The following short story has been republished from the Ancient Paths archives. It first appeared in 2005, in Issue 13.
by William R. Hincy
My dad handed me the flashlight and began to ascend the ladder into the blackness of the rafters. I was aiming the flashlight right where he had directed me to as best I could as I steadied the ladder, but my consciousness kept wandering back to an imaginary bed with fluffy pillows and a permanent snooze on the alarm clock. It was so early that I swore I could hear the infamous Early Bird begging his mom for just five more minutes. I was doing my best to aim the flashlight, I really was, but my dad, being an old flashlight-pointing king, became irritated with my ineptitude and quickly descended the ladder. On the last rung, though, his slipper slipped off of his foot and he fell back towards me with his arms flailing like the clipped wings of a fallen angel. Despite the waking slumber that the rest of my body was currently buried in, my instincts fired on cue, and I caught him beneath the armpits.
“Thanks, Junior,” he said, regaining his balance. “Now if only we could teach you how to point a flashlight. I’ll tell you what, Junior, why don’t I hold the ladder and direct the flashlight while you find the paintball guns.”
I nodded, suddenly irritated. There were two things my dad inevitably said that jerked my nerves. The first was: “Why don’t you. . . .” Well, I can think of a swarming hive of reasons for why I don’t climb the ladder, the most prominent of which is that you just took a tumble from it that I don’t care to repeat. The second thing my dad would say, and he would say it constantly with the smug, gloating tone of a wild robin taunting his caged cousin from a tree branch, is my name as he saw it: Junior. I always imagined that he gleaned some sort of perverse pleasure by saying it, like the malicious glee that a vulture feels when it spots road-kill baking on the highway.
I followed orders and climbed the ladder without saying a word. My dad held the flashlight’s course steady, and I found the paintball guns that we were looking for quickly. As I came down the ladder, my mom opened the garage door and said, “Good morning, Captain Bill. Your breakfast is done.”
And then as inevitable as pigeons bombing your car immediately after you’ve washed it, she said to me: “I made you breakfast too, Billy Junior.”
Having been a Captain in the Air Force and a commercial airline pilot until he retired a year previously, Dad’s call sign as Captain Bill was firmly nest in the family linguistics. And thus my nickname as Billy Junior was an inevitable certainty as dreary as storm clouds and high winds.
“I don’t think we’re going to have time for breakfast,” Captain Bill said. “Junior and me still need to get dressed and drive out to the field. This week paintball war, next week we’re going flying in my new plane. Right Junior?”
“Right,” I groaned, contemplating how I could either lapse into a coma or flee to South America before the next weekend. And just how was I stupid enough to allow myself to make plans to spend two weekends in a row with my dad?
“Well, I guess that just leaves more for me. I never thought I’d see the day where you two were spending every weekend together. Have fun, boys. But don’t over do it, Captain Bill. You know the doctor says to exercise in moderation.”
“I’ll be fine,” my dad said, and then went inside to change his clothes.
I changed into my army fatigues, which I had spray painted with “Missed Me” on the back in neon pink, and waited for Dad to come downstairs. When he finally waddled downstairs he was definitely ready for war. Outfitted in a button-up, pin-stripped shirt, a fat tongued purple tie, and a pair of flaming red Speedos, Dad looked like a news anchorman who was so eager to get to the pool that instead of completely dressing himself he just left his bottom half barren and hid behind his desk. As usual his overwhelming chest hair sprayed out over his collar making him resemble a peacock displaying his feathers for a potential mate, and his sandy brown hair lay like fuzzy wings over his ears. He was also drenched in Old Spice cologne, a tactic, I surmised, designed to act like tear gas.
“Are you ready to go, Junior?” Dad asked, the protruding bill of his lips flapping like wings in flight. Then I saw something I thought I’d never see. As startling as it was, the old commercial airlines captain appeared happy, excited even. His brown eyes gleamed with the hypnotic glow of runway lights.
“Yes sir, Captain Bill,” I said. “Private Bildo is ready for action.”
In response to my answer Dad actually grinned! Never had my smart mouth elicited anything more than a sneer from Dad, but now he was actually grinning. He sat down on the bottom stair and slipped on his loafers, still smiling with abandon. Then, with considerable effort and an epic groan, he stood up. I decided to test just how magnanimous Dad was feeling, so I chirped, “Maybe we should take a wheelchair for you, Dad. You can be the mobile infantry.”
