The Woods Are Filled With Them

From the series: Old, Embarrassing Shit that Lies Dormant on Writer’s Cafe That’s Gonna Get Lost if I Don’t Transplant it Somewhere. So here’s its new home.

They pass lemon colored posts with orange tops that mark gas lines. Out here in the country they’re odd things to see so many of, she thinks. They’re far better suited on an athletic field than roadside in these Trenton County backwoods.  She also see road signs marked with graffiti that she can’t make out except for a crude peace symbol. Another may have been a dollar sign. And they pass the regular things too like clusters of white and yellow yarrow that have replaced the white and violet woodland phlox of spring. And they drive by tilted grey barns with gaps of missing planks that remind her of smiles with chipped or missing teeth. And they pass junk heaps for sale long enough to be nested inside rectangles of grass taller than the tires.

Ellie’s chin rests on her hands that fold on the passenger’s side sill. Her grandfather likes driving in the country with the windows down and, at least with a passenger, the radio off.  Grandpa Gordon stops the truck and flips the blinker for left. They’re a few miles out of town on old St. Mary’s Road and this is a dangerous curve. It’s hard seeing traffic coming round the other direction so he wants to be extra careful before making that turn.

Gordon was about 13 or so when word got around his neighborhood that some high school kids had killed themselves out on St. Mary’s. It had been one of their father’s GT 350 Fastback. The girl had let her boyfriend sneak a test drive where he musta figured he could open it up out there in the country. He must have done that and wrapped it into a tree in the process.

They’d dragged the carnage to Jasper’s Automotive and Towing on Main Street that night.  The next day word got around to the boys in Gordon’s neighborhood about the car sitting at Jasper’s and how all four kids had died. So, as curious boys, the allure of the macabre affected them easily. They had to go inspect.

Over fifty years later, there isn’t a lot Gordon remembers of the scene. He does remember the car being smashed. And that the exterior was red. If he had to guess, he’d say Poppy Red. But if it was more smashed in the front or side, he couldn’t say. What he does remember, too vividly, is the interior. It was sort of a cream color. Some might call it Parchment, and the seats were either vinyl or leather. He remembers the bits of broken windshield on the seats. Some blue. Some tainted red. And he remembers seeing the blood that had settled and dried in the seams of the seats. He remembers putting his head through the driver’s window for a better look around. He was disturbed but he did it anyway. There was an odd smell of metal. But from the wreckage or blood, he couldn’t tell. And there was also the shoe of a boy not much older than him left in the passenger’s footwell among the glass.

These are some of the things Gordon remembers about St. Mary’s Road. And that’s why he makes that left turn extra careful because that old country road has spelled too much bad luck and sorrow and horror for too many folks already.

But it looks clear now so he crosses the opposite lane and pulls in the driveway. Secured by an eye screw in a maple on one side and a steel post on the other, a heavy chain hangs across the entrance,. Near the middle of that chain, hanging by wire, is a sign that reads Private Property. No Trespassing.

Gordon instructs his granddaughter out of the truck.

“Just go up there and unhook it from the post. I’ll pull through and wait. Hook it back up and get back in.”

So they do that.

It’s the entrance to an old dirt road, more like a trail really, that runs up this hill on Bert Albertson’s property. Bert had been her Grandpa’s insurance guy until he retired and his son took over. Now his son is Gordon’s insurance guy, even though the canvas awning still reads Bert Albertson’s Insurance. As a favor for his patronage and loyalty, Bert lets him on the property. All he has to do is call ahead, which he did a few days ago.

Ellie climbs back in the cab. It cools as they drive in the shadow between the thickets. They both bounce in that cab like the floats that’ll soon land in the pond up the hill. Thankfully the road’s dry but Gordon puts the Silverado in four wheel drive anyway. He tries to avoid the nastiest ruts, hoping not to bottom out. But the wheels slip anyway. He thanks himself for deciding on the High Country package with those 20 inch wheels that get him outta those ruts without dragging the exhaust or transmission case.

