Two weeks late and a bit meandering, I give you this short story I’m calling “The Pledge.”
I’d love to know what you think of the characters and if you’d read more. Thanks again to Angelica for the prompt.
I push my bare feet into the familiarity of my cracked red cowboy boots. The dampness makes the worn leather grab them, so I have to pull hard. The sore muscles in my hands twitch in disagreement. It takes thirty seconds, but with his eyes on the back of me and the heavy stone returning to my gut, it’s like an endless looping moment.
Turning around, I see he is as I left him, laying on his back under the green sweeping branches of the old Willow Tree. He has slipped his brown corduroy pants back on, but his chest remains exposed and flushed. His bushy blonde hair and beard, thick legs and arms, give him the appearance of a resting lion. I blush remembering the hunt. He pats the ground next to him and I turn away.
“Don’t go yet,” he says.
His voice smoky and panting calls me back to our hidden spot and my body responds with natural instinct, a betrayal of my true intentions. The warring of my conscience, volleying back and forth, makes me sway in place for a moment. I kick a rock with the toe of my boot and watch it hit a boulder and break into uneven pieces. I don’t know if I can end this, or if I do, what will be left of me.
The rainclouds grow darker and fat drops fall onto my tangled red hair, bringing goosebumps spiraling from my neck to my arms and legs. The soft fabric of my favorite yellow sundress is plastered to my body, outlining its curving shape and my missing undergarments. The rock shifts in my stomach and I lean forward to avoid my boots as I release everything I’ve eaten in the last day on the mossy ground.
Shivering, I recite the “Pledge of Allegiance” in my head, my hand covering my heart in a motion so practiced it could not be restrained.
“I Pledge Allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America…”
In the moonlight, my father’s face looks as if it was carved from an elephant’s tusk, pale white and severe. There is a dark brown evening shadow of hair running in an almost straight line from his ears to his cheekbones, ending in a patch on his pointed chin. His eyebrows are pitched toward his nose in a deep scowl, making his blue eyes almost disappear into his wrinkled face. He spits a glob of foam onto the ground and twirls the hard, white ball in one hand.
I’m standing at the five-sided home plate in our backyard, holding the heavy wooden bat in my small hands. A tall, wispy girl of six, I’m dressed in jeans and a faded yellow t-shirt. My nails are thick with dirt from digging with the neighbor boy for worms near the creek behind our house. I concentrate on placing my weight on the balls of my feet and keeping a slight bend in my knees.
My father brings his arms together in front of his body, pulling back and lifting one knee, he pitches the ball. Fear overcomes training, I close my eyes and freeze in place. The ball hits me hard on my side and I fall to the ground, tears coming faster than I can stop them. The bat rolls away and I gasp for air.
He is snarling at me from his raised pitching mound, the anger hot between us. I wipe the tears with my hands, the dirt stinging my eyes. My lungs stab with pain, but I force myself to my feet and stumble toward the bat’s resting place a few feet away. When I bend to lift the bat, the pain makes me cry out. I turn to him, begging with my eyes for us to be done, but he doesn’t return the gaze. He walks toward me, retrieves the ball near my scuffed pink tennis shoes, and returns to his dirty throne.
I place my feet shoulder-width apart and hold the bat, making sure my index finger on the bottom hand is bent around but separate from the other fingers. I adjust the angle and keep my eye on the ball. Don’t look away. Don’t flinch.
“…And to the Republic for Which it Stands…”
Standing side by side, I try to stay in unison with my father’s deep voice as we say the pledge together. He pronounces each word sharp and crisp. When he finishes, he turns to me, tilting my ten-year-old face to his. He is wearing his dark blue army uniform, the special occasion one with the shiny gold buttons and the polished black boots. I don’t know if he is carrying his gun. He grabs both my hands in his.
“Never forget today.”
The seams of my white gloves press into my palms as he squeezes hard. We turn back toward the hole in the yard where Gretchen lay dead and stiff. Dad’s flannel shirt is laid across the lower part of her body and her favorite chew toy, a stuffed mallard with missing eyeballs, is placed in her paws as if she’s holding it. I’m scared she might move at any minute and lunge at me with her wild eyes and sharp teeth.
Dad stands at attention, and I do as well. I’m wearing a pleated yellow dress he ironed with starch and it itches, like bugs crawling on my stomach and chest. I look at the stand of beech trees near the back fence, yearning to play, and he grabs my chin, returning my gaze to the hole. Gretchen’s face is locked in a permanent growl and I swear I hear it rumbling out of her dead mouth. I shiver and squirm.
He slaps me across the face. My neck wipes around and I fall to the ground, the smell of rotting dog making me gag. My face burns, my eyes refuse to focus and I puke, a dismal array of undigested oatmeal and orange juice. He pulls me to my feet, my white patent leather shoes scuffed with dirt, and screams into my face of disrespect and disappointment. I can’t see his face. I stammer an apology and return to his side. We stand at attention, the throbbing of my head making me sway, and say the pledge over and over as the stench of Gretchen’s body covers us.
“…One Nation under God…”
He holds my hand as we watch the casket, my father tucked inside, lowered into the ground. The sun is shining bright and the sky is electric blue and free of clouds. Sweat makes the black lace of my dress stick to my skin and drips streak the backs of my legs. I squint and cover my face with my free hand, pretending tears I can’t seem to force.
A soldier, young enough to have pimples on his chin, hands me a triangle of an American flag. It’s heavy in my arms and I resist the urge to throw it on the ground. All eyes are on us, the grieving couple. I’m about to say something when he makes a strangled cough which turns into a heaving sob, his bulky form shaking next to me. He sounds like a fish gasping for air. I keep my eyes on the hole in the ground.
My father and I met him at a car show. He was standing next to a bright red 1966 Ford F100. It had been his father’s truck and he was honoring his memory by showing it. He had long blonde hair pulled back into a neat ponytail and a trimmed blonde beard. He was dressed in a sandy brown suit, ironed creases along the center of the pant legs, and a soft yellow handkerchief folded with three points in the left breast pocket. His smile warmed my body. My dad was impressed and invited him to dinner at our house. We were married six months later, five days after my 18th birthday.
My father loved him, greeting him every time by gripping his arms and pulling him into a deep embrace. They never spoke harsh of each other, only of me. His sobs crescendo, his body wobbling back and forth as everyone watches. The light catches his wedding ring. I should pull it off his finger and throw it onto the casket.
He looks beautiful in his expensive Italian suit with its three round buttons, embroidered silk tie, and pale-yellow handkerchief. He’d polished his shoes for two hours this morning, but they look dull in the brightness of the noon sun. He goes silent and snaps his body to attention. His voice cracks as he leads everyone in saying the pledge my father lived. We all join in.
“…Indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for All.”
I spit the last strings of vomit on the ground and tilt my head back so the raindrops fall on my face. I close my eyes. The ground is slick and puddled under my boots. I should not have come to him again. He wipes my face with soft yellow fabric and folds me into his arms, the scent of him like pine forests and mud. His lips brush my neck, licking rainwater and warming the air. I look at my red leather boots and beg them to walk away.