“Sure thing, Junior,” he responded, huffing still. “And if we take a muzzle for you, maybe you could be the Secret Service.”
A witty repartee? Was the jet stream at our backs or what? During the entirety of my adolescence Dad had responded to everything I said—from juvenile begging for worldly goods to hysterical pleas of salvation from the family dog that had it out for me from day three—with the single phrase “That’s nice.” And then suddenly there was a good-natured banter between us; it was as if we had a true father-son relationship. For a brief moment I looked forward to the next weekend when we were to go flying, but then. . . “All right, Junior, lets get on the road.”
Without another word we got into the car and left.
We pulled onto the dirt road that led like a cluttered artery through the heart of the paintball war zone. It wasn’t a professional area; it was just five acres of isolated hills that were bearded with every sharp, sadistic form of vegetation ever spawned in the desert arena. There were usually fourteen of us, give or take a man due to prior commitments or sickness. Today, though, we were all there, plus one.
We split up into teams, and Captain Bill just happened to be on the other team. Boohahaha (cue maniacal laughter). The game was Capture the Flag, and our flag was located at the bottom of a steep embankment on the southern edge of the field. Staying behind as a sniper to protect our sacred scarlet flag, I squirmed into some brush where I could spot any approaching enemy troops. As the game began the good guys surged forward. The gentle tack tack sound of paintball guns firing rattled the pristine desert. After five minutes or so the sight of an enemy soldier coming down the ridge towards our flag sparked my interest. It was Dad. He came plopping down the ravine like a duck waddling down a ridge into a pond. I had a clean shot from about thirty yards, but at that distance the paintballs begin to lose velocity and seldom break on impact. When he was about ten yards away he toddled through an opening between Joshua trees. Quickly, I capped off a few shots. Tack tack! I never felt like such a man. Dad fell to his knees and rolled behind one of the Joshua trees. Here was my chance, while he was blind and uncertain, to flank him. Boohahaha (please cue maniacal laughter again). Confirmed kill number one of the day coming up, and it was “Captain Bill.”
I darted out of the tangled nest of tumbleweeds that I’d been hiding in to Dad’s right. Most people are right handed, including Dad, so they tend to aim better to their left and tend to look slightly left also. I took position behind a tumbleweed about fifteen yards behind Dad, with a clear view of him. Bullets may be able to pierce tumbleweeds, but to paintballs they’re as good as armor. Just as I had thought, Dad was looking towards my previous position and to his left.
Dad moved forward, cautiously. Boohahaha. He was a pigeon. I looped directly behind him and took aim. I had him dead in my sights, all I had to do was fire, but before I did I wanted to announce myself as his slayer. I screeched, like an eagle soaring overhead: “Death to Captain Bill!”
Suddenly I heard the tack tack of enemy fire, and then paintballs popped like pigeon poop all around me. I’d been flanked. I tried to cap off a few shots at Dad before I was a goner, but they were frantic and didn’t even come close. I felt the bee-stings of paintballs, and I raised my hand solemnly, signaling my death. I’d broken two major rules of engagement: never get preoccupied with one solider, and always keep your mouth shut when you’re sniping. (Apparently Dad had been right about the muzzle.)
A moment later Dad captured the flag and began to move sluggishly towards their base. Jogging awkwardly, like a cuckoo with a clipped wing trying to take flight, Dad clutched his left arm to his side and occasionally stopped to lean over and catch his breath. I knew Dad was out of shape, but I didn’t know that it was this bad.
Overhead the smeared oil of ravens circling shimmered in the intense glare of the sun. Although ravens were a common sight, it was still strange to see their perpetual funeral procession above us now. Staring absently at them as I walked back to our base, I remembered the days in high school when seagulls would appear and swirl about with such a majestic freedom that the sight of them made your skin tingle as if you were facing into the ocean’s cool breeze. Dad had told me once when I was a boy that seagulls were symbols of love. He was wrong, of course; it’s the dove that is symbolic of love. But it occurred to me then that the day Dad told me about seagulls being symbolic of love was also the only day that I remember him telling me that he loved me. A stiff sadness blew away my thoughts about the seagulls as I recalled that I’d countered Dad’s gesture with an indifferent stare into the horizon, for I always felt that he loved flying more then he loved me. A moment later my attention returned to the ravens that were now moving off into the horizon.