Grandpa climbs the hill slowly, wrapped in overgrowth that scratches along the truck. It sounds like hail. Ellie puts her head inside as the branches switch and whip around them. Then the trail opens up and levels off at the crest, where they stop. There is a shabby old fishing cabin there that looks to be a heavy gust from becoming a pile of rotten boards. It’s in the middle of the woods so it probably gets a lot of protection from the storms. Maybe that’s what keeps it standing. But these days it doesn’t look good for much of anything but causing a twisted ankle so Gordon tells Ellie to stay away from it.

A few yards beyond the cabin and down the bank, are a weathered picnic table and a fire ring. The charred logs suggest it was recently used. And beyond the table is the pond.  It’s not big. Easy enough to cast from shore to shore on any side, except lengthwise. You’d have to say it’s kidney shaped. That’d probably describe its shape best. And there are cattails on the west side but the grass carp that Gordon always says not to mess with keep it otherwise clean, which is something to be said for a pond this deep in the woods.

Gordon puts her in park and sets the brake. They jump out of the cab. Gordon goes around to pull his Plano box and poles and folding chairs out of the bed. Ellie, at thirteen years old and only five foot one, can’t reach over. But Grampa, at six one, can. The chairs are those old aluminum folders with nylon ribbons weaved together that remind Gordon of plaid. They are light and have lasted him a couple decades. And he likes them better than the collapsible “pole chairs” as he calls them.

“You grab the seats. I’ll get the rods and tackle box,” he tells Ellie. So they take it all and start walking toward the pond.

He picks a spot in the shade where he drops the poles and box. He tells Ellie to set up the chairs there. Then he walks back to the truck to retrieve the cooler.

Ellie sets up their chairs. Gordon returns and sets the plastic cooler between them, then grabs a seat. He removes his hat to wipe off the sweat and get a better look at the sky. They’ve got three or four hours til dark and the sky’s clear and it’s very warm.

“We oughta do okay,” Gordon makes of the situation.

Ellie pulls out her phone.

“Don’t think you’ll get any signal out here,” he says. “We’re five miles outta town and out in the woods.”

He is right. There is no signal.

“You shouldn’t worry about that thing anyway. This is nature. Try to enjoy it.”

Ellie puts the phone back in her pocket. She is trying to enjoy it – the nature that is, not the phone.

“Here you go,” Gordon says and hands her a pole.

“Now this is what they call a spinning reel. Some call it an open bail. It’s what real fishermen use.”

Ellie remembers all that from last year. She has also seen pictures and TV shows where men in boats cast nets out into the sea. Somehow she thought they were the real fishermen. Or those guys in tournaments catching 18 pounders.

“Some people will tell you the Zebco 33’s the holy grail or whatnot, but don’t listen. Closed bails are for amateurs,” he says.

Gordon flips open the Coleman.

“Want a drink? I got water and Diet Faygo.” It’s Faygo cola but he lumps them all together as if they’re the same.

Ellie takes the water. She hates the taste of diet and prefers sweetened green tea. So the water will have to do.

“Now let me show you what we’re going to do today,” he says. “This is such a good trick. We’re really lucky, I tell you.”

He looks on the ground. His head jerks as he follows his eyes from spot to spot.

“Where’s the jar? I thought you brought it.”

He still can’t find it.  

Ellie says it’s still in the truck.

Gordon tells her to go on and get it. “We can’t do without that,” he says.

She comes back from the cab with it. It’s a spaghetti jar with holes poked in the lid. And it’s full of big bugs. Cicadas to be exact. As Grandpa told her, those buggers usually only come out ever 17 years, in hordes. He always talks how last time their terrier, Bubbles, had eaten them like candy off the giant maple out front. “Plugged that dummy up like a tampon,” he said. “But he just kept eating them. There was not stopping him.” Then that dummy Bubbles died a few years later from reasons other than constipation.

