We like the pet cemetery. It’s a hill of overgrown grass filled with ticks and small, cracked tombstones. Large, assembled rocks face the highway, spelling out a misshapen HEAVENS GATEWAY, no apostrophe. The road at the bottom of the hill is littered with Styrofoam cups and lids, shoes and a bloated carcass. Dover says he can tell there’s a lot of pissed off pets here. “They probably never got the kind of dog food they wanted,” he says. Dover says we’re going to come here one night and dig up a few graves, see if we can bring a pet back to life. I want to find a pet ferret. You never know what people are going to do. Some people are crazy. Some people get ferrets as pets.
Dover takes his stance. He’s going to dropkick me—that’s our thing. But the dropkick seems more like a roundhouse kick. I know because my dad once took me to get karate lessons. We were asked to leave once he started practicing punches on the other parents. A small plastic bottle of Evan Williams slipped from his jacket pocket, sponging against the freshly bleached mat.
When I tell Dover this, he says, “Classic.” I watch the word leave his mouth in a gray plume. It’s February.
“What do you mean?”
He slowly swings his leg around. He likes to take a few practice swings. He likes to aim for already bruised areas. “Daddy issues. It’s always daddy issues with me.”
The girl he dated before me—her dad died on a motorcycle. He had gone on it to teach his daughter to overcome her fears. During the ride, though, he popped a wheelie and smacked his brains on blacktop. Dover tells me all of this with great pride. He says he took care of her, let her treat him as a dad. He even grounded her for a weekend. “I’d do the same for you, Baby Girl,” he says. His big toe nudges my side, the spot between rib and hip.
Mom asks about the bruises. “I thought you were doing chess after school,” she says. She opens the fridge and moves things around. She goes to the pantry and grabs a Pop tart.
I tell her, “Chess is a very demanding sport, Mom.” I close the fridge.
She tucks her shirt back into the front of her pajama pants and wanders off to her room. I watch her cheeks shift with each step. The plaid cotton hides the cellulite and wrinkled edges. I touch mine, knowing one day they’ll look the same.
I stand in front of the sliding glass door in the kitchen and look at my reflection. I have a chest, smooth skin, intriguing lips, a deep voice. I have charm. I walk up to the glass and kiss myself. When I back away, I wipe the dust off my lips.
The first day I met Dover, he came over to my house with Sharpied words all over his body. I read every single one. Then he asked me to pop the pimples on his back. I told him he reminded me of my dad when, really, he reminded me of no one. It just felt like something to say. He said, “Don’t make things weird just yet.”
Dover lives with his grandparents. They’re kind of senile, and he can do whatever he wants. Whenever he walks inside, his grandpa gets up from the couch and says, “What’s going on here?” His grandpa sometimes forgets Dover’s his grandchild. He often refers to him as the haint that keeps taking food from the fridge.
Today, Dover’s grandma reaches for her husband and brings him back to the seat of the couch. “Dover has a guest,” she says. “A pretty girl.”
We walk past them, up the stairs and into Dover’s room where he’s painted all kinds of snails on the walls. I tell him, “I wish my mom was as clueless as your grandparents.”
He says, “Your mom is a good mom.” He walks over to his closet and pulls out a bottle of wine and a Ouija board. Then he says, “All parents are clueless.”
I tell him, “I’ve never done one of those.”
He places the board on the bed, the eyeglass centered on NO. “We need to practice before we take it to the cemetery.” He really believes he can resurrect a pet we exhume. That’s a word he thinks he taught me—“exhume.” Sometimes I play dumb. We’re going to do it the night of the Super Bowl. “No one pays attention during an event like that,” he says. “That’s when all those girls get sex trafficked. Dogs, too. But no one wants to talk about that.”
I have no say in what we do. Dover likes it this way. He says I should, too. Having choices is a lot of responsibility.
He moves the eyeglass to the center of the board and opens the bottle of wine with the Swiss Army corkscrew attached to his key ring. He takes a drink. He takes another.
I sit down beside him and wait to tell him I don’t want any. I’ll act like I’m sick or something, like I’ve got some old virus like Swine flu and the wine would poison me even more. I want to see what would hurt him.
But he never shares, and I never ask.
Before we start, he wants to examine our new bruises. He pulls up his shirt a bit, then pulls down his pants. The marks I leave on him are faint. I should eat more, people tell me. Put more meat on my bones. More mustard.
“I’ve still got that big one on my back from last week,” I tell him.
