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Short Story

Shenandoah

Outside Staunton, Virginia, birthplace of Woodrow Wilson, with his son Sam asleep beside him in the car, Duke turns on the radio and hears the news. His scrotum aches, his hands tremble, he feels weightless—all these things, all at once. He switches off the radio, then turns it on again to be certain he’s heard correctly. The President, four months into his third term. Collapsed while golfing. Pronounced dead.

With D.C. no longer the destination, Duke slows and makes a careful U-turn on the highway, then heads back the way they’ve come. Sensing the change in direction, Sam wakes and says he needs to pee. Duke pulls down a side road and parks beside a pond and some trees, a place where Sam can take a leak in private. Duke, antsy, opens the trunk of the car. He hoists their camping and fishing gear and removes the handgun and ammunition he stowed in the wheel well near the spare. He opens the box of ammo and chucks the contents into the pond, where they plop melodiously into the murk like pebbles. He rubs down the pistol with his shirt hem and is about to throw it after when Sam emerges from the trees doing that routine where he sticks a finger through his fly and pretends he’s zippered his willy stuck. Duke drops the pistol and rubs it into the gravel in the car bumper’s shadow. As Sam approaches, Duke nudges the pistol out with the toe of his shoe. “Look at that.”

“Can we keep it?” Sam asks, his index finger pointing at the gun through his fly.

Duke shakes his head.

“We should turn it in then,” Sam says, hands out of his pants and zipping up, his joke bested by the humorless object.

Duke grips Sam’s shoulder. The boy is right.

Duke purchased the handgun three months earlier at a gun show outside Dallas, where they live. Instead of going to the gym, as his wife believes, Duke’s been spending time at the range where he’s managed to turn himself from a piss-poor shot to being adequate for the task he no longer needs to contemplate: stopping the man. Duke’s practiced so often that his right wrist tingles sometimes when he needs to type, or if he holds a mug of coffee a certain way. Those sensations will fade now. He doesn’t plan on touching a gun again in his life. Martha can stop worrying that he’s developing carpal tunnel syndrome.

Duke turns on his phone for the first time in three days, dismisses all the notifications, and maps the nearest police station. Once there, Duke describes to the desk officer the location where he ostensibly found the handgun. The officer lifts the emptied bread bag in which Duke has placed the pistol. There was moisture in the bag and it has pooled darkly in the lowest corner.

“There was a pond,” Duke says. “A burned-out tree in some woods.”

But the officer isn’t listening. A TV in the station is tuned to the news. The officer is watching the coverage of the President’s death. “Hell of a thing,” she says.

Outside, free, Duke finds that Sam isn’t in the car where he’s told him to wait. He spots him far down the street, pacing back and forth in front of the plate-glass window of a restaurant, perfecting his wiener trick. An old man passing Duke on the street guffaws and Duke feels embarrassed by this strange child of his, a boy obsessed with superpowers and Japanese industrial robots and conducting experiments on pennies and nickels and dimes, blistering away the Presidents. He can never tell his son that the idea for this trip, and what he planned to try and do at the end of it, was sparked by watching Sam burn a hole through a coin.

Duke shouts Sam’s name and watches him run back.

“Did you get a reward?” Sam asks.

Duke pulls a wad of twenties from his wallet, money originally meant for food, gas, campgrounds, and a room outside Washington D.C. He hands it over, now that he can go back to using his credit card. “You know what we’re going to do with that?” Duke says. “We’re going to get some takeout, then a motel room. No more tents.”

“A motel with a pool?”

“Start looking.”

After dinner, Sam sits in the jacuzzi, reading a wilting fantasy novel they picked up at a used bookstore in Nashville. Sam complained that the motel’s pool was cold, though he only raked it with a toe. Duke sits outside their room on the walkway upstairs, overlooking these two minor bodies of water. He can see part of the parking lot from here, too, where their newly washed car gleams, its license plates now free of the carefully placed mud. There is no one around. Sam, still unaware of the President’s death, turns a page.

