A Short Story by Mark Hall
“Christ!” Daniel McRae’s father cried. The back door slammed shut with such force that it shook the house. “Daniel!” John McRae bellowed, drawing out his son’s name. “Get your ass down here! Now!”
For an instant, all was quiet. Daniel crept from his room at the top of the stairs. On the landing, he froze in the silence. Then, heavy footsteps as his father made his way through the house. “Shit,” Daniel muttered to himself. Quickly, he searched his mind for what could have set his father off this time. His hands shook as he ran them through his mop of dark hair. He gripped the stair rail to steady himself. Then he remembered his bike.
Daniel looked down over the banister in the direction of the kitchen. His face bruised with anger, John stalked his son, one hand gripping a sturdy broom. There were specks of dried blood on its thick handle from the last time he had struck Daniel. Halfway up the stairs, he stopped. “How many times have I told you not to leave that bike in the driveway? How many, goddamn it?”
Daniel was fourteen, slight for his age. There on the landing, he stood several steps above. From this vantage point, his father appeared only slightly less threatening.
“I’ve told you and told you!” John roared. “Put your goddamn things away!”
Daniel took a step back. Cornered, he turned his back to his father and steeled himself. He covered his head with his forearms as John raised the boom with both hands. He struck his son hard, again and again. “Goddamn it!” he shouted with each blow. “Goddamn it! Goddamn it! Goddamn it!”
As the blows struck, Daniel’s mother, Aida-Claire, appeared below. She could have stopped her husband. She knew that Daniel hadn’t just left his bike carelessly in the drive. He’d put it there deliberately, to replace a tube in a flat tire. Daniel had talked to her about it that morning. There wasn’t room enough to work inside the garage. He’d only just finished and left the bike for an instant to run upstairs for his shoes.
But instead of intervening on Daniel’s behalf, Aida-Claire mirrored her husband’s anger. “Your Daddy has told you time and time again not to leave that bike in the driveway,” she echoed. Aida-Claire kept her eyes on John as she spoke. She was performing for him. “Someday, one of us is going to back over it.” She glanced, briefly, at Daniel, her voice trembling, “Then you won’t have a bike.” Daniel registered the fear in his mother’s eyes. He hated her for that. Bile rose in his throat. Aida-Claire was trying to remember her lines. “Maybe,” she added, her voice rising, as in a question, “you shouldn’t have a bike in the first place, if you can’t take care of it.” Like an actor on a stage, she looked to her husband for approval. Whenever his rage exploded, Aida-Claire stood on the sidelines like this, egging him on. Sometimes she’d even pile on additional transgressions from days or even weeks past that Daniel ought to be punished for. If John’s anger was directed at him, Daniel understood, then it wouldn’t be aimed at her. But it wasn’t enough simply to avoid her husband’s wrath herself. Aida-Claire had to become his ally, his accomplice.
His anger exhausted, John threw the broom to the floor below and turned toward the kitchen. For several minutes, Daniel remained still, to be certain it was over. Then, with difficulty, he unfolded. Slowly, he made his way back to his room, leaning against the wall as he went. He was careful not to slam the bedroom door, though he wanted nothing more than to tear it from its hinges. Curled up on his bed, his head throbbing, Daniel caught the sound of his bike as it clattered into the back of his father’s pickup. “Godfucking cunt!” John shouted, as the tailgate failed to catch. Then the truck scratched out of the drive.
The first time Daniel’s father struck him, John and Aida-Claire had been out one evening. Daniel was looking after his little brother, Will, who had had a nightmare. When their parents returned home, Will was in tears, groggy, incoherent, lost between waking and sleep. He cried out from this in-between state. They found Will on the floor, next to his bed. His father concluded that Daniel must have hurt his brother somehow. But that was ridiculous, inconceivable. Daniel would never hurt Will. But John had come for him. He’d pierced Daniel with a low, steely voice: “Go to my room and get the biggest belt you can find.”
