When Matthew opens his eyes, although in retrospect he is not sure they were ever closed, he finds himself holding his grandfather’s shotgun, the back of the barrel laying gently on the open palm above the rough brown scar running thumb to pinky. The scar is permanent, as most are, the last remnant of the mortar shrapnel pulled out of him at the end of his first and only tour.
The shotgun, he’s less sure about. He sits on the left end of brown leather sofa, which Andrea’s mother bought for them maybe eight years ago, and though he sits, slouched, facing the flat screen TV affixed to the tan living room wall, the TV is off and all he’s doing is holding, gently, his grandfather’s shotgun, which his grandfather gave to his father, who then gave it to him. The twelve-gauge feels cool to the touch, but not as cool as it could be.
Matthew lowers his right hand. The shotgun clicks lightly.
Then he turns toward the narrow passage to the kitchen, which follows the angle of the sofa. Andrea sits at the kitchen table, glancing at Matthew sidelong as steam rises gently from the cup of tea in front of her. Her face is hard, in the way of the fossilized trunk of a tall, dismembered tree. She does not sip from the tea. She only looks at Matthew through the passageway.
Matthew looks at the shotgun in his hands. Grasping it cautiously, barrel pointed upward, he sits up from the sofa. He steps forward, then grimaces as his right foot lands on something small and solid on the rough, carpeted floor. When he looks down, foot elevated, he sees a small red bead. It’s one of Val’s, probably, one of the ones she’d drop around a thin white string to create the necklace she’d come running to Andrea to have her tie, because Matthew’s knots are never quite right, military training lacking a certain domestic application. Val does need to clean up her messes. But it’s a small bead and she probably didn’t know it was there.
Matthew leaves it. He steps toward the kitchen, but he doesn’t enter until he rests the shotgun, always carefully, against the wall in the living room, directly beside the passageway. He props it up and it stays, barrel pointing unthreateningly into the wall at an angle that, at worst, might crack a little plaster. Glancing at it one moment more, he steps through the passage into the kitchen, Andrea’s eyes tracking him all the way.
“Hey, hon,” says Matthew.
Andrea does not respond. She takes a small sip of her tea. She drinks Chamomile. She takes three spoons of sugar and just a teaspoon of raspberry honey. She puts the sugar in first and the honey in last. Nine years ago he was amused by this. Four years ago she would have responded, so glad to see him home alive. Two years ago she would not have stared.
“Is there another cup?” he says.
She stares a moment longer. She finishes her sip.
Then she stands up, the chair scraping loudly across the floor, the mug remaining at rest on the table. Andrea walks across the kitchen to the cabinet, where she retrieves Matthew’s Have a Nice Day! mug and places it, not softly, on the counter by the stove. She retrieves the teapot and pours him a cup, and she grabs a teabag from the open box beside the pot. She doesn’t ask what flavor he wants because they only have one flavor, and they only have one flavor because he never drinks tea. He wonders why he asked for tea.
Matthew pulls out the chair across the table and sits down slowly, hands folded just above the infinitesimal crack in the plastic. Still without a word, Andrea brings him his tea, then returns to her seat on the other side of the table. Matthew looks across the table at Andrea, and she meets his gaze, albeit with her hand wrapped around the mug and the mug to her thin lips, as if she never got up.
“Thank you,” says Matthew.
Andrea does not acknowledge.
“Val forgot a bead,” says Matthew. “On the floor. Stepped on it.”
The air is cold. It’s summer, almost, or maybe already; Matthew can never remember when exactly the equinox or solstice or whichever it is falls. But the air conditioning always goes on early, and strongly, and the first glow of summer feels just as often like the dead of winter. Once Matthew pointed out that this is perhaps why Andrea makes so much tea. She was amused. Four years ago she was amused.
“It’s a little cold,” says Matthew. “Don’t you think?”
Andrea doesn’t answer, so Matthew sips his tea, which could use sugar, but he doesn’t feel like standing up and getting sugar. Anyway, it helps. He feels it dripping down his throat. He feels it slipping past his pounding heart. The odd thing is that he hadn’t noticed his heart was pounding. It’s like the moment you realize there’s a song in your head, and that you’ve probably been singing it to yourself for ten minutes already. It’s very cold and the tea is warm and Andrea is silent and Matthew’s heart is pounding so hard he could die.