But there are freak years, for reasons Gordon can never remember, that some of them must get confused and sprout from the ground. And, lucky for him and Ellie, this is one of those years.

There were enough crawling on that same tree for Ellie to collect a few dozen. She didn’t want to touch those monsters with their red eyes and shiny shells and wings all transparent and veined like leaves.  And their damned buzzing and hissing. But Gordon assured her they don’t bite. There was nothing to be afraid of, which she half trusted until she found out for herself. Then Gordon grabbed one to make the point. With a mocking I tried telling you bravado, he walked away with it in his fist.

Now Gordon opens the jar and covers it with his hand. He turns it upside down and waits for one to drop. He holds it in his fist and slaps the lid back on quick and sets the jar back on the ground.

“Now here’s the trick,” he explains. “Keeping it alive. Now watch.”

He props the pole between his legs, holding it with his knees. With his free hand, he slips the hook from its eye on the rod, keeping it between his fingers. As the line slackens, the bobber dangles on the line several inches above.

“Now here’s the trick,” he repeats. He likes saying that. “You gotta hook him in the middle, where it’s hard. The butt is too soft. He’ll just fly off the hook.”

He pierces the bug from below. It cries. Its wings go frenzied. “And come up through the bottom. It’s easier that way, you’ll see.”

He releases the bug. it dangles and flops and chirps at the end of his string.

“Now you try it.”

Ellie reaches for the jar. Her hand isn’t big enough to cover the hole.

She looks to her grandfather.

“Just twist it off and reach in there real quick and grab one. Then put the lid back on real quick.”

That’s what she does.

“Now, like I showed you, hook him in the middle, from the bottom. The butt’s too soft and through the head’ll kill it. We want it alive.”

So that’s what she does. And her bug likes it no more than his.

Then Grandpa stands out of his chair.

“Remember from last year how to cast?” he asks.

Ellie nods.

“Okay.  But this is important. You’ve got to lob it. Not whip it or it’ll fly off. Lob it.”

With a lazy swing he throws it all forward – the bug, the hook and the bobber. It lands with a light slap on the water a few feet before the cattails. Perfect he thinks.

“Now watch this. If he’s alive, he’ll spread those wings and float. And vibrate and make ripples. That’s what we want. Those ripples.”

And sure enough, that’s what happens.

Then Gordon instructs Ellie. “Stand up. Hold the line with your finger. Open the bail. Baaaaaack slooooowly. Lob it forward and release your finger at the same time.”

She does. It lands on the surface easily too since they haven’t added any weights.

“You’re a pro,” Gordon tells her. “Now we wait.”

They sit again and watch for action. The red-winged blackbirds caw their conk-la-reeee and oh-ka-leee’s over the din of other chirps and croaks. She remembers the blackbird’s call, which she never hears in the suburbs.

She asks what he thinks they’ll catch. He says bass or bluegill, he imagines.

“Will we eat them?” she asks.

“I don’t eat them anymore. Seems cruel to kill ‘em when I can just buy fish sticks at the store.”

Ellie wonders if it isn’t cruel to drag them fighting from this pond with hooks in their mouths and bleeding from the gills. But she just wonders that, then goes back to her bobber exclusively.

The bugs alternate trills, ruffling the surface that excites Gordon more than the fish. Then, finally – SNAP. Something hits Gordon’s bait. He jerks the rod to set the hook.

“Got it,” he says as he stands and reels.

Then something snaps Ellie’s bug too. Her bobber darts under like a torpedo.

“I got one. I got one too!!!”

Gordon can tell by the twitch and bend of her pole it’s a big one.

“Did you set the drag? Set the drag!!!”

“I don’t know. What’s that?” She is both excited and mildly panicked.

Then it breaks and skips the surface on its tail. It’s a largemouth. A big one and damned feisty from getting hooked.

“It’s a hawg, girl,” Gordon shouts. But he’s still got a fish of his own to contend with.  

“Keep the line tight or he’ll throw the hook!!!!”

