DONALD LEANED OVER the chipped railing, aiming his grabber at a Cheetos bag snagged between some rocks. Hot sulfur rose from the mudpot below, warming his face and stinging his eyes. The bag flapped just out of reach. He looked around.
He wasn’t supposed to cross the railing without another ranger present, but he’d been working this part of West Yellowstone for eight years and had never seen someone get scalded by a patch of warm mud.
He swung a leg over the railing and stepped down onto the other side. The heat prickled his hands and he held onto the railing to prevent his boots from sinking further into the soggy ground. He reached with the grabber, swatting at the bag until a corner poked out. Positioning the wrapper between its tongs, he snapped the grabber shut.
He turned. James was standing there with his hand on his walkie, hat tied neatly under his double chin. Donald swung himself back over the railing and held out the captured bag.
“Look at this shit,” he said. “There’s a trash can ten feet away.”
“Were you behind the railing?”
Donald crumpled the bag in his hand. “There wasn’t anyone around.”
“I didn’t realize.”
James fiddled with the walkie. “You need to be more careful,” he said.
“I’m sorry. I just got back.”
“It’s been a month.”
Donald looked back to the bubbling mud. It had a greenish sheen, like a layer of spilled gasoline. “I’m sorry,” he said again.
“Stay behind the railing,” James told him, then walked away.
Donald flung the crumpled bag into the bin and clamped the lid on with a clang. Ever since Robin died, it seemed like he couldn’t do anything right. Even after her parents left with the boxes, he felt as if he were still tripping over things of hers, never fully able to right himself. He thought it was unfair how much her death continued to affect him, considering the aneurysm had hit two days before they were scheduled to file for divorce.
In order to avoid James, he took the long trail back. By the time he got to his truck, it was 5:45. Ethan’s daycare had ended 15 minutes ago. Trying not to look at the clock, he got in his truck and pulled out of the parking lot and onto the long road towards town.
id-September and the gray Montana sky stretched wide overhead, cool and uncaring. Sun filtered through gaps in the western mountains, shooting rays through the fuzzy clouds. He hummed tunelessly, feeling his chest vibrate like another gear in the truck.
Donald slowed the car as he reached town, turning at the first stoplight and pulling into the parking lot for the daycare, a short, gray building with a rainbow sign. The lot was almost empty, so he parked in front and jogged into the empty building, saying a silent prayer that he was not the last one to pick up a kid.
He was. When he stepped into the office, Ethan was sitting on the floor, stacking oversized Legos. Lauren, the head of the daycare, shut her computer and stood up. She was stocky and blonde, with pale eyes and a serious face.
“I’m sorry,” Donald said. “Have you been here long?”
“No, no. I had to get some work done.” She shouldered her bag. “Ethan, you ready to go home?”
Ethan stuck out his tongue. Even though he was two, he rarely talked. His pediatrician said that this sometimes happened after a traumatic event but if it kept up for longer than a few months, they’d have to “take action.” Donald tried to talk to Ethan as much as he could, but Ethan usually ignored him.
“You’re ready to go, aren’t you? Did you have a good day?” He picked up the boy, who immediately began squirming, reaching for the Legos.
“Does he want to take some of those home?” Lauren asked.
“No.” Donald blushed, shifting Ethan to his other arm. “We have plenty of toys. Thanks.”
“It’s no problem.”
Donald’s stomach clenched with anger. He didn’t need Lauren feeling sorry for him. “We’re fine, really.”
Ethan began to cry.
“We’d better go,” he said. “How much is the late pickup charge, again?”
Lauren shook her head. “It’s okay,” she said.
“No, please.” He tried to reach into his pocket, but Ethan was wriggling and kept kicking his hands.
“It’s okay. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Lauren waved.
Ethan began pulling at the hairs on Donald’s arm. He couldn’t fend off both forces at once.
“Thanks,” he said to Lauren, gritting his teeth. “It won’t happen again.”
She smiled. “Have a good night!”
Donald carried his son out of the room, grimacing.
As soon as they reached the parking lot, Ethan stopped kicking. He laid his head on Donald’s shoulder and sighed.
“Tough day?” Donald asked, opening the door to the truck and buckling Ethan into his carseat. When he leaned in to check the seatbelt, he smelled sour milk.