“Is everything okay?” Matthew says, though he isn’t sure why he’s the one asking.
“Bead,” says Andrea.
Andrea is in mid-sip. Her eyes haven’t moved, and maybe neither has her mouth. Matthew stares a moment. Sometimes people say things when they don’t really say them. Sometimes you listen and hear them anyway, or words slip through. Sometimes more words slip through than others. Matthew ponders this and looks at her tea and wonders if he should turn up the thermostat or watch TV or go down to the basement and dig a hole and lie down in it.
“Yes,” says Andrea, who doesn’t say anything.
Footsteps patter down the stairs then. Matthew can’t see them, but he can hear them, as he hears them maybe three nights out of the week, light and soft and present when they should be upstairs in a sky blue bedroom underneath Spongebob covers behind a door closed for the night some thirty minutes before. He checks the microwave for the time. The microwave shows zeroes. Zero hundred. Zero thousand. Zero.
Footsteps in the foyer, sticking slightly to the floor.
Footsteps in the den, scraping swiftly across the carpet.
Then frizzy brown hair appears above a soft and tired little face as Val steps into the kitchen. She rubs her right eye with the back of her hand. Her feet are so small they fit in the individual tiles on the linoleum floor. She wears new violet pajamas she is already starting to outgrow, and she should be in bed.
“Val,” says Matthew.
“I want to go to the moon,” says Val, decidedly.
Matthew smiles. He cups his tea in his right hand. “You should be in bed, Octopus. Remember what we said? After we tuck you in?”
“But I didn’t get to say!” She throws her arms toward the floor.
Matthew glances toward Andrea. Andrea stares at him. She doesn’t say a word.
“Say what?” says Matthew.
“I want to go to the moon.”
“So what, is this a field trip?” He exhales a laugh. He feels his heart slowing. Val warms the room. She always does, four years ago, two years ago, now. Though she does leave her beads on the floor.
Val shakes her head no with the energy and torque only a five year old can manage.
“Is it a movie?”
Grinning now, Val shakes her head even harder. Then, she spins toward Andrea.
“Mommy, can I go to the moon?”
“No, dear.” It’s the first thing Andrea has said, maybe, although her face is as silent as it was before. She holds her tea and takes a long, silent sip.
“Can I go to Atlantis?”
“Can I be a superhero?”
“Can I be the president?”
“You know why.”
“Andrea,” says Matthew. He sees the sad and somehow accepting look on his daughter’s face, and he hears, in echo, the razor edge of the words. You know why. He hears the ceramic ting as Andrea places her mug back on the table. He feels his heart beneath his ribs and the imprint of a small red bead on his right foot. He sees zeroes on the microwave.
Zeroes on the microwave. Bead on the floor.
“Did we have a power outage?” says Matthew. He says it suddenly, and he says it determinedly. He hears it seep out of him on the edge of a swallow.
Andrea says nothing.
“I should check the fuses. Probably,” says Matthew.
“It might have been a surge,” says Matthew, with the certainty that it was. “I can fix it.”
“Yes?” he says, hands squeezing against his mug. “Yes, Octopus?” He turns his eyes toward Val, who looks up at him with giant blue irises beneath a frizzy mop. He sees her feet within the tiles of the floor. He sees them lying underneath her covers, quiet and still.
“Daddy,” says Val, cocking her head sideways, “why did you kill me?”
Matthew stares, and for a moment feels, across his skin, the shards of an old window in the back room of an abandoned house—the side that never gets the sun, the kind not cold but chilled, like in the empty village in the desert at night. The shards, again, brushing lightly across the hairs of his forearms, his chest, the length of his throat. The noise and the fire. The chilled glass, the glass of an unseasonable house on a maybe-summer day.
“I think there was a power outage,” says Matthew, quietly, eyes on a litany of zeroes. “I think I should check.”
“Answer her,” says Andrea.
“I think I should check.”
“I didn’t,” Matthew says, as he turns back toward Val. He smiles like he means it. “I didn’t.”
For a moment, Val only looks at him. Then she steps forward, softly, her feet nearly silent on the tiles below it, and she reaches up and clutches loosely Matthew’s sleeve. She tugs: once, twice. Her eyes wide and pleading. Her skinny forearm poking too far out of the pajamas she outgrew. Outgrows. Outgrowing.