Ellie is trying. But her reeling lacks grace or fluidity. It is awkward, like gears that stick, which speaks of her inexperience. Her eyes cast between her grandfather and where her line pierces the surface, a point that jumps around like the bouncing top in a skittles game.

“You want it?” she asks Gordon. She extends her pole toward him.

But he has his own.

“No. It’s all yours,” he says while listening for the zip of that doggone drag.

But there is no zip. There is instead a pop, which reports the line has snapped. The pole flings straight. The line goes slack. And that bobber won’t be seen again.

“Goddamn it. I told you about the drag”, Gordon hollars

Ellie sits back down. Her face quivers as the tears come. Not over the fish. But over his rage. “I’m sorry. I tried telling you fishing’s not my thing,” she says. And both are true. She’d told him. And it isn’t her thing.

Gordon finishes bringing his in. It’s a bluegill a bit larger than his hand. A pretty good one. But he’s still fussing about the one that got away. Thankfully, she can’t hear exactly what he’s muttering.

And then last year storms back on Ellie.  She’d been sitting in the same chair in nearly the same spot. That day they’d been using grubs or wax worms as some call them. Those grubs are like maggots, all soft and puffy and primed to explode their juice at the slightest prick.  Grampa coaxed her to put those squishy yellow devils on the hook. It was disgusting. She hated it as most girls would.

“Don’t be a sissy,” he’d chided.

So she wasn’t, though it was repulsive. And then she tossed it out and watched the float, which stood up like a tilted buoy from the weight. They use stick bobbers, the kind that float like upright pens. Gordon doesn’t like the round ones which remind him of naval mines from World War 2. He likes the stick bobber with the fluorescent top, made of real wood, mostly balsa. The newer floats are cheap and easier to find. They’re made of plastic and styrofoam and fall apart easily. The wooden ones are what he grew up with and, by most accounts, are much better though more expensive.

Ellie had been watching her float. It swayed at an angle from the pull of the smallest split-shot in the box . When she got a bite, it convulsed and flipped completely straight. The twitch from a nibble reminds her of the needle on Gordon’s old Pioneer Wi-Fi. The needle dances to the whims of volume. And the needle is illuminated, like the dial, by a pale blue radiance that seems to cool the room during ball games at night

Ellie heard something rustle. It was a water snake sliding between her feet. It was fat and soft and banded brown and tan. In that instant, she saw it swell as it breathed. And the yellow ring in its eye.  It moved with a slow symmetric motion meant to startle, no matter one’s experience or species.

Ellie dropped her rod, screamed and ran. In her flight, she stepped on the pole. It was one of Gordon’s favorites and he heard it snap between her cries of terror.

She ran back to the tuck, shrieking as any little girl might. She jumped in the cab and shut the door.

Gordon held up the rod. The broken end swung from the nylon threads binding the fiberglass and graphite. He was furious. He ripped the tenderly conjoined pieces apart to end it once and for all. There was a savagery in his eyes and strained neck that frightened Ellie as much as the snake.

“It was just a snake for fuck’s sake!!!! You’ve never seen a fucking snake!!!???!!!” he raged.

The nearest blackbird abandoned its fuzzy cattail pirch. A frog plopped for refuge below the lily pads.

“Jesus Christ!!!” He threw the remains to the ground. “And I loved this pole!!!”

It was true. He’d caught many a catfish, bluegill, crappie and bass – smallmouth, largemouth and white – all on that pole. It had possessed memories and sentiment which he decided were now gone.

Ellie sat in the cab and cried on that day as she is now. Gordon usually likes telling Ellie stories of his past. But on these trips home he remained silent. And she remained scared and sore. And on that first night, when she got home and told her mother, she returned the call to her father immediately.

“You ever pull that shit on her again and that’s it. No more” she promised. “That shit doesn’t fly anymore.” She said all that with a forced restraint. She was not weak for not wanting to kill him. In her own way she wanted that. But she fought against the impulse to let it be felt.