“Did you spill something on your chair?” He felt around the sides of the carseat. “Where did it go?” He patted across the floor, but the wind began to bite at his exposed neck so he gave up and shut the door.
“You could try telling me yes or no,” Donald said when he got back in the car, looking at Ethan in the rearview mirror. “I know you know what I’m saying.”
Ethan turned away and Donald felt guilty. “Let’s listen to the radio,” he said.
When they pulled into the driveway, Donald saw a package propped up against the front door. He felt the knot inside him loosen.
“You know what this is?” he said as he carried Ethan up the steps. “This is your dad getting something right for once.” He set Ethan down and the boy grabbed for it.
“Box?” Donald said, holding it above him. “Can you say box?” Ethan wrinkled his nose. “How about snowsuit? Do you remember snow?”
Last winter, Robin would take Ethan out on the porch to throw snowballs at Donald when he came home from work. But Robin seemed to throw harder and harder as the winter wore on, until Donald asked, are you really trying to hurt me? and she didn’t answer.
“You’re way too big for last year’s,” he said, “So we had to get you a new one.” He peeled off a string of tape. Now, let’s see how—” He opened the flaps. “Oh, Jesus.”
The snowsuit was hot pink. Covered with fuchsia flowers and sparkly piping on every seam, it looked like it had been designed by the architect that had created Barbie’s Dream House.
“I swear to God,” Donald told his son, who was patting the air bubble filter that had come in the packaging, “I clicked on red.”
Ethan pushed down on the bubble with both hands.
“Stop! You’re going to pop it. And we’re going to need all that shit when we return it. Sorry. Stuff. But what does it matter? It’s not like you’re going to repeat it.” He grabbed the packing materials out of his son’s hands, stuffed them back in the box with the pink garment, then shoved the box on top of the fridge.
Ethan looked like he was trying to decide whether or not to cry. Donald sighed.
“Look, you can’t have that one,” he said. “It’ll make us both look like idiots.”
“We’ll get you a new one tomorrow,” he said. “Maybe blue. Okay?”
Ethan put his fingers in his mouth.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” Donald said.
Later that night, after he’d put Ethan to bed and done most of the dishes, he went outside for a cigarette. After Robin died, he’d made a lot of promises to himself about staying healthy, but this habit was tough to break. The air had turned from cool to cold, and his breath floated up silver through the black night.
He looked out over the backyard. Brown weeds ran across the ground, pressing up against the tall white fence Robin had painted herself. She’d planted all the trees, too—apple, pear, and boxwood—and dug the hole for Ethan’s sandbox. In the last month, when they’d stopped fighting and begun to talk logistics, they’d agreed that she would be the one to stay here. Even now, it felt like he was trespassing.
He looked up. The moon hung big over the jagged peaks of the Crazies, bright against the clear, dark sky. He stood motionless until the cigarette burned to his fingertips, and then he dropped it on the ground, angry and awake. It was too cold to be outside anymore. He hugged himself and walked back in, shivering.
The next morning, Donald awoke to snow falling fast past his window. The sun shone bright white through the flakes, making the room look sterile. He burrowed back into sleep for a moment, then sat up as if someone had shocked him. The snowsuit. Oh, fuck.
He wrapped his arms around himself as he walked down the hall to Ethan’s room. It was 6:05. Even if he were able to get his son out the door in twenty minutes, what store would be open this early? Wal-Mart was fifteen miles in the opposite direction. Maybe he could take a sick day….
But he’d already taken all his sick days back in May for the funeral, and then two more unpaid ones when Ethan got that rash in July. If he took off today, it was another week of PB&J’s for both of them. So he picked up Ethan and brought him to the window to look out.
“Do you see that?” he asked, trying to sound cheerful. “Isn’t it pretty?”
Ethan blinked, frowning.
“I know, I know. I want to go back to bed too. But let’s go get ready.”
Ethan squirmed all morning. He wiggled onto the dirty diaper that Donald had set down on the table; he kicked out of his chair at breakfast, knocking his oatmeal onto the floor; and when Donald tried to thread his legs into the pink snowsuit, he went completely limp.
“No,” Donald said, bunching up the leg holes to try to coax him through. “No, you have to put it on. I know it looks like—” He popped one leg through, then began guiding the other one “—crap, but we’re still going to get you a new one and it’ll be great.” He pulled Ethan’s arms through, then zipped him up. His son stood there, sucking his fingers, looking like an unhappy Energizer Bunny.
