Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 420 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories, Sand, Rain, Heat, The Tales of Talker Knock and 50 Short Stories: The Very Best of Steve Carr, and LGBTQ: 33 Stories, and The Theory of Existence: 50 Short Stories, published. His paranormal/horror novel Redbird was released in November, 2019. His plays have been produced in several states in the U.S. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice. His Twitter is @carrsteven960. His website is https://www.stevecarr960.com / He is on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/steven.carr.35977
From the back porch of Ted Hasting’s farmhouse, looking out across the broad expanse of golden prairie grass, the Badlands formations rose up from the dry earth like a slain leviathan, stretched out across the horizon, decaying under the intensity of a late summer sun. As clouds drifted across the early morning sky, they cast slowly creeping shadows on the formations, altering the colors of the rocks, turning them from brown to yellow to purple and back to brown again. Since his childhood some fifty years before, Ted had often stood at that very spot, leaning against the railing, observing the same scene. The view had lost none of its power; it overwhelmed him, taking his breath away, smothering him with its grandeur. Lost in thought, it was Jigger’s barking that aroused him from being mesmerized. The loud chorus of humming grasshoppers washed over him as if they had just arrived on the scene en masse. He brushed one from the sleeve of his shirt and then scanned the nearby prairie in search of the dog.
Behind him, Karla, his wife, pushed open the screen door and stood looking at his back – bowed as if carrying an immense weight on his shoulders – for several moments before saying anything. “The funeral service is in an hour. You better get ready,” she intoned.
“I’m not going,” he replied. His voice was raspy, the result of several days of saying little at all.
Jigger bounded out of the tall grass that bordered the dirt of the back yard and ran to the porch, carrying a squirming rabbit in its gently clenched jaws. It hunted the animals that inhabited the prairie, but never intentionally killed them. The dog stood at the bottom of the stairs for a few moments, and after not getting any attention, let the rabbit go, but kept an eye on it as it returned to the grass. The dog then plopped onto its stomach and whined softly, its tongue lolling from its mouth as it stared up at Ted.
“Don’t be difficult, Ted,” Karla said. “Not today. Not today of all days.”
Ted straightened up, as if suddenly discovering his skeleton wasn’t made of jelly. The grasshoppers roared in his ears. The sweat that had run in rivulets down his spine and sides turned to ice water. He had every intention of being difficult, and then he turned about and looked at Karla. Her frailty, the paleness of her face, the way her brushed hair was still slightly disheveled, alarmed him.
“Are you going to be okay?” He wanted her to say “yes” even if she didn’t mean it.
“No, I’m not. I’ll never be okay ever again.” She turned and went back into the house letting the screen door slam behind her.
It was then he had another vision of his son, Cooper, just as he had several visions of the boy in the preceding days. This time Cooper was around age twelve and standing at the screen door, looking out. He was wearing a Superman costume, the costume he wore to a friend’s birthday party.
The morning of that birthday party Ted stepped through the tall grass with his hunting rifle cradled in his arms. The air was crisp, cool and damp and clung to his face like chilled cellophane. In the distance inside the borders of the Badlands National Park a small herd of buffalo kicked up a small cloud of dust as they thundered across the plain in a rare display of excitement. Spooked by his approaching footsteps, two quail flew up from the grass a few feet ahead of him. He raised his gun, aimed and shot, but missed. The birds alighted back into the grass, disappearing from sight. He turned and looked over his shoulder at Cooper who was following several yards behind. He had the red cape from the Superman costume tied around his neck. He pulled his newly acquired Golden Retriever puppy, Jigger, along on a leash. The pup tugged at the leash, more intent on playing than obediently following the boy.
Ted stopped and waited for Cooper to catch up. His love for his son was sometimes unbearably intense; it made him want to weep. The boy’s nose and cheek were rosy, reddened by the frosty weather. He wore a ballcap that he had painted on the bill in bright red poster paint the letter “S.” Mufflers hung from both sides of the cap, covering his ears.
When Cooper reached his father, he looked up at him. “You missed,” he said, nodding toward where the quail had flown to.
