I’m Not Going To Ask You

I’m Not Going To Ask You

It was ten degrees and dark outside as Liam and Nicole drove down Highway 34 in Liam’s truck. The air and ground, snow-thick and dimensionless, disappeared the road and filled the couple with a sense of having travelled too far into somewhere unknown, outside the boundaries of what was allowed by physical law. December 23rd—and as they slowly turned the corner into Bushnell, Illinois, around the black metal welcome sign that displayed a kneeling war veteran—now covered in ice—Nicole became tense and quiet. Only a few of the single-family, slab-lot houses were decorated for Christmas. Most of them looked empty.

“How should I tell him we’re getting married?” Nicole said.

“You say, we’re getting married, Dad.”

“Sure. I’m sure it’s going to be that easy.”

Liam sighed. He knew it wasn’t going to be that easy with Frank. Nicole’s dad was a farmhand—a man not given to surprises that jarred with his sense of reality or the way things should be. Nicole’s dad lost his wife, Sherry, to skin cancer three years ago, and since then has made of her a shrine and lived the way some people do when loss becomes their identity and they are too far away from a rational way of life to believe in anything good or new. Liam and Nicole didn’t pass any judgment on Frank for living this way. They just didn’t know how to offer up any new condolences.

It didn’t help that Nicole’s dad was a church-going man. It didn’t help that Frank was always overeager to explain to anyone why the weather and the whole universe behaved the way it did. He believed in the things he said as if his word was law and he made no compromises.

“Last Christmas wasn’t so bad, Nicole.”

“No, but did you see how he kept side-eyeing you. We’ve been together four years. He’s waiting for you to ask his permission to marry me.”

“You know I don’t believe in that. We’re both adults. You can say yes or no. I’m just happy you said yes.”


“You’re 24, Nicole. I’m 26. Frank doesn’t need to give you permission. You give you permission.”

“Goddamnit, I know. Don’t tell me how I think. But you know he isn’t going to take it lightly. And my addict brother is just going to sit there backing up whatever stupid shit comes out of my dad’s mouth. He’s going to sit there in the same clothes he’s worn all year and just smile and punch his hand and rock back and forth and laugh. It’d be a Christmas miracle if he wasn’t spun off pills this year.”

“We’re staying three nights and then headed back to Effingham. We’ll all live. We’ll have a nice dinner. We’ll tell them Christmas morning.”

Liam turned the truck into Frank’s driveway. The snow crunched underneath the old tires. The headlights lit up the small house. The siding’s dirt and the snow accumulating on the roof made the house look like an animal that had lived longer than it needed or even wanted to.

“Okay, we’re here,” Liam said, slapping his thigh with his hand half covered by the long sleeve of his brown duck jacket.

“Just follow my lead, okay Liam? Don’t let my dad walk all over you. He still doesn’t know I stopped going to church four years ago. He’ll think you made me.”

“That’s fine. I didn’t. But I don’t care. He never went to college. Just tell him the truth.”

“Oh, come on.”

“I love you.

“I love you, too.”


Nicole and Liam first saw each other at a freshman athletics orientation meeting at a small community college in Southern Illinois. Liam had been recruited from Divernon high school to play baseball and Nicole had been recruited from West Prairie to play softball. Their first encounter was a matter of wordless formality where they had to stand up as their name was called so all of the new recruits could look at them and place a face to the name. Almost all of the athletes rose self-consciously, quickly waved to the room while smirking, and sat back down as fast they could.

There was a party thrown by the second year players later that night. There was a keg in a dorm room and most of the athletes went straight for it as they made their way down the hall. Nicole noticed Liam off on his own looking over the DVD collection that was in the room.

“You’re not going to get a drink?”

“I don’t really drink much.”

“Me either” Nicole said. “So how’s your first week here?”

“It’s been fine. I guess. Its kind of what I expected. There’s a lake just up I-57 that has good bluegill. I went fishing for bluegill.”