“What do you think?” he asked.
Ethan picked at a plastic flower.
“We’ll keep the tags on,” Donald said.
When their truck reached the front of the carpool lane, Lauren came up to meet them.
“Ready to go?” she asked, opening the back door.
Donald didn’t say anything, but watched as Lauren’s face turned from shock to composure as she took in Ethan’s outfit.
“Looks like you’re ready to play outside,” she said.
“Amazon sent us the wrong color.”
“I think it’s cute.”
Donald scowled. “We’re returning it.”
“All that matters is it’s warm,” Lauren said, unbuckling Ethan and setting him down on the sidewalk. “Everyone make mistakes.”
“Yeah, well this one wasn’t my fault.” He frowned. He sounded like an asshole. “Sorry.”
Lauren shrugged, then turned to Ethan. “Say goodbye to daddy!”
Donald watched for a second as Ethan stood there staring, then drove off.
The snow was still falling when he pulled onto the gravel road to the park. Steam rose over each geyser, marking them with hovering white clouds. He got out of the truck and pulled on his hat, stomping his boots against the cold.
The visitors’ center was deserted, so Donald sat behind the counter and began flipping through an Audubon guide. A few minutes later, James entered, hanging his hat on the hook next to the door.
“No one out on the trails yet,” he said, rubbing his pudgy hands together. “Just checked.”
“I know. There aren’t any cars in the lot.”
“What about cyclists?”
“In this weather?”
“You should always check for cyclists.”
Donald narrowed his eyes. “Why would I if I know you’re just going to do it anyway?”
James ran a hand through his thinning hair. “You need to be more careful,” he said stiffly, as if he’d rehearsed this. “It looks like you don’t care about your job.”
Donald almost shot back, and what if I fucking don’t, but saw that James’s hands were trembling. Would James really fire him? He might.
“I’m sorry,” he said to James’s wet socks.
James grinned, obviously relieved. “That’s no problem,” he said. “Anyway, I was thinking today would be a great day to give this place a good cleaning.”
Donald blinked. They had cleaned three weeks ago.
“Books or bathrooms?” James asked.
“Bathrooms, I guess.”
“Really? That’s brave!” James said, and chuckled.
Donald left for the supply closet without a word. As he mixed the bleach into the mopping bucket, he tried to shake the heavy feeling pressing in around his neck. He was tired, bored, lonely. If James said anything else in that cheery voice, he may slug him. He’d never felt so hopeless, not when Robin said she was done with him, not when her coworkers phoned him to say she’d collapsed, not when her parents came and held Ethan, sobbing. All that had happened, and he was depressed because he had to clean the shitter?
He slopped water onto the floor and watched it spread, turning the brown tiles dark. His reflection stared back at him, pale and wobbly. Was his hairline always that high? Were his eyes always so droopy? He was turning around to get a look at himself in the mirror when James flung open the door, startling him so much he dropped the mop. It clattered on the floor.
“What the hell?”
“Don, phone for you. She says it’s an emergency.”
“Who is it?”
Great. These kinds of emergencies usually ended with him driving back to the daycare with a change of pants. He hoped whatever it was had ruined that goddamn snowsuit.
He took the phone from James. “Hello?” he said. “What’s up?”
Lauren sniffed. His irritation vanished.
“Lauren,” he said. “What happened?”
“Ethan,” she said. “He’s lost.”
He switched the phone to his other ear as if this time he’d hear something different.
“What?” he asked. “Where is he?”
“No one knows,” she said, voice shaking. “We took them outside, and someone must have left the gate open, or maybe he opened it himself…”
“He’s two,” Donald said.
“I don’t know,” Lauren said. “I don’t know. The fire department is coming.”
Donald looked out of the high bathroom widow. Snow was falling fast.
“We’ll call you right back,” Lauren said.
“No,” he said. “Wait there. I’ll be down in a minute.”
The empty road was pale with snow. Gauzy clouds hung low over the white fields and a deafening silence pressed in all around him. The smell of sour milk hung in his nostrils. He rolled down the window and winced as blades of wind cut at his face, but didn’t roll it back up. He always held his breath in movies when someone went underwater to see if they were going to drown.
“No one is going to fucking drown,” he said aloud.
The fire truck had already arrived when he reached the parking lot, wedged between the short buses, red light dyeing the falling snow like blood. He left his hat in the car and ran inside.