By now, Daniel knew well how the next day would go. Ordinarily, on Sunday mornings, the whole family attended church together. But after a Saturday night beating, only Daniel and his father would go, just the two of them. Daniel hated this worse than the beatings, riding silently in the car, alone with his father, sitting next to him through the service, watching him pray, then the mute drive home.
Knowing his father would expect him at the ready, when morning came, Daniel dressed slowly, painfully. He hadn’t left his room since yesterday. Will had brought a sandwich, which Daniel hadn’t touched. His little brother sat on the edge of Daniel’s bed and laid a hand on his hip. He patted Daniel gently for a long time. Will had come to tell Daniel that he’d hidden the broom behind the living room drapes so their father couldn’t hit him anymore. Daniel could not respond. He was sore all over. Even his teeth hurt. He was deep inside himself now. There he would remain. He would not speak, unless prompted. He would not look at his parents tomorrow. Or the next day. Or the day after that. He would give nothing. He would be a blank.
As Pastor Lealand droned on, Daniel ruminated. He’d heard the expression, “This hurts me worse than it hurts you.” Daniel didn’t believe it, but he understood that his father suffered whenever he beat him. Daniel read it on his face, the deep trough between his eyes. That’s why they were at church together in the first place, just the two of them. His father felt guilty. That’s probably what he was praying about right now, Daniel thought. He took pleasure imagining his father’s anguish. How could he add to his pain, Daniel wondered.
He could tell. Daniel could tell a teacher at school how his father beat him. On Monday morning, Daniel could raise his shirt and show the angry welts across his back. By then they’d ripen, purple, black. He could show his teacher, Mrs. Winfield. “My father did this,” he would say. Mrs. Winfield would gasp as her eyes filled with tears.
Among his friends and colleagues, John McRae was respected, well-liked. Out in the world, he was charming, jovial, a successful businessman, a deacon in the church. His family was handsome and happy. But at home, Daniel’s father was silent, brooding. Night after night he sat in a worn leather wingback chair, working a crossword puzzle. From time to time, he cleared nothing from his throat. “Uh, uh, uh, uh, uh.” Daniel hated that sound. He cringed at the thought of it. No one would believe what John McRae did at home behind closed doors. If Daniel told, then maybe he would be removed from his home, he fantasized, taken into care. Even if a foster family was horrible, it would be worth it. It would be worth it to shame his father and mother. She’d be the talk of the next Junior League luncheon. His parents would hate that, all the talk. Imagine the looks they’d get at church next week when word got around.
After church, Daniel put on his headphones and set out to mow the grass. The front lawn was wide and deep and took hours to finish. Normally, he chafed at the task, but not today. Today, Daniel didn’t care, because mowing the lawn gave him an excuse to avoid his parents. This afternoon Daniel took more time than usual, moving slowly, wincing at each turn. His shoulders ached. But he pressed forward into the heat, knowing that afterwards he’d be too exhausted to think, his mind washed clean by the scorching sun and the ordered lines drawn with each pass of the mower.
Midway through, the McRae’s neighbor, Dave, pulled up, a small boat hitched to his truck. It was a Boston Whaler, just like the one they’d rented once on the Gulf. Uncle Dave, who wasn’t really an uncle, had taken Daniel and John fishing at Apalachicola Bay, not long before John began beating Daniel.
Inexperienced with saltwater fishing, the three of them had nevertheless enjoyed themselves immensely. Daniel had been impressed with his father. On the pier at Cedar Springs, a tiny fishing village on the Bay, John McRae seemed at home among the people they met there. He chatted up the old salts to learn where the fish were biting, what lures to use. On the water, John was easy, relaxed. He and Uncle Dave drank beer, while Daniel downed Cokes. They ate sardines from a tin and peed off the back of the boat. They joked and made up fish stories about “Hog-o-rilla,” the big one that got away, again and again. Lines were tangled. Hooks were caught in their hats and fingers. They bled prying them loose. A rod snapped. A pricy reel was lost in the water. They laughed through it all. Then, in the heat of the afternoon, the three of them leapt from the boat to swim in the Gulf. Together with Uncle Dave and his dad, Daniel had felt a part of something, the world of men that had seemed so strange and distant to him before.