Nicole nodded and adjusted her shoulders in a way that suggested she wasn’t ready to talk about fishing. Liam noticed and he stopped himself from going on further. A brief silence passed between them and they both felt awkward. Nicole had wanted to go to the party for team building purposes, but none of the girls she knew from the team had shown up yet. The girls that were there had formed their own circle and were all from a different high school. They hadn’t made an opening for Nicole to introduce herself. Nicole didn’t want to ask Liam a follow up question, but she didn’t know what else to do now that she found herself alone in the corner with him.

“So, do you fish a lot?”


Frank was sitting on his plush recliner—the only nice piece of furniture he ever let himself buy.

“I’m just glad you both made it here safely. The sky is practically caving in and falling down out there.”

“It wasn’t too bad. My truck does okay. I need new tires though. The sidewalls are pretty worn.”

Frank nodded and turned his head back towards the big screen TV that sat atop a cheap card table. Gavin was sitting on a wooden chair, the only other chair in the room, staring deadpan at It’s a Wonderful Life scratching his bare toes back and forth on the worn shag carpet. His baggy sweatpants made his feet appear small and infantile.

Frank touched the breast pocket on his red flannel to make sure his cigarettes were still there the way some people check for their keys. His hands were always dirty and the nails chewed short. He was in the late stages of balding so he never bothered to do anything with his stray, graying hairs. Most of the time he was content to walk around in public looking like he had just been electrocuted.

“So, Dad, how was the crop this Fall?” Nicole asked, trying to break the silence that existed around the TV.

“Well, if you called more, I could have told you. It’s winter now, and I basically forgot. I’m already thinking about next year.”

“Damnit, Dad. I’m just trying to make conversation. We’ve all seen this movie a million times before anyway.”

“Forgive me for trying to keep up the tradition.”

“Talking is tradition. We can talk. Talk about how we’ve been.”

“I’ve been shitty. Real shitty,” Gavin interjected.

“Gavin, of course you have. You should have gone into the Army like your friends did. Instead you became an—.” Nicole stopped herself from crossing the threshold of impoliteness too early.

“Leave your brother alone, Nicole. The poor kid has had a tough go.”

“Oh bullshit. Every doctor inside the belly of Illinois knows why Gavin has a bad back and his back ain’t even bad.”

Gavin’s face contorted to that of a distant smile somewhere between knowing he was causing his sister frustration and heartache. He was trying not to let on that he, too, hated who he had become but didn’t know why anymore.

Brushing his hand down Nicole’s arm to let her know that he supported her even if he wasn’t in the room, Liam excused himself from the leather love seat and walked down the short hallway to the inflatable mattress he and Nicole were going to share for the next three nights.

“You two just sent Liam to bed.”

Frank and Gavin both turned their heads just in time to watch the thin door shut down the hall.

“Well, now that he’s gone to bed, we’ve been wanting to know when you two are getting married?”

“It’s not either of your business.”

“Sure. But you’ve been living with another man two years now unmarried. People around here ask how you are and I got nothing to say to em’. You went to college. Fine. You paid your own way and then you took a local news job talking on the radio on the other side of the state.”

“What are you saying, Dad?”

“Well, you’re right by that interstate. It’s a straight shot up to Chicago. We’re just waiting for you to get real goofy on all of us and leave to go up there with Liam. He told me last year he was looking for a job up there.”

“Dad. It’s my life.”

“You’re my daughter.”

“Not in the way you want me to be.”

“You’ve screwed up your damn head, girl.”

“Let’s just finish this movie and go to bed.”

Gavin laughed but neither Nicole or her dad acknowledged it. Gavin hadn’t been watching the movie. He stared back down at his feet and thought how his big toe looked like ET. This thought made him laugh and he sunk back into the wooden chair. Then he sunk even deeper inside of himself into a place he didn’t even have a name for.

“Fine, Nicole. Let’s just finish the damn movie and go to bed. I’m fine with that.”


