Sarah Mims Yeargin
My father shot our cat once. I was nine, and it was his cat, really. He’d had the thing since college. Loved it through all its cases of fleas, its snarling at strangers, leaving dirt-colored hairballs in every corner of the house. His name was Duncan, though us kids called him Bubbee, because of the fact that for some reason, when I was learning to speak, my little mouth could not form into the proper shapes to say his proper name. As a result, Bubbee despised me, as well as anyone else under four feet tall who pulled out clumps of his fur with sticky fingers or got down on hands and knees to scream in his aged face. Though his hatred of us was fierce, we all loved Bubee unconditionally. Especially my father.
So imagine our surprise when my mother and brothers and sister and I came home from a walk one day, and our father informed us he’d had to put Bubbee down Old Yeller-style. Bubbee’d been getting up in age, my father said. He’d had a seizure he couldn’t come out of. It seemed right to end the cat’s misery, and since my family was broke, he decided to do it himself. My parents had just filed for bankruptcy; they couldn’t afford to take their children to the doctor, let alone their elderly cat who was bound to die of something soon anyway. My father did the best thing he could, I think. An impulsive thing, but noble, in a way. Better than letting Bubbee seize to death, perhaps long into the hours of the night, after we’d gotten home from our walk and eaten dinner, the cat still jerking in the dust outside.
To a nine-year-old however, this was murder.
In the first real memory I have of my father I’m around four, sitting on the couch in our old house, the first house I ever lived in. The sunlight catches specks of dust floating inside its white rays, and the TV plays softly in the background, some cartoon PBS Kids show from before my mother finally caved and bought cable. My parents sit in chairs facing me about five feet away. My mother, age thirty, has a face creased with worry, hair a smoggy red at the roots due to the lack of a dye job. My father leans forward in his seat, eyes set on something behind me. I turn and see a black pistol resting on the cushion supporting my back. I know this is a memory and not a dream, because I’ve asked my mother about it. She says my father wanted to test me, to see what I recalled from our “lessons.”
The only lesson I remembered him giving me was about peripheral vision. He’d hold a rubber ball in one hand, stretch his arms wide like Christ the Redeemer, and instruct me to look only at his face. “Which hand?” he’d ask. If I moved my eyes left or right, he’d throw the ball at my face, it’d hit me in the cheek, and we’d start over.
This was not the lesson my mother spoke of. She meant the gun lessons. More specifically, the gun safety lessons. The stop, don’t-touch, leave-the-area, tell-an-adult lessons, accompanied by a cartoon eagle named Eddie who did all my father’s hard work for him. My father would set me down like a sack of flour in front of our ancient desktop computer and pop in the CD-ROM. The NRA logo blinked across the screen, then, Eddie Eagle’s voice emanated from the speaker as his red-sweatered figure walked on screen to teach me how to deal with finding a gun in someone’s closet, or attic, or bush.
And it paid off. According to my mother, upon seeing the firearm behind me, I did just as Eddie advised. I froze, then jumped up and ran into their arms, tears streaking down my chubby freckled cheeks as I told them I didn’t think I’d touched it but I wasn’t completely sure. My mother held me and shot disapproving glances at my father. She’d been unaware of his plan. My father patted me roughly on the back and shrugged at her, barely containing his pride. After all, I’d passed his test.
Later that night, I listened to them argue. She asked him what he would have done had I picked up the gun and accidentally shot it. It wasn’t loaded, he said, and he’d flipped the safety as an extra precaution. A slam, then my mother calling him irresponsible. Another slam. A pillow over my ears as I tried to fall asleep.
My father is a retired police officer. Received a degree in biology then set it aside, perhaps misplacing it somewhere among the hundreds of boxes in the fire hazard of a room he calls his office. A few years before I was born, he began a career in law enforcement—campus safety at the very place he’d just spent the last six years working toward the degree he would never use.
Before my parents’ marriage turned sour, maybe even back when I was an only child, my father would come home from work, change out of his uniform, and lie on the couch until my mother and I finished dinner. He never ate with us, instead asked my mother to make him a plate and leave it in the microwave for him to eat later. I was never up late enough to actually see him eat, but I assume he did, based on the dirty dishes that littered the kitchen counter every morning.
While my mother did the dishes from the family meal, I’d sit on the floor and beg my father to tell me stories about his day. These usually involved a robber or a gunman or some other type of criminal who fit beneath the overarching “bad guy” umbrella, then a long chase—either in a police car or on foot—and finally, my father emerging as hero.
Before bed, I’d drag myself upstairs to my father’s dresser, pick up his shiny badge, much heavier than I imagined, and stare at my reflection. I’d run my little fingers over his silver handcuffs, wondering how many bad guys’ wrists they’d encircled. My eyes found his empty gun holster, and my curiosity halted, scared back inside me like a cat retreating at the sound of a slamming door. I felt that if my fingertips so much as brushed it, my skin might shrivel and fall off, as if the holster were made of soda ash instead of faux leather. Just as I’d begin to convince myself otherwise, my mother would call me to brush my teeth and put on pajamas.
After the divorce, we all gravitated toward one parent or the other as our favorite—the one whose house we preferred to stay at, the one we depended on more than the other. My sister and two brothers spent their weekends at my father’s, while I tended to lean toward my mother.