The TV is turned toward Duke with the volume set low. He’s watching, for the second time, the Vice-President’s speech about sorrow and reconciliation and visions for tomorrow. The speech feels too polished and too long to have been written between the President’s death in a sand pit and this address to the nation. Duke turns away.

It’s nearly night out, and mothy. Duke’s never been to the Shenandoah Valley before. Because he can’t conceive of events leading him through here again, he tries to absorb and fix in his mind the notion of the place. There’s greenery so thick he imagines a cleared field could choke with brush within a year. There are long ridges and little soft hills that the people here probably call mountains. This morning, the sun was the color of a sliced apple and breathed upon the lush meadows. Now there are strange clouds above, shaped like quilted smoke. He could stare at them for hours. But the TV beckons.

The news is now playing helicopter footage from earlier in the day: the edge of the sand trap where the heart attack or stroke happened, that thing that has yet to be defined but which points toward natural causes. Duke can see the President’s shape in the sand, the broad back and shoulders, the deep divot from an elbow, also the scurry of footprints of those who had gone to the President’s aid. Duke can even see the imprint of an arm that burrowed under the President’s shoulders to help lift him, and which makes it appear as though the President fell while in someone’s embrace. The news cuts to a live nighttime aerial shot of the golf course where a blue pop-up sits over the sand trap, revealing nothing. Duke wonders if they’re doing something with the impression, if it’ll be filled with plaster.

“Are you digested enough?” Sam calls up from the courtyard.

Duke turns off the TV and pushes it back against the wall, then hides the remote. The President’s death, heading back home, turning in the handgun—these things have not yet overwritten the months of anguish in his planning. An act still feels demanded of him to end his quavering. He strips to his navy-colored boxers, climbs over the railing in front of their second-floor room, sets his heels back onto the inch of remaining ledge, and grasps the railing behind him. He feels giddy.

“Dad!”

To wave at Sam would be to fall. Duke nods his head instead. With his belly cantilevered over the edge, he can feel how heavy he’s become. But he only feels this way for a moment. He both lets go and pushes off in one clean Olympic motion that feels terrific. He easily clears the three feet of horizontal distance from the edge of the walkway to the empty pool. The water cracks when he lands and does that thing only water can do: flood every sense with the novelty of another world. He hits the rough curved bottom hard, then it’s up through this cold, cold water to the surface. He clears his eyes and sees Sam running along the pool’s edge, whooping and hollering, his head steaming, his body dripping, the happiest boy alive.

“Awesome!” Sam cries.

And like that, Sam is no longer holding back and complaining about the cold pool, but in it with him, book and all. Duke can’t believe he’s ever yelled at this beautiful, wonderful, precious son of his before. Or that he never has to leave him, now.

“Listen,” Duke says, laughing now at his own recklessness. “Wait. Serious now. Are you listening?” His left thigh feels funny and numb—but that’s not what he wants to say. The boy is climbing onto his back, gaining height, his feet shaking in the stirrups of Duke’s hands. “You can’t tell your mother I just did that, okay?” Duke says. “She’ll only worry.” Duke helps Sam climb all the way up onto his shoulders. “Got that?”

“Yes sir!”

Duke wraps his hands around Sam’s legs for a moment to help steady him, or maybe just to keep him there a second longer. Sam launches forward. The splash is as white as sand. Lit by the pool’s lights, Sam is transformed into a wriggling, unformed thing. Duke waits until Sam breaks the surface and takes a breath.

“It’s freezing,” Sam says, paddling to him.

“Arctic,” Duke says, floating on his back.

The pool’s water forms frigid bays around his armpits and a cold river across his throat. It’s then, with his left foot dragging lower in the water, that Duke really notices that something isn’t right with his thigh, there where it hit the pool’s bottom. Sam scales him again for another launch.

Soon, tomorrow morning at the latest, Duke will turn on the news and let the boy learn about the President. More urgently, though, Duke knows he needs to climb out of the pool and see what he’s done to his body. He hopes it’s nothing. It’s probably nothing. There’s no blood in the water.

“Shenandoah” first appeared in Chiron Review.

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