Scarmbled eggs, bacon, and toast were set out on the wooden kitchen table. Coffee stains, knife marks, and marker lines from years ago blended together on the surface of its white paint. Frank had woken up early to make everyone breakfast and was setting out the juice when Liam walked into the kitchen.

“Morning, Frank. Merry Christmas Eve.”

“Sure. Good morning.”

“This looks good. Thanks, Frank.”

The kitchen wasn’t equipped with an exhaust fan so smoke lingered in the kitchen. Liam noticed that the fire alarm battery was exposed and had been opened by Frank to prevent the alarm from going off and waking everyone up unnaturally. It’s possible, too, Liam thought, that the battery port had been opened to be changed, was forgot about, and now weeks have passed without a working fire alarm.

Gavin and Nicole walked into the kitchen side-by-side after smelling the bacon and hearing the brief mumbling of those first awake. Frank turned to greet them. He almost smiled and for a second saw his two children as they were twenty years ago—their high voices squealing, running into the kitchen and using all of their strength to pull the folding chairs away from the kitchen table. He let himself hold this memory longer than usual as Gavin and Nicole both rubbed the sleep from their eyes, adjusting the sun falling through the window, which was made brighter by the white blanket of snow settling outside like all bad things had been erased. For a second, the four people in the room—even if they couldn’t identify what they were feeling—had some sense of being stuck in time or having travelled back through it.

“How’d everyone sleep,” Gavin asked.

“Well enough,” Nicole answered, tightly separating part of her scrambled egg with her fork.

“I’m sorry about last night,” Frank said. “I just want to have a good day.”

“I agree. Should we drive up to Galesburg today? Have a look at the lights and trees; maybe grab a pint or a bite to eat? It might feel good to walk around and take a few pictures together.”

“I like that, Liam. That’s a good idea,” Frank said straight faced with a mouth half-full of food.

“Thanks, Liam.”

Nicole laid a hand on his thigh underneath the table to make sure that he knew the thanks was genuine. Gavin shrugged and kept eating which was his way of agreeing.

“Thanks for food, Dad.” Nicole looked up and locked eyes with her father.

Frank’s broad shoulders and gut had settled with age and he wasn’t quite as muscular and intimidating as he had been, but he was still the biggest physical presence at the table. He was wearing the same red flannel and farmer’s jeans from the night before. His white crew socks were dirty. He looked like he might have stayed up all night tossing and turning before sitting up to rock back and forth on the edge of his bed while holding a picture of his late wife. Nicole had found him like that two years ago when he had forgot to shut the door all the way. And since the walls in the house were made of thin drywall, Frank didn’t make a sound as he cried. She only watched for a second as her father’s forehead and neck strained to contain all the sound and push all that pain back down inside of his body like a kind of cursed treasure he didn’t want anyone to find. The veins were bulging and if the ceiling light had been on she was sure he’d be glowing a hot red. He didn’t make a sound, but she could see that he was gripping the picture of Sherry so hard that the glass might break. Nicole snuck to her room, where Liam was already asleep on the inflatable air mattress. She laid awake all nigh not knowing what to do.

When Frank locked eyes with Nicole at the kitchen table this morning, some of his presence seemed to correct itself and he sat up straight. He had a large face, and he was often so tired he didn’t expend much energy to move it. But Nicole saw his mouth straighten out while he chewed on a piece of bacon like he was trying to acknowledge the moment between them. Frank broke eye contact first and turned to Liam.

“I’ll clean up the dishes when we’re finished. Let’s all get ready and get on the road soon. This house feels a bit too small right now. We should leave early. We’ll have to drive slow with the way the weather came in last night.”

“I’m full. I’ll shower first,” Gavin said.

Nicole tapped Liam’s thigh again and the last sound anyone noticed was Gavin setting his fork down on his empty plate.