John beamed with pride when Daniel caught the largest speckled trout of the day. “My boy,” he said with a wide smile. Afterwards, back at the pier, Uncle Dave showed Daniel how to gut and clean a fish. Daniel could tell that his father was surprised to see how deftly his son handled a knife.
At home, John set a wide, black cauldron of grease on a gas burner in the backyard for a fish fry. Neighbors gathered. The McRaes always put on a good party. Daniel watched with admiration as his father sliced potatoes neatly, with the skins on, then fried them up, at once crisp and tender. Then, without a recipe, John made up a batter of hushpuppies, with onions and jalapenos chopped fine. Before he dropped a fillet into the grease, John held up each one and praised its perfection. “My boy,” he said again, as he told the story of how Daniel had wrestled the big one into the boat, then, later, on the pier, how he had cleaned the entire catch all by himself, like a skilled fishmonger. Looking back on that day, Daniel considered it the happiest time he’d ever spent with his father.
“Nice work.” Uncle Dave said, as he surveyed the half-mown lawn. “What do you think?” He smiled back at the boat and made a sweeping motion with his outstretched hand, as though he were presenting a lavish prize on a game show. “It’s just like the one we rented at Apalachicola Bay.”
Before Daniel could speak, from behind him, John stepped out the front door and down from the porch. “Uncle Dave!” he drawled loudly, a wide smile, all hail-fellow-well-met. Daniel tensed as his father laid a hand across his shoulders, his thumb and forefinger resting lightly around his son’s neck.
“What do you say we take this baby out at the end of the month?” asked Dave. “Your Mama says your birthday’s coming up, Dan. Let’s make a day of it. Bring home that Hog-o-rilla this time.”
John squeezed Daniel’s neck slightly. Daniel stiffened. “Yes, sir,” he said to Uncle Dave.
At school on Monday morning, Daniel didn’t tell. Nor the next day either. As one day led to another, he found that he had folded so completely inward that now it was difficult to imagine turning out again. In his mind’s eye, he could see the scene in vivid detail: the raising of his shirt, the turn of his back to his teacher, Mrs. Winfield. Her eyes would widen. Tears would well up. Her doughy fingers would reach toward Daniel to touch the ugly bruises, tentatively, gently. Then Mrs. Winfield would pull him to her. She was a big, expansive woman. Daniel would wince in her fierce, soft embrace. He might cry too, as he gave himself over to her protection. But Daniel could not summons up the words to tell her what was happening at home.
The next time John struck his son, Daniel had been sitting at the kitchen table, shelling peas, while Aida-Claire stirred a pot on the stove. More than two weeks had passed since the last beating. Tensions had lifted, though Daniel, wary, continued to steer clear of his father. But he and his mother were mostly back to their old selves. Daniel enjoyed watching her cook. She was relaxed at the stove, organized, efficient. She could juggle lots of tasks at once with calm. Whenever they were alone together in the kitchen, theirs was a quick, easy, banter. They teased one another often. They laughed. Aida-Claire confided in Daniel, sometimes airing complaints about his father. Daniel enjoyed her confidence, which made him feel grown up.
On this evening, Daniel had said something joking to his mother. John had walked in at the tail end of Daniel’s remark. He hadn’t liked whatever he thought he heard. Then, in a flash, John was on him. That’s the way it was. One moment, calm. The next, pure rage. From zero to ninety in an instant. Anything might set him off. In his unpredictable volatility, John McRae was utterly predictable. He snatched Daniel up by his arm. His grip was fierce. Daniel was up and out of his seat before he knew it. The chair clattered to the floor. The peas overturned. “I won’t have you talk to your Mother in that tone of voice,” John shouted.
“What? What did I say?” Daniel screamed, his voice high, breaking. Already he could not remember his own words. He could not reconstruct the conversation he and his mother had been having. His heart pounded in his ears. He opened his mouth to defend himself. “I, I . . .” But nothing would come. Daniel looked to his mother. She would explain. It was just an innocent joke. She hadn’t been bothered by it at all. But Aida-Claire’s mouth was a straight line. Still holding a wooden spoon in the air, she would not meet Daniel’s pleading gaze.