Lauren was at the back of the building in her peacoat, talking to a firefighter. She had stopped crying but her eyes were still red. When Donald reached her, she touched his arm with a gloved hand. “Look, Donald, I am so sorry—”
He stepped away. “Which way did he go?” he asked.
Lauren pointed off across the fenced-in playground. The backs of six firefighters were fading into the flying snow. Past them, a stand of aspen trees waved silently, embossed woods on white paper.
“I’m going with them,” he said. She didn’t say anything.
“Bring your cell phone,” the firefighter told him.
He pushed through the gate and out into the thin line of grass that separated the playground from the trees. Had Ethan been angry or lonely? Or excited? Did he remember throwing snowballs with Robin? Was he looking for her? Furious, he kicked the snow in front of him until it sprayed up like surf.
“Ethan!” he called. “Ethan!”
If the firefighters could hear him, they didn’t turn. He reached the edge of the woods and stumbled onward.
The trees stretched out on all sides of him. A forest of aspens shared a root system like a fungus; acres of them could be part of the same organism. He tore at the branches that waved near his face. Does that fucking hurt? he asked the tree. Aloud, he shouted Ethan’s name.
Where would the boy have gone? All directions looked the same, the ground a mass of trunks emerging from mounds of snow that now reached his knees. It was maddeningly still. He couldn’t even hear birds.
The boy couldn’t have gotten far, but what if he’d fallen into a drift or tripped on a rock? What if he was lying somewhere, listening but unable to answer? I’ll talk to you so much, Donald promised. I’ll talk to you more than Robin ever did.
He scowled as he continued into the woods. This was Robin’s fault.
She’d taught Ethan to hate him. That sounded ludicrous even as he thought it, but he couldn’t stop. She wanted to take Ethan from him.
He began digging through drifts with his bare hands. His knuckles ached, then burned. “Ethan!” he screamed. “Ethan!” He wiped his dripping hands on his wet pants. He was shaking all over. Feeling like he was going to throw up, he stumbled on.
“Ethan, I have Legos!” he shouted. “Legos and candy!” He tried not to sound so desperate. Ethan was probably hiding from him, and why wouldn’t he? What had Donald done for him except pick him up late each day and buy him stupid-looking clothes? “C’mere buddy, I’ll get you a puppy! Don’t you want to have a puppy?” He didn’t even know if Ethan wanted a puppy. His throat burned but he just kept screaming things he thought Ethan would want. “Disneyworld, Ethan! Disneyworld, Dora, Skittles! C’mon, just come out and you can have some Skittles! Mmmm, Skittles!” He looked around. The woods stretched out in every direction, fading to gray in the snowstorm.
“I’ll get you anything!” he shouted. “What do you want? What do you fucking—want?”
But he didn’t know what his son wanted. He looked up into the bare trees and above them, the roiling sky. He felt small. His legs were shaking. Even his armpits felt cold.
“I am such a goddamn failure,” he said aloud.
It took him a moment to realize that his phone was ringing. He shoved his swollen hand into his pocket and tried to answer it but his fingers were too cold to register. He pressed his lips against the answer button. Lauren’s voice came out.
“Donald? Donald, we found him.”
“Can you hear me? He’s okay. Donald?”
Every part of him began to shiver.
He clenched his teeth together. “Is he all right?”
“Yeah, yeah. Just fine. They found him in a creek bed, he’d been playing there the whole time. I don’t even think he knew he was lost.”
Donald nodded, even though he knew she couldn’t see. His throat felt fused shut. He leaned against the nearest tree.
“Are you okay?”
“Can you find your way back?”
Lauren paused. “Donald? It’s a good thing he was wearing something so bright. They said that coat made him easy to spot.”
Donald turned off the phone and tried to smile. His lips cracked and his face felt like rubber. I’ll quit smoking, he thought, trudging back through the snow. I’ll teach Ethan how to talk. He picked up speed as he went, brushing the snow from his face. I’ll cook healthy, pick him up on time, make good with James. He began to feel warmth spread through his chest and shoulders. I’ll get a puppy. Hell, we could go to Disneyworld.
Heart pounding, he emerged out of the woods, buoyed by promises he knew he would not keep.
Poem of the Week
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Poem For A Friend In Prison:
by A.D. Winans
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