At surface level, this made sense to both me and my parents. At the time of the divorce, I was twelve years old, right in the thick of middle school and all its drama as well as the drama my body put me through on a daily basis. People understood. A girl needs her mother at times like this, I imagined them saying. But dig deeper, and my subconscious choice made even more sense. A twelve-year-old is mature enough to understand when something is off, especially when that something is the fact that, after one month living on his own, my father had effectively trashed his new house. Upon walking through the front door, one was immediately slapped in the face by the stench of cigarette smoke and decay, exacerbated by the sight of mold creeping like vines from the ceiling and down the walls. Food scraps and McDonald’s wrappers littered his living room floor, moving only when something alive—a roach or a mouse—crawled under them. Beer cans and pizza boxes overflowed from the kitchen trash can, a waterfall of garbage. Uncovered wires littered various corners, sparking when someone decided to use the microwave while someone else took a shower. Stray cats and the occasional chicken wandered in through the open back door and defecated wherever they pleased. More than once, my younger brothers stumbled upon one of the guns my father kept hidden in every closet.
My theory of twelve-year-olds and post-divorce visitation has proven true so far. Weeks after my sister turned twelve, she told our mother she no longer wanted to spend the night at our father’s. The elder of my younger brothers turned twelve last month, and I overheard him on the phone just the other day, begging our father to let him stay at our mother’s this weekend. He told our father he wanted to spend more time with me before I headed back to boarding school after the Thanksgiving break. After they hung up, I told my brother I wouldn’t be around all the time for him to use as an excuse, so he’d better work up the nerve to tell our father the truth.
I was six. My mother and I had just sat down to dinner—meatloaf and mashed potatoes—when the phone rang. We still had a house phone back then, one mounted to the wall, a curled wire connecting the handset and the base. My mother rose to answer it.
On the other end was some medical official. An EMT perhaps. My father had been hurt in a chase, the official said. She gave us the address for the hospital where they transported him.
I expected something from a television show: tubes in the nose, various machines beeping next to the cot, my unconscious father somehow putting his hand on top of mine and assuring me, even in a comatose state, that everything would be alright. In reality I don’t know if any of this happened, because my mother thought the best thing to do would be to call an emergency babysitter to watch me and my toddler sister while she dealt with sterilized doctor handshakes and potential bad news. A good call, in retrospect.
A few days later my father came home with a brace on his back and a cast on his knee, sentenced to three months of bedrest. It was in those months that I chipped away the pieces of what had happened.
Story goes, my father received a call for suspicious activity taking place in one of the student houses a few miles from the university campus. The owners were away, the neighbor had said, but there’d been a beam reflected through the window, like a flashlight. My father took his car to check it out, noted the back door ajar, and stepped inside before calling for backup. He heard a thump from above. Went upstairs. Saw the attic door in the ceiling open, the ladder down. Climbed up and looked around the dark space. He heard rustling behind him and turned just as the robber pulled the trigger. My father dodged the bullet, or the bullet dodged him, and as he backed against the wall fumbling for his own gun, he stepped on a weak spot in the plywood. I wonder if his gun was still in its holster, or if he’d taken it out by the time he came crashing down into what appeared to be a mancave, complete with ping pong tables, bean bag chairs, and various gaming devices. The green glow of the Xbox button was the last thing he saw before he closed his eyes, he always said, his eyes widening to match mine. He thought I was amazed at the magnitude of what he had been through, but I wasn’t. I was amazed because this was different than his other police tales. In this one, my father was not the hero. He’d let the bad guy get away.
For as long as I can remember, my father has never shown up. Not to softball games or chorus performances or readings. Not to my brother’s violin recitals or my sister’s volleyball tournaments. We are aware he’s in pain. We are aware it’s chronic. We are also aware that he somehow finds the strength to go to the shooting range every Saturday, to stand for three hours with his arms held in front of him, pistol aimed toward a target in the shape of a dark-skinned man wearing a turban. His tendency to act in his own interests rather than attend our special events reminds us it is not his disability that stops him.
My other little brother, the one who still visits our father on the weekends, is too young to participate in things he’d want our father to show up for, too young to fit into my theory of twelve-year-olds. I worry about him, watching our father get drunk off cheap beer all the time because “it helps with the pain,” sitting on his porch shirtless and shooting at the broken bottles littering the yard.
My father shot one of the stray cats once. I was fourteen. She’d been bathing in a spot of sun on the raggedy grass, indifferent to the occasional gunshots. One too many beers too early in the day, and suddenly a pained yelp—too loud to be a meow—shattered the air into splinters.
We rushed outside, my brothers and sister and me. The cat lay heaving on the sandy earth about twenty feet from the porch. Five feet to the right of her was the bottle my father had been aiming at. I looked at him. He took no notice of my gaze, crushing a can flat under his foot. My sister began to cry. My little brother, the youngest of us all, went back inside the house emerging a second later with a rusty shovel.
Why my father kept shovels in the house, I’ll never know. The metal blade scraped and clanged down the rickety porch steps as my brother dragged it behind him. He was six, the same age I was when our father had been hurt. In his oversized flip-flops, he shuffled across the grass to the cat—whose stomach, by this time, had stopped inflating—and peered over her. He moved to her left and began excavating her grave.
On the porch, my father cracked open another beer and took a long chug, face to the sky. When he finished, he chucked the can over his shoulder and opened a new box of ammo. My brother and sister and I looked at the ground, and at each other, and at our little brother digging next to the dead cat in the yard. Anywhere but in the direction of our father reloading his gun.
SARAH MIMS YEARGIN is a senior at the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities, where she focuses on creative writing. She has received several Scholastics Writing awards for her poetry and essays, including three gold keys, as well as an honorable mention in the 2015 Hollins University Nancy Thorp Poetry Contest. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Teenage Wasteland Review, the Interlochen Review, Litmus, and Élan Magazine. She likes to spend her free time drinking coffee and reading to her pet chickens.