John dragged Daniel out the kitchen door and into the backyard. He took a wide stance and held his fists up in front of him like a boxer. “Put up your dukes, boy!” he demanded.
His father’s pose, his words, struck Daniel, unexpectedly, as comical. Surprising not only John but also himself, Daniel erupted into bitter laughter. “You wanna hit me? Is that what you want?” Daniel laughed. He looked at his father squarely now. His dark eyes, the mirror of John McRae’s, narrowed. Laughing at his father, Daniel discovered in that moment, diminished him. Suddenly Daniel felt strong, commanding, and so he continued to provoke. “You wanna hit me, big man?” he taunted. “That make you feel powerful? Big man gonna beat up a fourteen-year-old kid?” Daniel’s own fists were balled tightly at his sides. His voice was low and steady now. He pressed, “Beat up a kid. That make your dick hard, big man?”
The next day, Daniel woke with a glistening black eye. He smiled wryly as he examined it in the bathroom mirror. He laughed again, the same bitter laugh he had laughed the night before, seconds before his father decked him.
Later, at school that day, Daniel told anyone who asked that he’d hit a pothole and gone head over handlebars on his bike. He hadn’t told anyone that he no longer had a bike.
With the black eye, something had shifted in Daniel. He was no longer afraid of his father. He could see his weakness clearly now. After he had laughed at him, Daniel had felt something rise up inside of himself and break loose.
Nevertheless, Daniel continued to brood about his father’s increasing violence, an endless loop of white-hot resentment, turning over and over again in his mind. Early on, his father had demanded, at the slightest provocation, “Go to my room and get the biggest belt you can find.” John knew which one he meant. So did Daniel, who learned quickly that the beating would only be worse if he chose the wrong belt. The broom had come later, then anything close at hand, once an extension cord, another time a brass candlestick. Only lately had John pared down to bare knuckles.
Daniel puzzled over the why of his father’s behavior. What had he done wrong, Daniel wondered. Aida-Claire had tried to explain once. She reminded Daniel that John had lost his own father when he was only eight years old. The grandfather Daniel had never known had died of a heart attack in his mid-thirties. “And so, you see,” his mother had said, “your Daddy doesn’t know how to be a father, because he never really had one himself. He doesn’t know what to do with a teenage boy. He’s afraid. Afraid you’ll challenge him. Afraid you’ll outstrip him, outshine him.”
To Daniel, this sounded more like an excuse than an explanation. His mother was merely propping up her husband, taking his side again. If he was a threat to his father, Daniel reasoned, then before long he would come for his brother, Will, too. Will was only eight. His father had not yet hurt Will. But he would. Daniel would kill his father first, before he’d let him do to Will what he’d done to him.
The night before their fishing trip, Daniel was lying in bed, when through his noise-cancelling headphones he heard a shriek from the bathroom that separated his bedroom from Will’s. His brother had been splashing in the tub, sloshing water onto the floor. It had soaked clear through to the downstairs, leaving a dark stain on the silk wallpaper in the dining room below.
His father had surprised Will, still naked in the tub, beating him violently with a hairbrush. “Goddamn it! Goddamn it! Goddamn it!” he roared.
The next morning, Daniel and his father and Uncle Dave were to leave in the dark hours well before dawn, driving south to Apalachicola Bay. They would be on the water by daybreak. Dave’s boat was too small for the open ocean, Aida-Claire had worried. It wasn’t safe. She wouldn’t think of letting Will go along. He was too small, she insisted. After last night, Daniel thought, Will wouldn’t have wanted to spend the day with their father anyway.