Andrea sips her tea and says nothing.
Slowly, and feeling something less than the energy to do so, Matthew climbs to his feet, pushing the chair out behind him. He leaves his tea on the table. It covers the crack nicely. Matthew lets Val guide him out of the kitchen and into the den, where he sees, glancing over the couch, the red bead sitting still within the fibers of the carpet. He doesn’t look at the wall behind him.
In silence, Matthew follows Val into the foyer, where the lights outside shine in through the window by the front door, then up the stairs, Matthew’s heavy, plodding footsteps drowning out Val’s lighter-than-air pitter-patter. Dragged along by a momentum he cannot explain, Matthew finds himself at the second door on the right, open just a crack, the nightlight casting a dim glow into the darkness past.
Val turns back toward Matthew, eyes looking upward. “Will you tuck me in?” she says.
Shaking now, Matthew nods. He nods, and nods again, as she pushes the door open, and the light from the hallway falls in sideways upon a sky blue bedroom and Spongebob covers and a frizzy brown mop atop half a beautiful face and half a dull red muck. Matthew stares now, his breathing staccato, and when he breaks the stare to look down beside him he finds Val gone, gone, gone. So he steps forward, legs unsteady, then kneels down beside the bed.
“I didn’t,” he whispers. “I didn’t mean it like that.”
He sees red, and light, thunder and lightning.
“I had to, though,” he says. “I just . . .” He reaches over to the bed and brushes her hair. “You had to put the beads away,” he says. “I asked you to put the beads away.” He nods. “Next time you’ll know better.” He brushes her hair but his hand won’t stay steady enough to do it right.
“You stopped taking them,” says Andrea. Matthew doesn’t turn but he knows it’s her.
“I had to,” he says. “There were things I had to do. I couldn’t think of them right.” He looks up, nearly over his shoulder, but still not quite at her. Just enough so that the hallway light is in his faraway eyes. “You know how sometimes people say things when they don’t really say them? Right?”
The house is cold. The house has always been cold.
“Do you remember what happened next?” says Andrea.
Hands crossed over her face. The hallway twisting at angles. Why hanging in the air like shrapnel. You know why, impassioned. Twists and flashes, thunder and lightning, a new layer of paint over the dingy old plaster, a break in the nine years, four years, two years, forever.
“I think I had to,” Matthew whispers.
“Do you know what you have to do now?”
Imperceptibly at first, then definitively, Matthew nods, eyes drawn back toward Spongebob covers and violet pajamas she will never outgrow. He takes a deep, long breath, and then he stands up and turns around to face her.
She looks at him. She still holds her mug of tea.
She gestures to her left, and that’s where Matthew finds the shotgun, his father’s shotgun, his grandfather’s shotgun, leaning against the wall of his daughter’s bedroom. It digs just barely into the sky blue paint. He knows before he even touches it that it’s still warm. But then he confirms it, his fingers dancing lightly across the barrel like it’s a piano.
He picks it up. It clicks, gently, as it shifts.
He rests the barrel in the palm of his right hand, where the shrapnel scar runs from thumb to pinky. “It’s permanent,” says Matthew, distantly.
“Most are,” says Andrea.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
He repositions the shotgun so that the butt is in his palm, the trigger beneath his finger, and the barrel inside his mouth. Shaking, ribs bruised at the force of his heartbeats, he glances across the doorway to Andrea. And as he watches, for the first time, just barely, the tips of her beautiful lips curl up into a smile, and he looks at the smile and he thinks that it’s not a bad thing to see. Nine years ago. Four years ago. Two years ago. Now.
But the house is still cold and there’s a bead on the floor.
He closes his eyes.
Harrison Demchick is the author of the 2012 literary horror novel The Listeners. His album Otherguy dropped quietly, even silently, in 2018, and his first feature film, Ape Canyon, is currently in post-production. Harrison is also a developmental editor who has worked on more than seventy published books. He’s accepting new clients in fiction and memoir at the Writer’s Ally (http://thewritersally.com). “The Bead” is part of Magicland, a short story collection in progress. The title story from Magicland appears in the eighth issue of literary magazine Phantom Drift. Visit www.harrisondemchick.com to learn more!