“I like that one.”
I stand, turn around, and pull up the back of my shirt. I try to get a glimpse, but it’s too far of a twist. “Is it still purple?”
“A little,” he says. “It’s mainly yellow now.” I wait for him to touch it. I expect he’ll kick me right here. He says, “You really should hit me harder.”
I dream of dads. All of them mine. They like to mimic the music from Jaws anytime they’re behind me. Then they all attack me like a school of sharks, their fingernails digging into my sides. But eventually they decide to save me from the sharks somehow, from themselves. “Again,” I say, “again.” But then they’re just one dad, and that dad is busy tying knots in a rope.
People at school ask if I’m okay. Especially people in the chess club. They tell me I smell like Swiss cheese. They tell me I look like a hooker. And not a pretty one. They point out all the zits and eye gunk. I just smile. I move all the chess pieces in the wrong direction.
When I get kicked out of the club, Dover asks me why I care. He says, “They don’t love you like I love you, Baby Girl. No one does.”
Sometime soon we’ll run away together, says Dover. We’ll meet at HEAVENS GATEWAY and leave this place in my mom’s car. He mentions places I’ve never heard of. Places with names like Ace In The Hole and Facesuck City. Dover says, we ought to go somewhere no one can ever find us.
But I know better.
Tonight, my mom wakes me up in the middle of the night to ask me if I want to go find my dad. “That guy’s got it comin’,” she says. She does the same thing the next night. Both nights I warm her a glass of milk, crushed Benadryl dissolving at the bottom. Both nights she asks me why I’d bring her something like that. She says, “You know good and well I’m gonna kick your dad’s butt. That’s an inevitable thing. And you bring me milk.” She takes a large drink. Two percent dairy dews the faint hairs on her lip. “Milk.”
I like the Saints. Their quarterback has some kind of scar or birthmark on his face that makes him look hardened, a little stupid. But I don’t say this out loud. I say, “They know how to move the offense.”
“At least your dad taught you something,” Dover tells me. He doesn’t like when I know more than him.
I explain each play as if he’s never watched a game before because he hasn’t. He keeps wrapping his fists in the bottom of his shirt. His grandpa sits beside me, smiles at me every once in a while. The wrinkles in his fat hands, the way they splay out on his thighs—the man has talons for fingers. His bride, the old hag, she sits in the chair beside the TV. She watches us.
The ball crosses the goal line which makes everyone cheer. The old man slaps my thigh. “Hey!” he yells. He’s rooting for the wrong team, and no one corrects him. His wife stares at the spot on my leg where he touched me.
Dover stands, walks to the kitchen. A drawer opens. Then there’s the sound of a match scraping the side of the matchbox. I know that scratch. By the time I get there, small flames ripple up the curtain over the sink.
I turn the faucet on, cup some water, and toss it toward the curtain. I grab a cup from the sink, fill it up.
“What’s going on in there?” his grandma says.
Dover opens the cabinet underneath the sink and pulls out a small fire extinguisher. “Nothing,” he yells. He fumbles with the thing. I almost grab it from him and take care of this mess myself.
Now here’s the grandma screaming about a fire. She points and joins me at the sink. Her splashes of water carry more weight than mine. Skin dangles from her wrist like an overripe tomato.
The fire licks and jumps, painting the popcorn ceiling black and brown. Panic pops Dover’s face into something ugly. He looks like a kid, and I feel so much power. Before I can tear it out of his hands, a pair of wrinkled claws rasp it. Release the pin, press the lever. His grandpa puts the extinguisher back under the sink and lords over us. He’s going to say something, but instead fiddles with the flap under his chin and walks back to the couch. “What’s everyone doing in there?” he says.
But my dad didn’t watch football. He spent a lot of his time working on the yard. He push-mowed with accuracy, the lawn a rectangle of parallel stripes. Afterward, he’d dump some of the clippings on dead spots. When I asked him if that would help the grass grow, he said he wasn’t sure. “It feels right,” he said. “Like it’s the right thing to do.”
Mom would stand at the window and watch him plant rose bushes. “Those are going to get so out of hand,” she’d say. But she liked them in the spring.
In the winter, my dad didn’t know what to do with himself. He’d pick up a new hobby each year. Once, he’d tried to become a ventriloquist. That was fun for everyone.
The Saints don’t make it. Instead, it’s two teams with animals for names. No one cares who wins.
I leave the house with food and a small tent made for kids. We’re staying the night at the cemetery. And we might stay another.