In the kitchen, Daniel tiptoed around his father, making sandwiches, packing the cooler, gathering up their gear. Already on edge, he startled at a knock on the kitchen door. Outside in the dark was Dave’s wife, Sara. Still in her nightgown and slippers, damp from the wet grass, she’d come over to say that Dave was too sick to go fishing. He’d eaten a bad oyster last night, she thought. But Daniel and John should go on without him. The boat was all loaded up and hitched. She handed Daniel the keys to Dave’s truck. “He won’t be going anywhere today,” she said, as she turned on the stoop. “Happy birthday, kiddo. You two have fun.”
Daniel smiled weakly. “Yes, ma’am,” he said. His stomach tightened, as he thought of the long, seething day alone with his father. Without Uncle Dave as a buffer, Daniel wished that he himself had eaten the bad oyster.
The drive south was silent, tense. Daniel put on his headphones and tried to sleep. But he was too restless, and so he only pretended to doze, his eyes closed, nothing in his ears but his own thoughts. He’d been wide-awake most of the night, trembling with rage about Will and the hairbrush. After his parents had shut themselves behind their bedroom door, Daniel had crept into his brother’s room, where he spooned him up in his arms, still teary, trembling, gasping from time to time, until Will finally drifted off into a fitful sleep.
As soon as John stepped out onto the pier at Cypress Springs, it was as if he had flipped a switch. He was at home on the water. It was early yet, still dim. A few old salts were tying chicken necks into tattered crab baskets and tossing them off the rickety pier. John talked tide charts and wind speeds with a toothless old man, so brown and weather-beaten he looked like a desiccated leather bag, washed ashore from some distant land.
Daniel stood beside his father, gazing out over the Gulf, John’s hand resting lightly on his neck. “My boy,” John said to the old man with pride, “Turning fifteen today. Near ‘bout grown, he drawled. He’s gone land a hog-o-rilla today!” For catching speckled trout, the small, wizened man recommended a white rubber grub with a weighted red head and a double salmon hook. He rooted through a battered tackle box and handed Daniel a small packet of lures. “Good luck catching that hog,” he said with a wink.
Daniel remained taut until he and his father had successfully launched the boat. This was just the sort of cooperative task that could easily go wrong and set his John off. Not until he settled into the bow of the boat did Daniel take his first deep breath of salt air. His father stood behind the wheel and sped, full throttle, toward the open Gulf. Daniel braced himself as the small craft bounced against the chop. One hard bump, he thought, might catapult Daniel right out of the boat. His mother had been right: The Boston Whaler was too small to be safe on the open water. With the wind in his ears, Daniel was both afraid and exhilarated in equal measure.
The first pink rays of sun peeking up from the east, John brought the Whaler to a stop and they dropped their lines. After some time, Daniel could feel a loosening inside himself. He could see from his father’s smooth, easy casting that he, too, was relaxing. They both enjoyed the quiet. On the water, the silence wasn’t strained, as it had been on the drive down, as it always was at home. Here, the silence was purposeful, attentive. The only sounds were the gentle lapping of the water against the hull, the occasional plop of their lures on the surface, a light breeze in their ears.
There was nothing to talk about until something powerful struck Daniel’s line. He popped up his rod sharply to stick the hook. John leapt up and grabbed a net. Sparked with adrenaline, for several minutes Daniel wrestled, expertly reeling in, then releasing the slack to tire the creature out. His arms began to throb, but Daniel remained cool and steady. His father praised and encouraged. “That’s it. Bring that hog in,” he coaxed. When a streak of white flashed alongside the boat. John leaned over and scooped up a shark, nearly eighteen inches long. “My boy,” he said with pride, as he held it up by the tail. Daniel didn’t want to care, but, in spite of himself, he felt the warm rush of his father’s approval.
This jolt of excitement shook both Daniel and John out of themselves. As morning turned to afternoon, they talked a little, then a little more. They talked about college and Daniel’s interest in veterinary school. His father knew a local veterinarian from his business-networking group, who might be willing to take Daniel on as an intern. Daniel was pleased when John offered to arrange for them to meet next week.