Christmas morning and the three children were woken up by the faint sound of Manheim Steamroller coming from an old CD player that Frank had rolled the cord around and set in the shed outside years ago. The smell of coffee filled the small house, and Gavin, Nicole, and Liam all meandered into the living room. They were all a little bit excited, but no one showed it.

“Merry Christmas, kids,” Frank said, taking his seat in the plush recliner, holding his cup of coffee off to the side, pouring an airplane bottle of Jack Daniels into his coffee in secret. Frank shoved the empty plastic bottle between the cushions where the seat met the backrest.

“I need a smoke,” Gavin said. He opened the front door and stepped outside in his socks without a coat on. A cold gust of air shot into the room and Nicole and Liam crossed their arms. Frank took a big sip from his coffee. Nicole looked at her brother taking long drags off of his cigarette. Gavin shivered as he exhaled quickly. She noticed that he was so cold and tense that when he shivered it almost looked as if he was so angry he wanted to hit somebody. No one would stand out there like that if they didn’t need to. Where Gavin is at right now doesn’t look like anything anyone would want to do, Nicole thought to herself.

“Should we do gifts when Gavin comes back in?” Nicole asked.

“That’s my plan,” Frank said.

Under the windowsill’s tiny Christmas tree, only two presents were there. The third one from the past two nights had disappeared. The electric light cord hung down and was plugged into the outlet about two feet below. Liam went to get coffee for Nicole and himself. He came back into the living room double fisting the hot mugs, and they took their seats cross-legged on the floor with their backs against the leather love seat. Gavin came back in, shooting another cold blast of air into the cramped room.

“Hey, where is Liam’s gift, Dad?”

“He’ll get it later.”

“Dad, what the hell? That’s…”

“It’s fine, Nicole, don’t worry about it. Let’s just enjoy this morning. I like being here with you all and this coffee is good enough.”

Gavin was clueless to the tension that was developing in the room. His eyes hadn’t opened all the way like the rest of his family’s had, and Nicole began to suspect that he had taken something as soon as he woke up—a present to himself.

Gavin reached for his gift first without any prompt. He opened it slowly and kind of smiled at the tactile sensation of the wrapping paper, especially the sound it made as it crumpled up. Frank stared down at his boy from his chair and again saw Gavin’s childhood—young and full of excitement—but he broke his gaze and took a big gulp, polishing off the coffee and Jack.

“Thanks, Dad.” Gavin’s voice was monotone, muted, and a little slow. It sounded like he was trying to slow down the speed at which he talked as if trying to make himself heard more clearly, as if he couldn’t quite make sense of the shapes and sounds of the words coming out of his mouth. “I’ve been wanting a drone all year. I don’t know what I’ll do with it yet. I want to do something with it though.” His hands patted the different corners of the box like a child trying to make sense of the world around him.

Nicole and Liam exchanged a quick judgmental glance at one another.

Gavin flipped the box around in his hands a couple of times and felt the heaviness of the pill he had swallowed sink into his stomach and legs. He stood up and took a seat in the wooden chair. He left the box where he was sitting. As he slouched and straightened his legs out in front of him, he let out a soft sigh and stared at the small colored Christmas lights as if the tiny bulbs were stars whose light was just now reaching him from a long time ago.

“Go ahead and open your gift up, Nicole. Wait one second though, I’m going to get some more coffee and—” Frank cut himself off before he revealed what he had been mixing it with.

“Okay, Dad.”

Nicole grabbed the box and turned it over a few times before starting to tear the edges open. When Frank took his seat again, she opened the gift quickly as if it was something she just wanted to be finished with.

“Oh, wow. Thanks, Dad. That’s really nice.” Nicole looked at the high-end tabletop lamp from one of the box stores in Peoria she never thought she’d be able to afford. She had told her dad that her nice lamp broke when she had moved in with Liam. “That’s so nice you remembered, Dad. Thank you, really.”

Frank smiled and took a sip of his coffee.

“Where’s Liam’s gift? I’m not giving you your gift until you give Liam his.”