“I do that a lot,” Ted replied. “I’ve never been good a good shot.”
“Do you think it hurts?”
Ted glanced the direction where he had seen the buffalo. They were out of sight. “I suppose it does,” he answered.
Jigger ran around the boy’s legs, winding the leash around them. Cooper bent down, unwound the leash, and picked up the puppy. He looked at his father who was staring at him in that way he did sometimes, as if he were about to cry. “Superman is invincible,” he said. “Being shot wouldn’t hurt him.”
“He’s lucky,” Ted replied.
The boy kicked at the ground with the tip of his left cowboy boot. Without looking at his father, he asked, “Do you think Superman’s feelings ever get hurt? Is he invincible in that way too?”
“I don’t know,” Ted replied. “Feelings are complicated.” He glanced the direction of the farm, only its red barn partly discernible. “We should start back. Your mother didn’t want me to tire you out. You have that party you’re going to later.”
Cooper nuzzled the puppy’s neck. “Dad, is it okay that I have feelings about other boys?”
“What kind of feelings?”
Cooper shrugged. “Just feelings.”
Ted’s pickup truck bounced up and down on the dirt road leading from his farm to the paved road that led to the town of Wall. Jigger sat between Ted and Karla, his paws resting on the dashboard, his nose pressed against the windshield. Ted’s window was rolled down and hot air filled with the scent of prairie – dry earth and grass – blew in, tugging at his freshly ironed white shirt. Karla sat with her head resting against her window. Her eyes were closed and had been from the moment they left the driveway of their house. Ted couldn’t look at Karla; her retreats into despair frightened him in a way nothing else had ever done.
Within minutes after pulling on to the paved road there was a loud popping noise from the back left side of the truck and then the entire truck began to shake. Ted smacked the steering wheel with the palm of his hand. “A damned flat,” he muttered. He pulled the truck to the side of the road and waited for several moments, staring at the long stretch of road ahead, before getting out. Jigger followed, jumping out behind Ted, running around the truck and dashing into the field alongside the road.
He removed his tie – the one Cooper had given him years before with the Superman logo on it – and hung it over the driver side mirror and then went to the back of the truck, kicking the flattened tire with his boot along the way, lowered the tailgate and then jumped up into the truck bed to get the spare tire secured behind the back window. Between the brackets of the gun rack affixed to the window behind the seat he watched as Karla opened her white leather purse, the one she used only for special occasions, and took out a small bundle wrapped in white tissue paper. She slowly peeled back the paper and laid in her lap the neatly folded red cape of Cooper’s Superman costume. He let the freed tire drop to the floor, and unable to hold it back, leaned over the side of the truck bed, and threw up.
Jigger hopped out of the grass, and with his tail wagging, sat on his haunches and displayed the young, wriggling groundhog he held in his mouth.
Ted set the tire on its treads and rolled it to the end of the truck bed. He then pushed it off the tailgate and watched as it bounced several times in the gravel and then came to rest in a shallow ditch. He sat on the lowered gate and watched the white contrails of a jet scar the bright blue sky as it went from east to west. He had given up smoking years before, nagged into doing so by Cooper, but he suddenly wanted a cigarette as badly as if his life depended on it.
“You’re my Superman, Dad,” Cooper told him when he said he didn’t think he could stop smoking. “You’re invincible. You can do anything.”
“I, a Superman?” he had responded with a chuckle.
At eighteen and fresh out of high school, Cooper enlisted for three years in the Marines. He had two days before he would leave for boot camp.
“You’re as bad a shot as I am,” Ted told him when he found out. “You’ll get your fool head blown off.”
“I plan on being a clerk of some kind,” Cooper replied.
“Why the military?” Ted asked.
“To see a bit of the world and after I get out I can go to school on the G.I. Bill.”
It was late in the evening and they were seated at the kitchen table. Cooper tossed pieces of bologna to Jigger who sat by Cooper’s chair. The dog gobbled down each piece, his tail repeatedly slapped the linoleum, giving off firecracker-like snapping sounds.