So on this day Gordon composes himself and tells Ellie he’s sorry. He says he knows it’s only a fish. But Ellie wants to go home so that’s what they agree to do.

Gordon packs it all up and they go back. This time Gordon turns the radio on.

In town, they stop and wait for a pizza. They get back to his house around 8. By now it’s turning dark.

“What you wanna do tonight?,” he asks.

“Can I use your internet?”

“I don’t have it anymore”

Ellie asks why not.

Gordon explains that when it went down a while back and her Mom wouldn’t come around to fix it for nearly 3 months, he said the hell with it. He’d lived without it for that time, and he could continue on without it. Plus, it was a waste of the fifty bucks added to his bill since he hardly ever used it anyway.

Ellie asks if he ever figured out what was wrong. Gordon explains he finally asked the neighbor kid to come look at it. Gordon says, “he came over and turned the router off and on. That’s what he said. The router – off and on. I don’t even know what the router is.”

Ellie explains it’s a pretty simple device that everybody knows what it is. It is a pretty true and innocent remark from a mostly innocent girl.

“Well, I didn’t. And it doesn’t matter now. I just got rid of all that stuff, anyway.”

He chews at another piece of pizza. Then he says,  “we don’t need that internet anyway. How about we just talk?”

Ellie just wants to play Candy Crush but her mother has taught her to be polite.

“Sure. I guess.” Her sly affectation conceals the “no thanks”.

So Gordon asks if she likes school.

“Mostly,” she replies. And that is true.

Gordon asks how her mother is.

“Good,” she says. And that is true too.

Then Gordon asks what she does for fun.

“I write some poems. And publish them online.”

This makes sense. Her mother had said she’s the sensitive type.

“Published? Like getting paid published?”, he asks.

She explains that it’s mostly just sharing between friends on a website for teens.

“Well, keep it up. Someday you’ll become rich and famous.”

“Rich and famous like who?” she asks.

“Like Burt Reynolds.”

“Is he a poet?”

“No. But he was famous.”

Ellie finishes a piece of crust. Then she says, “Mom doesn’t want me reading Sylvia Plath.”

Gordon doesn’t know who that is.

“Why not?,” he asks.

“She killed herself. Mom says Sylvia Plath’s too intense.”

Gordon thinks his granddaughter might be into some pretty weird shit. He suspets she might be going goth.

“Yeah. My dad took away my scary comic books when I was a kid too. They were supposed to lead to juvenile delinquency. And so were The Rolling Stones.”

A protracted silence suggests their literary disjunction. So Gordon changes the subject.

“Okay. And what else do you like?”

“Well, Mom got me tickets for Girls Nights In in a few months.”

“What’s that? A play or music or concert or something?”

“It’s a bunch of ladies from a site called Fullscreen. Girls from the site are going on tour. There’s panels and meet and greets. Stuff like that. It would be cool if The Psychic Twins are there.”

“But what do these people do? Like, entertain?”

“They’re mostly vbloggers and YouTubers. They talk about lifestyles and fashion. Stuff like that.”

“Oh. And you’re mother’s taking you to this?” It sure sounds like a bunch of crap to him.

Ellie says yes.

“Is it expensive?”

Ellie says she doesn’t know. Gordon asks if maybe she should know. Ellie doesn’t know why it should matter.

“Cause maybe she’s spending a pretty penny for it. You ought to know that.”

“If she wants me to go and she wants to go with me, why’s it matter?” Ellie asks. “Why’s it need to be my business?”

“Cause money doesn’t grow on trees.”

“If she wants me to know or feels I need to know, she’ll tell me. We sorta work that way.”

She’s getting bored with the conversation so she pulls out her phone to check for a signal.

“Can’t you put that thing away for five minutes?”

“It’s been like 30 minutes and we haven’t talked about anything. What do you want to talk about?”

Gordon asks if she has a boyfriend.

“No,” she replies. Then, greased in sarcasm, “Do you have a girlfriend?”

“No. But I can tell you about how I met your grandmother.”