I reached base a few minutes later. “Base” was nothing more than a purple pole on the eastern edge of the field towards the middle, just a few yards from where all our cars were parked. One of the rules of the game was that everyone got two lives, but to be resurrected you had to touch base. I touched base and set back into the field determined to kill my dad.
I crisscrossed through the field, from front to back, retreating like a girl from firefight after firefight. In my own words I was being a “Draft Dodger,” but I had to kill Dad. I felt that there was no better way to show him that I cared than with the bruising stings of paintballs. As I ran, I saw our flag flapping in the wind on the top of the hill where I’d last seen Dad. He had apparently handed it off or had been shot because now a guy who lived in my apartment complex was carrying it. I yelled out, “Captain Wheelchair,” and “Captain Cholesterol,” over and over again, but to no reward. The game was nearing its climax. The bad guys had the flag nearly back to their base as a result of my selfish need to shoot my dad, but I didn’t care. Today there were more important things than honor, pride, and victory.
Jogging back to the hill where I’d last seen Dad, I spotted him hiding, face down, behind a cactus. It was a strange position to be in since he wasn’t being fired upon, but he had the high ground so I figured that he was probably sniping. I looped around behind him and took position next to a cactus. After firing a few shots in his general direction just to get his attention, I realized that he hadn’t moved. I fired again, but again he just lay there. My heart gurgled and then constricted. I rushed over to him and as I did a couple of enemy soldiers saw me and I felt the splatter of paintballs bursting all around me. Voices echoed like distant sirens around me, asking if I were dead, but I didn’t answer.
“Dad, are you alright?” I asked as I bent down next to him. It was then that I saw that he’d taken his mask off.
He was wheezing and there was a scared, absent look in his eyes. Clutching his left arm to his body, Dad looked as if he’d been shot with a real bullet.
“Dad?” Fighting back terror for a moment, I tried to decide what to do. “Dad, can you get up?”
He shook his head no.
“Okay. It’s okay, Dad. I’ll pick you up.”
Panicked, my mind clogged by a mixture of logic and bewildering images, I bent over and picked Dad up. As I stood up with Dad in my arms, my back straining to hold his weight, an overdose of adrenaline streaming through my veins, I happened to glimpse the autumn sky. It was speckled with benign, white clouds, and it was as blue as if the world was tucked beneath a robin’s wing. Suddenly inside—separate from the worry and anguish—an instinctual drive took over. It was as if an innate power began to move me at its natural time, as if invisible wings were propelling me forward in the same manner as a mocking-bird making its inaugural flight. With a strength outside of myself I began to run back to where everyone had parked, struggling only for speed, like a dove with a peach for her young.
Then I heard Dad squeeze out my name: “Junior.”
“What, Dad? It’s okay, Dad.”
Racing up a steep embankment with two hundred yards still separating us from the parked cars where all the dead gathered, I could feel my legs, arms, and shoulders boiling from fatigue. I looked down at Dad and saw a serene, majestic look in his eyes that was so unlike the absence and fear they had harbored earlier that it startled me. I was reminded of the seagulls again, and for the briefest moment I could feel the ocean’s breeze like breath on my cheek.
“We’re flying. . . .Flying!” Dad whispered, deliriously.
I didn’t know what to say. Tears sprang up and began to streak across my face. I thought frantically that Bill might actually be just my name now. Bouncing wildly around us, the sky seemed to be whisking us away to some distant realm. I was running among the clouds, carrying Dad through them like a fleshly aircraft. Between the panic and exhaustion, I felt like I was in vertigo, spiraling through the sky with no idea which way was up or down. I looked at Dad, again. He seemed enchanted and contented, in a sort of joyous euphoria.
“Hang on, Dad. . . .I. . .I. . .love you, Dad!”
Suddenly, as if blown open by the sound of my words, Dad’s arms went limp and hung at his sides in the manner of a boy pretending to take flight. “We’re flying, Billy. . . ” he murmured one final time, wistfully. Then William really was just my name.
Dad’s eyes remained focused on the horizon, but were now glazed over and sheltered an elusive quality of utter fulfillment yet complete emptiness. As his eyes closed I felt all breath whisk out of me, and I lost all power. I fell through the sky, descending with a fatal trajectory, until I crash-landed in the dirt. My dad, however, took flight into the mystery. Ascending with destined course, he flew away from his body and joined the unseen flock migrating above.