Karla busied herself on her laptop putting the church newsletter together. “You won’t get beat up by the other Marines, will you?” she asked without looking up from the computer screen.
“Why should I get beat up?”
“Well, you know . . .” Her voice trailed off as she returned her attention to the obituary announcements.
Cooper rose from the table and kissed his mother and father on their cheeks. “See you early in the morning to go hunting just as we planned, Dad,” he said as he left the kitchen, followed by Jigger.
“Don’t worry, sweetheart,” Ted said to Karla. “He’ll return to us safe and sound.”
“Will he?” she replied as she pounded forcefully on the keyboard.
The next morning, Ted and Cooper headed off on foot across the prairie with Jigger running circles around them with frequent forays into the tall grass in search of game. Ted held his rifle in readiness for quail and pheasant, while Cooper carried his rifle resting on his shoulder. It had rained during the night and as the rainwater evaporated in the early morning sunlight it created a thin veil of humid fog. Flocks of terns swooped and swirled in the sky, appearing and disappearing, as if by magic. The staccato warbling of meadowlark pierced the morning quietude.
Descending into the usually dry creek beds made somewhat muddy by the rainfall, the two men stopped, stooped down and silently examined each foot and hoof imprint left by deer and coyotes. They had walked west, away from the Badlands formations, on an unmarked course they had taken numerous times over the years. At an old abandoned one-room house built of stone with a slate roof, they sat on the dirt floor inside and ate the lunches Karla had made for them. Jigger had disappeared from sight about a half hour earlier. When he showed up at the door, he let drop on the floor the limp, lifeless body of a rabbit. He poked at its body with his front paw, barked at it several times, and then began to whine.
The parking lot at the side of the church was almost full by the time Ted pulled his truck into a parking spot. He left the truck idling for several moments as he gripped onto the wheel, his hands still smudged with dirt from changing the tire, his knuckles white with strain. Karla sat in stony silence, clutching her purse tight against her chest. As if sensing the tension inside the cab, Jigger was curled up into a ball on the floor at Karla’s feet.
“I don’t think I can do this,” Ted said at last, like exhaling a breath he had held in deep in his lungs nestled among the remains of old cigarette smoke and nicotine.
“You said he’d return to us safe and sound,” Karla said, her voice hushed but the words as sharp as if she had said it loudly and laced with acid and cruelty.
Ted felt he had been shot. He wanted to clasp his hand over the imagined wound that bore all the way to his heart. He turned off the engine. “He survived two tours to Afghanistan without a scratch,” he replied softly, defensively. He opened the door and saw his tie still hanging on the mirror realizing for the first time he had forgotten to put it back on. He climbed out of the cab, put the tie around his neck and slowly tied it as Karla got out of the truck.
Jigger remained on the floor, whimpering and whining.
They closed the truck doors and walked to the church steps and climbed them, meeting Reverend Stark at the doors.
“Be brave, God is with you,” he said to them as he opened the church doors. A flood of floral fragrances poured out.
Ted pulled Karla’s left hand from her purse, grasped it tightly, and walked into the church. The pews were filled all the way to the front. Large vases filled with bouquets of lilies, carnations and wildflowers lined the aisle. The closed coffin with Cooper’s body inside sat on two white silk covered sawhorses in front of the podium. At the front pew where their seats awaited them, Ted turned and placed his hand on Reverend Stark’s chest, stopping him from going up the three steps to the altar. He kissed Karla on the cheek, gently placed her in the pew, and then walked up to the altar.
Looking out at the hundreds of pairs of eyes fixed on him, he took a sheet of folded paper from his pocket and slowly opened it. He stared down at the words he had scribbled on it and cleared his throat. “Nine days ago my boy . . .” He felt a sob well up in this throat, fought it back, and then began again. “Nine days ago my boy who I loved more than life itself, who had only been out of the Marines for four days and was on his way home to us, was gunned down along with fourteen other young men and women in a gay bar by a madman carrying an Ak47 assault rifle.” He looked up at the congregation. “My wife and I were told that Cooper used his own body to block others from being killed.” He paused, and then said, “and Cooper said that I was the one who was Superman.”