So he does that even though, through him and her mother, Ellie’s heard it a dozen times, full length and piecemeal. But she sets the phone down and listens politely anyway because that’s what she’s supposed to do.

So he kneads this reminiscence slow and gently with inflections and pauses and intonations that fill the many gaps that an absence of drama and intrigue leave. It reminds Ellie of the time she had to give a book report but had only read the summary of the novel.  She really had nothing to say with a full 5 minutes to kill. That report was as excruciating for her to deliver as this present delivery is to receive.

So she gives a stagy sigh after the first act.

“What?” her grandfather asks.

“And then you went to the Navy and moved to San Diego and you hurt your back and moved back here. And then you had Mom. I know the story.”

If Ellie was his own daughter and they were both younger, he’d put her over his knee or worse. But he just tightens his jaw instead because, at this age, he doesn’t have as much fervor for fury as he used to.

“Okay, brat. Do what you want. I’m turning on the television.”

“I’m going to bed,” Ellie says. She goes to her mother’s old room, undresses and tries to sleep.

Ellie gets up the next morning. Gordon’s already at the table with a bowl of cereal and coffee and the news on the television.

“That’s your Mom’s old bed up there,” he says as if it is some sort of monument or something otherwise honorary.

“Yeah, I know.” She’s slept in the beds of plenty of other people and never considered it a distinction.

“We kept it all these years.”

Obviously, she thinks but doesn’t want to start the day that way. She’d slept horribly on that slab of sheets. Her back is aching from it as usual and now she has to go to karate with it.

“Want something to eat?”

She asks what there is.

“Oatmeal and All-Bran.”

She asks what kind of oatmeal. He says just plain.

“That’s it?” she asks.

He explains that he’s diabetic and that he can’t have a bunch of sugary crap around, which she knows. And that he had eggs but used the last one a few days ago.

Ellie says she doesn’t like eggs anyway.

“Why? You going vegan?” he asks.

“No. I just don’t like eggs,” she says. “I’ll just wait. I’ll eat at home.” And she does, even though she should eat something now.

“As you like,” he says as he takes a drink and eyes the TV.

“You’re taking me to karate today? That’s what Mom said.”

“Yeah, I guess so. Did she say 1?” He meant 1 p.m.

Ellie says yes.

He asks how long he’ll have to wait.

“Hour. Hour and a half, usually,” she says.

“Jesus,” he gruffs.

So they leave about 12:15. Gordon doesn’t drive inside the beltway much anymore. Obviously, Ellie’s mother knows her own neighborhood pretty well. But Gordon doesn’t. So his daughter usually delivers his Ellie to the town where her mother grew up. But this afternoon she had some commitment or another and wouldn’t be home until later. And she’d already paid Ellie’s monthly karate fee and Ellie wanted to go anyway. So she asked if Gordon could take her. He’d bellyached a bit but his daughter guilted him with the fact that wasn’t going to do anything all week anyway. The least he could do was that.

So he drove her there nervously. Ellie guided him. He eyed the area for some fast food joint he might easily backtrack to without getting lost. He could at least sit and have a cup of coffee while Ellie chopped and kicked or whatever. But he didn’t see anything within a few miles. It occurred to him that one of the GPS’s might help him out but he never wanted one. So he just sits in the car and listens to what is wrong with the world and everybody else.

Ellie comes out an hour or so later. Gordon turns off the radio and asks, “So how’d it go.”

“Okay,” she says.

If she was older, he’d give her his opinion on the mayor’s tax plan he’d been listening about. But you can’t expect a girl her age to know about such things so he just takes her home with the radio back on.

“You ever listen to music?” Ellie asks.

“I used to but…..” He turns the radio back off. Then he explains for the rest of the trip how he hates hip-hop and all the rest of the modern junk until they pull in the driveway behind her mom’s car.

They climb out of the cab at the same time.

Ellie walks in the kitchen door, says hi to her mom, then goes to her room for her iPad. Gordon follows through the kitchen door behind her.