When the sun rose high above, Daniel and his father raised the Bimini top and retreated under the shade. At lunchtime, they devoured their sandwiches. John pointed out that they’d packed beer enough for two, expecting Uncle Dave to be along with them. He offered a can to Daniel. “Just one,” he said, looking over the top of his sunglasses, raising his eyebrows. “You’ll be drinking on the sly soon enough,” he smiled. “Happy birthday, kid.”
“Cheers,” Daniel said, looking at his shoes.
They clinked their cans together. Daniel had tried beer once before, but he didn’t much care for the taste. He drank anyway, to please his father.
Daniel considered the moment. This day met up with other joyful days, though Daniel had to search for them now, when he had been happy in the company of his father, like the first fishing trip with Uncle Dave. But too many other days, terrible days, had stacked up against him and made Daniel wary. Anything could shatter the calm. Daniel might say or do the wrong thing at any moment. And when he did, his father’s rage would flash. His voice, that howl, “Christ!” like a wounded animal, would make Daniel whither. Then the bottom would drop out. Thinking of it now made Daniel nervous. The sweat turned cold on his back. Suddenly, he felt trapped on the tiny boat, alone with his father.
When it became too hot to fish any longer, John tossed over a small anchor and he and Daniel leapt into the water. By now, they’d tried several spots with mixed results. As the day wore on, they’d traveled further and further out into the Gulf. Closer in, near the shore, they could see the bottom clearly, even stand in the open water in some places, the sea grass tickling their legs. But now they were far out, where the water was much deeper, colder. They could barely see land now.
Once in the water, Daniel thought of the small shark he’d caught that morning. Where there were small sharks, there were large ones. He climbed back into the boat and dosed under the Bimini top. The beer had made him drowsy. When his head nodding snapped him awake, Daniel scanned the surface of the water, searching for his father. He found him in the distance, floating on his back. John had drifted far from the boat. If Daniel closed one eye, he could almost make him disappear.
Daniel’s mind turned again to his brother, Will, and to the hairbrush of the night before. He ground his teeth.
Just then, his father waved, swam a few strokes, then returned to floating on his back. Daniel closed one eye and made him disappear again. He thought about starting the motor and making his way toward his father. John was a strong, confident swimmer, but here the current was stronger. He had drifted too far to make it back to the boat on his own.
Daniel could make his way toward his father, he considered. Or he could turn the boat in the opposite direction, toward the shore. He held this thought for several minutes, like a delicate sharp object cupped in his hands. He unspooled the idea. There were no other boats nearby, none in his field of vision. There was no one to call for help. Their cell phones were back on shore in Dave’s truck. There would be no reception this far out in the open water. How long, Daniel wondered, could his father swim in the open Gulf? How long before he got a cramp, or just tired out? Daniel would need to take his time getting back to shore to call for help. Anything could happen. His father might have been drunk when he went in for a swim. Daniel could pour out several more beers on the way back to shore. Maybe his father had drunk all the beer, intended for Uncle Dave and himself. Or maybe his father had had a heart attack while swimming. Anything could happen. His father had been there, floating on the water, and then he wasn’t, Daniel would report. He had searched and searched, he would say. He hadn’t given up, even when a late afternoon thunderstorm rolled in. Only when night began to fall did Daniel return to shore.
Daniel looked up and considered the darkening sky. He scanned the surface of the water again. It was becoming choppy. Thunder rumbled low in the distance. When he spotted his father again, Daniel closed one eye and made him disappear once more.
Then Daniel pulled in the anchor and lowered the outboard motor. He turned the key in the ignition and the engine sputtered to life, belching a cloud of blue smoke and fumes. The sound of the motor caught in his father’s ear. He popped up and waved vigorously, this time motioning for Daniel to swing around and pick him up. Daniel stood and waved back. He smiled. He turned and squinted toward the shoreline, then back at his father. Daniel put one hand on the wheel, and with the other, he pressed the throttle lever.
Mark Hall is a professor of writing, rhetoric, and digital studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His creative nonfiction has appeared in The Timberline Review, Lunch Ticket, Passengers Journal, the Sand Hills Literary Magazine, Hippocampus, The Forth River, and others.