“It’s okay, Nicole. Frank, really, it’s fine. I’m not worried about it.” Liam thought quickly how to change the subject. “In fact, Frank, Gavin, Nicole and I have something to tell you.”

Gavin looked at both of them as if he was still thinking about what the light from the Christmas tree was trying to tell him.

“Well yeah, we do, I guess.” Nicole said, her voice shaking.

Frank raised his eyebrows and took a sip of his coffee. Frank knew what it was going to be before they said it, and he had already decided long ago—maybe even years before Nicole had met Liam—how he was going to react. He waited for the rest of the words to play out though, taking another sip of coffee, gripping the handle just a little bit tighter.

Liam put his arm around Nicole, who slouched her shoulders and made herself small inside of her camouflage hoodie.

“We’re getting married.”

Gavin didn’t move or change position. He had already zoned out and was focusing on the Christmas tree lights again. He could have cared less about the future.

“You didn’t ask for my permission,” Frank said without missing a beat.

“With all due respect, sir—”

“I said you didn’t ask my permission for her hand in marriage, Liam.”

“Dad, that’s not how it works.”

“Like hell it is. I want you to ask my permission Liam. A man asks another man for his daughter’s hand in marriage. I had to go out and detassel corn with Sherry’s father and ask for her hand, flannel-fucking covered in corn dew and husk sweat. I got light headed from the anxiety. Ask me for my permission. Of course, I’ll grant it to you, Liam. You’re a good kid and Nicole seems happy, but you gotta ask me.”

“Sir, with all due respect. I believe I can ask her on my own. And I believe she can say yes or now on her own. I’m really happy she said yes though.”

Nicole smiled a little bit, but looked right back at her father and fell right back into a feeling of regret.

“He doesn’t have to ask for your permission, Dad. I said yes. I’m your daughter, but I’m not your daughter.”

“Y’all are batshit.”

First, they all sat in silence looking down at the floor. Then they all took turns locking eyes with each other before looking down at the carpet again. Gavin had forgot to shut the front door all the way and they noticed that a slight draft had begun filling up the living room. The glass on the screen door was fogging up from the collision of hot and cold air.

“Well, you’re going to fight Gavin then.”

“Excuse me, Frank?”

“You heard me. Gavin go get ready. You two are going to fight.”

“Dad, what the fuck? This doesn’t make any sense.”

“Well if you ain’t going to ask for my daughter’s hand in marriage, you’re gonna fight my son for it.”

“I’m not going to fight your son.” Liam turned toward Gavin and looked at him like the idea to fight had come from Gavin. “Gavin, I’m not going to fight you.”

“Dad, what the fuck. Stop it.”

“Nope. Gavin, go put some shorts on. We’re going outside.”

Frank didn’t want to go back and forth. His mind was settled. He got up to manipulate his plan into action. He poured the last cup of coffee into his mug and he grabbed a larger bottle of Jack Daniels from the cupboard above the small sink and filled it up strong.

“Gavin got up without looking at Nicole or Liam and went to his room.”

Nicole and Liam sat cross-legged and confused on the floor. The room had grown cold. And they both looked around at the two chairs in the room and the giant TV on top of the card table. Strangely, they noticed that there were no pictures hanging up in the living room and Nicole couldn’t remember the last time there had been. The ceiling was yellow from smoke and Nicole wondered why her brother had stepped outside to smoke earlier.

Liam got up and went to the kitchen to try and confront Frank again.

“I’m not going to fight, Frank. It’s Christmas. He’s your son. I love Nicole, and I’m happy to have you as a father-in-law.”

Frank turned toward him and gripped the edge of the kitchen counter with his free hand. He took a long swig from his coffee. Liam noticed the bottle of Jack sitting next to the coffee machine, rolled his eyes, and went back into the living room. Nicole was sitting in the wooden chair with her face in her hands.

“Your father is drunk.”

“Of course he is.”