Ellie’s mom asks her own father how things went.

“You know kids these days. Cell phones and the internet. Facebook and all that other stuff. They got no time for us. But you probably know that. All wrapped up in their own little worlds.”

“Maybe they’re not wrapped up in their own little worlds. Maybe they’re wrapped up in the world,” his daughter replies.

He’s just stepped in and she’s already prodding him. She never wants to agree with anything he says or believes. But he’s not in the mood for a fight. Waiting on Ellie’s karate was the downright shits. He just wants to go home and watch a game.

Ellie sits down at the table with her iPad.

Her mother asks what they did. Gordon explains they went fishing and it went okay.

She asks her daughter if it went okay.

“I guess so,” which means to her mother it didn’t. She looks to her father, who is looking elsewhere.

“Mom. Do we have anything to eat?”

Her mother pushes off the sink, heading for the fridge.

She opens it and grabs a container of pasta salad. She reaches around Ellie to place the salad on the table. Her hip brushes against Ellie’s shoulder. That’s when she see it.

“Jesus Christ. What’s that?” her mother bursts. She instantly wishes she’d been more measured. She doesn’t want to make Ellie nervous but it’s too late.

“What? What is it?” Ellie asks. She knows something’s not right.

“Hold still,” her mother says.

Ellie feels her mother teasing through her hair.

“Oh my God,” her mother whispers.

“What is it? What is it? Just tell me” Ellie’s begins panicking. She drops the tablet to reach for her hair but her mother grabs her arms first.

“Don’t. It’s okay.”

She glares over at her father, whose attention is now on them.

“What is it?” he asks.

“Just ticks. Nothing to worry about.” she says cooly.

“Ticks? Must have got them fishing yesterday,” Gordon says. “No big deal. The woods are filled with them.”

But these ticks are the size of grapes. They must have been sucking all night and day.

“Just yank ‘em out. That’s what your grandma always did.”

“Please, just be quiet,” his daughter says.

“I’m going to get tweezers,” she tells Ellie. “Don’t touch.”

Her mother steps into the bathroom. Gordon steps over to Ellie. He can see them now. They’re plump. And ripe. They are tight as balloons, all black and gorged.

He knows it’s bad so he says, “I tell you, I’d rather get ticks than chiggers any day.”

Her mother returns from the bathroom. She pushes Gordon aside and tells him to step away. She parts her daughter’s hair. With the tweezers, she pinches the parasite at it’s head, then pulls gently until it releases. She dashes back to the bathroom to drop it in the toilet. Then returns to her daughter to remove the other. Then drops it in the toilet too. She does this all nervously but with the calm of one who’s done it before.

“All finished, Honey. It’s okay,” she tells her daughter. “Maybe you should take a shower. Wash your hair.”

Ellie goes to her bedroom.

Her mother steps up to her own father. “Have you looked at her at all today?  If you did, you’d have seen that shit.”

Gordon replies, “They’re just ticks. No big deal. And to answer your question, no, we did not groom like monkeys this morning.”

Then he adds, “I don’t know why nobody at her karate class saw ‘em.”

“Fuck the karate class,” she says. “I’m not surprised that you never saw them because you never do. You never see anything.”

She calls at her daughter, “You taking that shower?”

“Yeah. In a minute.”

She tells her father, “I think you better go.”

He looks at his daughter. Something in her eyes have changed since she was little. Maybe the color. “They’re only ticks. I had a million of ‘em as a kid,” he exaggerates. “It’s no big deal.”

But his daughter doesn’t reply. She just bores through him until he looks away.

“So,” he tells or asks her. He doesn’t really know what that means but figures there must be more than just this.

“We’ll see you later,” his daughter says and guides him to the door.

Her mother shouts, “Grandpa’s leaving.”

“Okay,” they hear.

As she opens the door, Gordon says, “Tell her not to worry. We’ll catch that big one next year. I’ll show her how to set the drag.”

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