My phone shows the Broncos in the lead. The cold air bites my face. I unroll my mom’s black turtleneck over my mouth and do jumping jacks in a dark field full of dead pets. And I think about how one day I will die. But probably not today. And probably not from jumping jacks.
Dover’s grandparents’ Jaguar putters just below the hill of HEAVENS GATEWAY until it sits lopsided on the curb. He steps out of the car and looks around for a bit, standing in place. He shivers, his body covered by a pair of Long Johns and a muscle shirt. The Ouija board’s tucked into the front of his pants and beneath his shirt, boxing his structure.
“Up here,” I call, and he stops his shaking. I’ve already chosen a grave. I’m standing here with the shovel I know Dover didn’t think to bring. The grave is a little block of cement, cracked. A name below a large paw print: Arthur. It says here this guy lived a long life. Seventeen years. Any dog that’s lived that long can be messed with, is my philosophy. A dog like that has seen some things and can stand to see a few more.
Dover climbs the hill and licks the edge of his half-grown stache. “This isn’t the one I was thinking,” he says, “but alright.”
I’ve already started. I don’t mind the digging. Dover balances the board on the grave, sets the eyeglass down. A nearby swarm of cicadas sound up like helium filling a balloon, then deflate. Give the crickets a chance, won’t you. They have things to say. We all do.
“You get everything you could fit in there?” I ask. The Jaguar’s interior light puts the backseat on display. Nothing, then it dims.
“I told you what all I’d bring.”
I shine my iPhone light on his face. He wants to kick me. He has that look. “Well, I brought bread. I hope you brought some things.”
Dover pushes my leg. “Shut up.” He crosses his legs and closes his eyes. “I’m trying to talk to the dead.”
It’s not long. Shovel hits a crinkling tarp. Trapped, dead gases escape. I try to get beneath the whole thing but end up just making a mess. Dover takes my phone and shines the light at the crumpled earth. He removes clumps of dirt and retrieves what appears to be some kind of knob-like bone from the frayed bag. Maybe an ankle, if dogs even have ankles.
“This is all I need,” he says.
“Right.” I find my Kerosene lamp and get it ready. A regular tent is at least a two-man job, but not this tent. All you need are two arms, which I have. And good hands. These are good hands.
But I’m interested. He places the bone on the Ouija board. He googles some stuff on my phone and mutters to himself. “Check the score since you’re there,” I say.
And now he’s speaking a language he doesn’t know. It’s all hokey. I’ve got the poles for the tent put together now. I like to think I’m my own father.
He finishes speaking and waits. Then he shines the light into the grave and pulls out a couple more bones. They fall out of his hands and topple onto the first bone. Now here come the crickets. So much to say.
The kerosene lantern doesn’t give off much light. When I try to make the flame bigger, the little strand of mesh smokes and blackens the glass. I reach for my phone, but Dover pulls away from me, reads again from the language. It sounds like Latin or something.
“Here,” I tell him. I extend my hand. “Give it.”
He stops reading and looks up at me, placing it in my palm. He’s going to say something, and I don’t let him. I swing the lantern into his face.
At the funeral I watched a bird eat another dead bird.
One of my dad’s friends came up to me and apologized and shook his head. He said something.
Another guy said the same thing.
Then an old lady. “And look how young you are.”
She said, “It’s just not natural.” I agreed with that.
That was something everyone was saying. They were talking about the way my dad died. That he was dead. I was talking about the birds. There was a bird eating another bird for God’s sake.
I keep imagining shards of hot glass lodged in his cheek, burning his flesh all the way down to the teeth. But it wasn’t that dramatic. The lamp never broke. And Dover just got back in his grandparents’ car and left, taking the bone with him.
At home, Mom counts all the marks on my back and ribs. She whispers things to me like I’m still a baby. With her long fingernails, she traces the edge of each bruise. “We used to do this every night, me and my dad,” she tells me. “I’ve always had bruises—I never knew what from.”
“It kind of stings.”
“It’s supposed to. At least that’s what my dad would say. It takes pain to get rid of pain.”
“Now you.” I turn over, roll up her shirt, and start at the bottom. I trace each bedsore, the same way she’d touched me. My fingers are nothing like her dad’s. My nails are narrow, the balls of my fingers smooth. I try to touch her like a man. But I just brush the skin.
Dalton Monk lives in West Virginia. His stories have appeared in Joyland, New York Tyrant, and Hobart.