FREMONT COUNTY, WYOMING
JUNE 18, 2005
The little boy plays on the screen porch of a shabby two-story house, reaching across a small pile of toys, engrossed in a game of play-pretend. From inside the house, he can hear his mom washing the breakfast dishes—the sounds of splashing water and her humming along with the radio assure him everything is right with the world. It’s a bright, beautiful spring day, and in this, the last moment of true peace in his life, he wants for nothing.
He’s pretending his cars are monster-trucks-turned-robots, like in that cartoon, Transformers. His mom won’t let him watch it, she says it’s too violent, but one time she fell asleep and left the TV on, and he saw a few minutes. He wasn’t scared, though. He’s a big boy now, he doesn’t get scared; that’s baby stuff.
The robot cars engage in a battle against mutant dinosaur invaders; the target, a well-loved green T-Rex. His yellow Matchbox truck is Bumblebee, a fierce protector of good, and the small metal toy thrums along the porch floor, aided by the boy’s soft engine noises. The T-Rex roars ferociously, bringing terror down on Manhattan. The boy doesn’t know what “Manhattan” is, but he’s heard about it on the news, and it sounds important.
A shadow crosses his face. He lets go of the toys, becoming quiet and still, unnaturally so for a boy of three. He focuses on the truck, and as he does so, the toy begins to quiver. His eyes—a deep, crystal blue—bear down on the toy with startling intensity. A frown of concentration creases his small face as the car moves seemingly of its own volition, plastic wheels creaking along the rough porch floor, gathering speed until it slams into the side of the dinosaur toy, knocking it over.
A fleeting moment passes, and the shadow is gone. The boy sits back on his heels, surveying his work, pleased. The robot cars win; good prevails.
The screen door slams behind him as his father rushes out, late for work. The little boy brightens and runs after him, down the steps, leaping into his arms, laughing.
“Daddy! Wanna come!”
The man smiles and swoops his son into a hug. The boy buries his face in his daddy’s warm flannel shirt; it smells of smoke from the old stove in their kitchen, and in later years, he will take comfort from the scent of a wood fire, unconsciously associating it with his father’s love.
But the moment is fleeting. His daddy gently but firmly unwraps the boy’s arms from around his neck, puts him back down.
“Not this time, buddy. Daddy’s late. I’ll see you when I get home.”
He steps into the cab of the truck and closes the door with a final thunk. The boy begins to cry and fuss with the kind of visceral anger known only to small children—he stomps his foot on the ground, fists curled into tight balls, yelling, “Nooooo!! Dada! I want Dada!” His mama calls it “baby talk,” and he’s a big boy now, too big for baby talk, but he doesn’t care.
The tantrum continues in fits of sobbing and stomping as his dad’s truck backs slowly down the driveway, brakes creaking as it pauses at the mouth, ready to pull onto the gravel road.
An idea presents itself. Some part of him knows this is a Bad Idea, a Very Bad Idea, but curiosity wins out over common sense. He focuses on the red Chevy through hot tears, stifling hiccups. He concentrates again, but harder this time, hard enough to make his small head ache, holding his breath until his lungs scream for air. He’s too young to articulate it, but there is a powerful shift in the energy around him; he’s drawing it into himself, gathering it, using his small body like a magnifying glass to direct the rays of the sun. His eyes narrow into slits as he sends the energy outward.
Maybe, just maybe…maybe he can control his father’s truck the same way he controls his toys.
Maybe I can make him stay.
His father, oblivious to the boy’s intent gaze, backs into the road and waves a last, cheerful goodbye, and the boy’s shoulders slump forward as his daddy pulls away.
Dumb trick didn’t work.
He kicks at the dirt with the toe of his scuffed Keds, sending up a puff of dust as he turns to make his way back to the house.
From the corner of his eye, he sees the cab of the departing truck erupt in flames.
His head turns, eyes widening in curious, terrified awe, tears already drying in salty rivulets on his cheeks. He wills himself to run, but his feet remain frozen to the ground. The flames rise up, up, up, dancing, drawing him in.
A distant scream jolts him out of his reverie.
That’s my daddy. My Daddy is screaming.
This terrifies him, the thought of his father surrounded by angry flames, and he runs for the house, yelling, “MA! Mama!” She meets him at the door, confused, unaware her husband is moments from his last breath.
“Mama! The truck…Daddy’s in…FIRE,” he chokes out between sobs, but his mother doesn’t understand.
Fire? She thinks. What fire? John just left for work, how could—
There’s a sickeningly loud explosion as the gas tank ignites.
She runs out to the porch and down the steps, stumbling at the bottom in a panic, but catching herself before she can fall, just in time to see her husband’s truck go up in a fireball. The house shakes from the blast, windows cracking with the shockwave, debris scattering itself across their neatly mowed lawn. A piece of the truck’s cab door flies into the air and descends with a faint whistling noise before embedding itself in their push mower.
I told him not to leave that out, she thinks, before reality sinks its cold, dead fingers into her consciousness.
The boy stands in the doorway, tears streaming down his cheeks as his mother falls to her knees on the earth, hands clutched in her hair, keening.
This is how he knows his father is dead.