Gavin came out of his room in a white tank top, gray athletic shorts, and a pair of all black Nike shocks. A poorly done tattoo of a skull and scythe and the outline of Illinois covered his left shoulder. He didn’t look at Nicole or Liam as he walked through the living room and kitchen. He stood by the back door as if waiting to be told what to do next.

“Come on, Liam. Let’s go outside,” Frank shouted from the kitchen.

Frank and Gavin both went out into the backyard. Frank began shoveling a small square in the snow. When Gavin and Frank exhaled it looked like they were creating clouds. The sun made it hard to see, but with the coffee flowing through everyone, it made the air feel, if not warm, a little bit bearable.

Liam walked to the back door and Nicole followed.

“Frank, I’m not fighting your goddamn son.”

“Don’t use the lord’s name in vain in my house, boy.”

“Dad, you’re drunk.”

“They’re going to fight.”

“Making them fight is just the most fucked up way of getting Liam to ask for permission. That’s such a fucking stupid idea. How are you this stupid and selfish?” Nicole’s voice was rising louder and louder. “Just stop it. Stop it. Don’t ruin everything. We’re getting married. And all of us are going to go back inside and enjoy Christmas. We can watch whatever the hell you want to put on that TV and just drink coffee until we go to sleep.”

“They’re going to fight.” Frank finished shoveling the outline of the square in the yard and put the orange snow shovel up against the back of the house next to an uncovered grill. “Gavin, punch Liam.”

“I’m not going to ask you for your permission, Frank.”

“Gavin, I said punch him.”

Gavin and Liam both looked at each other like they didn’t know what language Frank was speaking, but Gavin walked toward Liam. Liam left both arms at his side.

Gavin walked right up into Liam’s face and just stood there breathing into his face without making eye contact. His shoulders were slouched and Liam could tell he didn’t really know what to do next. Liam turned toward Frank to tell him again.

“I’m not going to—”

Gavin landed an awkward right hook into the left side of Liam’s head, hitting him flush on the ear. Nicole screamed. Liam put his hand to his ringing ear and crouched over.

“Hit him again, Gavin.”

“Fucking stop!” Nicole screamed, her rosy cheeks getting hot and glowing red in the glinting snow. Liam straightened back up and looked at Gavin.

“Gavin, you don’t have to do this. I’m not going to hit you.” Liam extended his hand to shake and to separate distance between the two of them.

“I said hit him again, boy.”

This time Gavin took a step back and put all his weight into a straight punch that landed right on Liam’s nose, breaking it open like some kind of bubble that had been waiting to burst. Blood ran down Liam’s face and into his mouth. The blood made small red dots that melted tiny circles in the snow.

“Fuck!” Liam cried, putting both hands over his face and bending forward.

“Again, Gavin. Hit him until he hits back.”

Gavin rushed Liam and went low to take him to the ground. But Liam, already crouched, bent his arms into defensive under hooks and stood them both back upright. The momentum from Gavin’s thrust made Liam back pedal and Gavin slammed him up against the back of the house.

Nicole ran over to her father and started slapping him on the chest. Frank just stood there. Nicole was a lot smaller than her father and she couldn’t generate enough power to get her father to care.

“I hate you. Fucking stop this,” Nicole cried, her slapping slowing down as she fell to her knees. The ring on her finger that she was going to hold up in the living room to show Frank and Gavin sank into the snow as her hands slipped under.

Gavin tried to take Liam down with a single leg, but Liam put his hand on the back of Gavin’s head while using the house to balance himself. The blood from his nose stained the back of Gavin’s tank top, which made it hard to tell how much damage was done in the fight. Gavin wiggled around and shot back up and the two men grappled again. Liam kept the under hooks locked and locked eyes with Frank.


