angel. Her father…
But I loved Julie. I still love her even though she’s left for college and I doubt she’ll ever come home. Her dad doesn’t know how much I love her. Not yet.
There are many things her dad doesn’t know, like how much she cried after they found her mom in the car with the engine running and the garage door closed. He doesn’t know that, even as children, we could hear the arguments and shouting and understood the ruddy, flushed look on his face. I doubt he can understand how hard it was for Julie, only thirteen years old, to wrap her young brain around the word suicide. He doesn’t know about the nights Julie snuck from her house and climbed through my bedroom window so we could talk past the witching hour because Julie feared her mother’s ghost.
No. That’s not right. She never feared the ghost. She feared her father. She showed me the bruises. I witnessed the poison from his mouth first hand. We should have told someone, but we were stuck and scared and thirteen. He’d hurt her for so long, I suppose we thought it was normal.
He doesn’t know how hard I raged inside when we went to high school and the girl I knew sloughed away. He hurt her so much, she stopped caring about herself. He will never understand how much I loved her then, even as she found other friends and explored the dark halls of school dances or back country roads with zit-faced monsters from the football team. He can’t possibly comprehend what drove a sixteen-year-old boy to punch the headliner of his truck until the skin of his knuckles ripped away and left raw, bloody meat. All those nights—those dark, lonesome nights when I laid awake, listening for a stone against my window. And Julie would show, sometimes. On those nights, she crawled through my window and told me about how the ape-man quarterback pawed her in the backseat of his car. She told me, still reeking, of the pot and the booze and the parties. She told me because I listened.
He doesn’t know how those talks cut me into tiny pieces. Julie threw herself at the world, hoping to immolate in a quick but glorious inferno. The hurt was always there, wavering underneath her quick-fired gossip. He will never know how much I wanted to lock his daughter in my closet and keep her there, safe, so she didn’t flame out like her mother. Julie destroyed herself by degrees every day. He will never know just how broken his little girl was. Still is, I suppose.
Julie feared she’d follow her mother’s fate. When a father tears a little girl down for years, how else could she feel?
He will never know about prom night our senior year. How Julie and I kissed and explored each other’s bodies, the only time we ever had, but she broke off and cried.
“It’s not you,” she said.
The scars on my knuckles ached. “Of course,” I said.
She looked at me, eyes heavy and wet. “If I could love anyone, it’d be you,” she said.
Julie’s dad doesn’t know about the promise I made on prom night, half-naked in my bed with a girl I loved most of my life, a girl who he’d robbed from me. He doesn’t know his little girl will never come home again. She told me the morning she left, and I believed her. I still do because it hurts like the truth.
It’s for Julie I sit in my truck most nights, watching the lights click off inside her house. He climbs to his bedroom after a six pack each evening. I’ve counted the empties in his garbage in the morning. Six isn’t enough to wipe away old memories. It isn’t enough to quiet the ghosts of his dead wife and broken daughter. I watch her father’s shadow as it moves to the upstairs window. I imagine he’s looking for me or someone like me. A man who spread so much hate has to know it’s coming.
Maybe, in the end, that’s better than a bullet in the gut.
Aaron Polson was born on the Ides of March: a good day for him, unlucky for Julius Caesar. He currently lives and writes in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife, two sons, and a tattooed rabbit. To pay the bills, Aaron attempts to teach high school students the difference between irony and coincidence. His stories have featured magic goldfish, monstrous beetles, and a book of lullabies for baby vampires.