Liam had grown up in Divernon. There wasn’t much to do but hang out in the back of his friends’ pickup trucks outside the Casey’s and shout things at the people walking in and out of the family diner next to it. When it got dark, sometimes they would fight each other with boxing gloves in the gravel lot. The boys who didn’t fight that night just stood around chewing on freshly packed cans of Copenhagen. The girls usually watched because they didn’t know what to do and were scared that they didn’t have a choice to do anything else. If someone ever got hit so hard they fell down, the girls that were hanging out with Liam and his friends would realize, right then and there, that they had the hard and sometimes impossible job of spending the rest of their lives looking for some other kind of choice.


Gavin was growling, pissed off now from his movements becoming controlled that he loosed one of his arms and started hitting Liam in the liver and kidney. Liam ate them all with a lot of wincing, blood still gushing form his nose. Eventually, Gavin landed a shot that made Liam angry—the kind of anger that triggers something intuitive and close to nakedness and survival, something dark and attached to a part of existence that is repressed and shameful.

Liam pushed Gavin away. The pill flowing through Gavin made it easy for Liam to take control of the fight. At this point, Liam didn’t even know what he was doing. Like Gavin, he didn’t even know where he was or why he was doing what he was doing. Liam slipped a haymaker from Gavin and came up with a counter hook square on Gavin’s jaw. Gavin stumbled and Liam rushed forward and smashed Gavin in the mouth. Liam took a step back and flinched back into awareness. He looked at his hand. Gavin’s tooth had cut the middle knuckle open. Gavin fell backwards on his ass and he looked up at Liam and Nicole. His lip had been separated down the middle and the right part of his upper lip looked like a pig ear. Blood ran down the front of his shirt and the little square that Frank had shoveled was mostly red now. Gavin crawled toward Liam and tried lunging. It was all reflex and void of intention, but Liam’s knee went up and put Gavin to sleep face first in the snow.

Nicole was on her knees crying, and Frank watched all of it unfold. Liam looked down at Gavin with something between anger and disbelief. The rage disappeared almost instantly. He turned to Frank.

“Fuck you, Frank.”

“Congratulations to the newlyweds,” Frank said and walked past the three of them back into the house.

Nicole and Liam looked at each other and then looked away out of shame and a thousand other feelings that they didn’t have names for—some of which will never exist again.

Liam knelt down and turned Gavin over on his side as he moaned and started to come to. Nicole sucked the snot back up into her skull. She looked at Liam with a matter of fact-ness that only meant some great hole had opened up between Liam and Nicole. They would go on together, but there would always be this great emptiness at the center.

“My brother needs stitches. We should take him to a hospital.”

Nicole tried saying something else, but nothing came. Her brown hair had been blown to the left side of her head and laid over her shoulder. She nodded and stood herself up. From the knee down, her sweatpants were wet with snow. She came closer and squatted next to Gavin who had started touching his head with his hands.

“I’ll go inside and get my keys. Just keep talking him awake. He’ll be fine, but that lip is fucked.”

Liam went back into the house through the back door, stomped through the kitchen and into the living room. Frank was back in his plush chair drinking straight from the bottle of Jack. He wasn’t trying to hide it anymore. Frank was now staring off into the Christmas lights as if something from his past had started talking to him. Liam had the urge to throw himself upon the man and pummel his face, to take the fifth of liquor and slap it across his skull, but he didn’t. He walked by Frank without a word. He went down the short hallway and grabbed his and Nicole’s coat. He went into Gavin’s room and grabbed his denim jacket off the floor. He heard something rattle in the pocket. Liam reached in and pulled out an unmarked orange bottle of what were clearly painkillers. Liam put them back into the pocket, threw the coat over his arm then stopped. He thought about taking the pills for himself. He thought about all the kids he used to hang around with and who were now considered men as they sat in trailers and houses with busted furniture and spray-paint on the wall inhaling things into their bodies. He sometimes thought it would be easier to just blow his life up and wallow in all of the things he never got to do. How comforting it would be, he thought, to keep swallowing pills and erase all future responsibility. He thought about everything he could do with those pills, but he remembered that Gavin was still outside with a string of blood hanging from his mouth.

Liam popped his head through the bathroom doorframe to look at his face in the mirror. The blood had dried all over the lower part of his face. He thought about turning the water on and splashing water on his face and rubbing the blood off, but his hands were full.

Outside, Gavin had sat back up and Nicole was rubbing his back. Gavin’s head was turned down and he spat blood into a small puddle between his legs. Even though she was frustrated with her brother for not helping himself more in life—he was still her brother—and since there mother was gone—and even though she didn’t want to feel it—there was a nagging responsibility of maternal care that she felt she had to give to her brother in this moment. Lost boys. Helpless lost boys, she thought. Fucking useless assholes. Liam handed Nicole her coat, and she slipped the pea coat over her camouflage hoodie. Liam swung his duck jacket on while still holding Gavin’s jacket. Nicole and Liam both lifted Gavin up by the armpits. Liam helped him put his jacket on, and then Gavin leaned into his sister as she helped him walk through the backyard’s snow.

Once they got situated inside the truck, Gavin rested his head against the cold window.

“I’m sorry,” Gavin said to no one in particular.

Liam reached into the glove box and took some napkins out of the glove box, handing them to Nicole. He turned the keys in the ignition and backed out of the driveway like they had a child who had just fallen asleep and they didn’t want to wake him up.

“I’m sorry,” Gavin said again.

“Shhh. Shhh.” Nicole put a fistful of napkins to his mouth. She felt them turn warm from the blood as she gently held her hand to her brother’s face.

“I’m sorry,” Gavin said one more time into the napkins.

“We’ll get to the hospital soon. Just sit back and don’t move much. Liam wanted to be more caring, but when he saw Nicole holding her brother, he felt jealous. He was ashamed for thinking it—but he wanted Nicole to express something sympathy for what he had just gone through to. He may have won the fight, but he was pissed about it. He was so mad at Frank that now he was mad at Nicole. As he realized that this is what he was feeling, he grew even more angry and sullen.

Liam tried to hide his anger by gently touching Nicole’s leg, but it only made her turn toward her brother more. Nicole could sense his anger, and she didn’t een want to look at Liam. She knew he wanted her to acknowledge that this wasn’t his fault, to excuse him from the violence he placed across her brother’s face. She wasn’t going to give it to him though. She wasn’t thinking about his feelings at all. Fuck his feelings she thought. She quickly glanced over at Liam with a look of anger at having been emotionally abandoned. She looked back at her brother and held the napkins to his face, stroking his arm. Nicole recognized how hard she had worked to get to where she was and how there are some men in her life that will work as hard to pull her back down. She would have turned away further from Liam if she hadn’t been sitting in the middle of a truck cab.

Liam winced, pressing his right hand into his side, as he came to a late stop at the stop sign clawed with icicles, sharp and precarious. He turned slowly onto the main highway and focused all of his attention on driving.


About the Author

John McCarthy is the author of Scared Violent like Horses (Milkweed Editions, 2019), which was selected by Victoria Chang as the winner of the Jake Adam York Prize. He is also the author of one previous poetry collection, Ghost County (Midwestern Gothic Press, 2016), which was named a Best Poetry Book of 2016 by The Chicago Review of Books. John’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in many journals, including 32 Poems, Alaska Quarterly ReviewCincinnati Review, Copper NickelGettysburg Review, Hayden’s Ferry ReviewThe Journal, New Ohio Review, Ninth Letter, Pleiades, TriQuarterly, and in anthologies such as Best New Poets 2015, which he was selected for by the former U.S. Poet Laureate, Tracy K. Smith. Additionally, he was the 2016 winner of The Pinch Literary Award in Poetry, and his work has been featured on Poetry Daily. In 2019, the Chicago Guild Literary Complex, in honor of their 30th anniversary, named John one of “30 Writers to Watch.” John was recently featured on The Slowdown, a daily podcast, hosted by Ada Limón.


Photo by Jeff Sharp from Flickr