Over Sierra’s shoulder, a maybe-five-year-old girl giggles and shakes her head at the could-be father in front of her. The girl wears a blue dress with white trim that comes to her white-stocking-ed knees. Her shoes are shiny, buckled blacks. Her arms are out in front of her, slightly bent at the elbow. There is a silver revolver clutched between her hands. The gun looks real but it can’t be, because she is giggling so sweetly. She must be pantomiming the recoil. Her elbows kicking back in sudden blasts of imagination. Pause. Blast. Pause. Blast. Her could-be father is taking each invisible bullet with a sharp snap-back of the head, and a cave-in of his chest. His mouth has contorted into Billy Idol lips—one side raised and the other side slightly melted. He is simultaneously retreating and falling forward in his off-brown loafers and button-up plaid. He is surrendering to the strengthening of gravity pretended. The could-be father forward-folds from his soles, to his toe ends, to the tops of his tippies, and rolls onto his heels in the grass. His toes are now pointed up and his back is flat. The maybe-five-year-old daughter stands to the side of her could-be father and reloads the revolver and fires again into his supine silhouette. She is no longer giggling, but there is the hint of a smile, like a Cherry Kool-Aid stain, at the right corner of her lips. There is a glisten in her eye that could be a tear, could be tyranny. The maybe-five-year-old tucks the silver revolver into the side of the white empire waist sash that ties at the back, and lays down parallel to the could-be-father. They hold hands. Together they are two strips of clothed flesh, on a vanity strip of grass. There are seven invisible bullets left in the could-be father’s face and chest.
Beyond the little girl and the could-be-father spins the Ferris wheel, churning the earth from a distance. Electric lights illuminate from the center and disappear into the air surrounding the carnival basecamp. Dust blows around the nostrils of the carousel horses’ mid-whinny, and the Ring Toss bottles’ opened mouths, and the flickering inversed red and blue triangle-flags hung from white ribbon. The particles whirl in tiny devils at the patrons’ feet. Wisps of pink and blue cotton candy get caught up in the wind, like dandelion wishes spent, and are blown down the narrow roadway. A boy rides an old blue and rust colored Schwinn towards the birthplace of the dust. The boy’s mother had once told him the secret to pedaling around the world while staying in one place, “With every turn of the crank you spin the earth beneath you,” she’d said. And the boy felt even surer when he was bringing everything to him. On the dirt roadway he presses the left pedal of the Schwinn and a piece of the world disappears. He presses down on the right pedal and the Ferris wheel digs at the Earth in the distance. The Y top of the boy’s slingshot waves a slow goodbye from his back pocket as his legs lift and fall in rhythm. His father’s machete is slung around his shoulder and lays flat in its sheath on the boy’s back. Before the father would have hacked trails in the tall grass behind their house with this tool—or is it a weapon?—but now the boy’s father is grinding teeth somewhere far to the east. His father does not have an old bicycle to spin the Earth with. His father will have bodies to plant. His father will have hearts to win. The boy will have hearts to win, too. And large stuffies with animal faces to give. He wonders if Ruth Ann will be at the carnival with cotton candy clinging to her braids, in her white trimmed dress. The folding knife that the boy found on the playground bulges in the left pocket of his fading blue pants. He wonders why he has so many weapons on him. He’s not even going anywhere, not really. There are six full crank rotations before the carnival will reach him.
I look away from the open land, and the boy and his slung-back machete, and the little girl and her silver revolver in the grass with the could-be father. Sierra lowers her forehead, in front of me, and looks up from her tucked chin. Her eyes seem bigger in this position. They seem to see the things I can’t. I can see myself inside her hazel iris, curling around the yellow flecks there. I’m falling asleep there. I pull my eyes away with muscles I can’t name, but am somehow familiar with and a little ashamed of. There is a small strain in my chest. I can feel Sierra still looking up at me as I continue to crane my head away and further up. There is the smell of something dangerously delicious cooking somewhere. There are clouds bunching in on each other overhead. There is a hot air balloon anchored to the ground by an elephant’s chain tied to a giant wooden stake. There are five seconds left on an oven timer slicing moments into thinner segments.
Foremost, our forefathers founded forts in the east that expanded outwards, across the Great Plains and fortified mountain ranges, and left the smell of foregone feathers falling; the promise of forward progress becoming a mantra exhaled in great gasps of fossil fuels. Forget not Four Mile Island—Three Mile’s hippie second cousin—that “…serves as one of the largest heron and gull rookeries in the Midwest” according to Wikipedia. The future consists of numbers counting backwards. The numbers are there for markers, not for forgiveness, not for anything really besides designated placemats to eat at. The forecast is calling and hanging up in the middle of dinner, before we can answer. The dial tone is laughing up a storm in generation gaps. The clouds are clumping above our heads by the bushel. There are four fingers and a thumb pinching off the heads of distant relatives between now and forever.
The clouds part slowly just above Sierra and me, like dance instructors morphing from individual trees, into a collective donut. The center jellies and swirls. Sierra’s jaw is still tilted down, eyes up, and the little girl in the grass is double checking the revolver’s cylinder for bullets, and the carnival has adopted an elephant to hypnotize the fairgoers into the big tent. The carnival is becoming a circus. The boy’s father is knee deep in muddy innards on another continent, and associating the ooziness surrounding him with blood pudding, and having waking dreams of never eating again. My pulse is beating like a drum in the Circle of Willis—the Ferris wheel of the mind. The third cranial nerve is controlling the movement of my eyes, the tenth my heart, the seventh my taste for significance. There is a busy signal running through the middle of my head. There is a lot to be learned from the correlation between illusion and the narrowing pulse pressures of emergency broadcasts. There are three reasons to live if you believe in them enough.
It takes two to make a thing. It takes blood, and subatomic dust, and seamen adapted to naval conditions to breathe life into a thing, bundled in surfactant and pre-wrapped in blankets. It takes the second wave of the attack to land the boy’s father close enough to the beach of some god-awful continent. His father’s feet don’t know the difference between the submerged turtle’s backs and his friend’s sinking helmets. His feet only know the feel of forwarding their position in the shifting sands. The father would like to think it was all turtles down there on the ocean floor, but that would only be more Eastern mystic bullshit mixed with the sentiment and sediment and oil. What if it was helmets all the way down; a world balanced on infinite packs of Lucky Strikes, and nudie pics, and spent bullets, and chaw spit? It is a terrible and comforting vision. And his boy knows nothing of this, as he reaches the carnival grounds, on his blue Schwinn, and is asked to join the circus. “We will be leaving soon,” says The Man With The Top Hat. And the boy on the Schwinn says he never leaves where he’s at. And The Strong Man with the moustache doesn’t understand the concept of pedaling the world to you, but The Fat Lady with the beard, nods and tilts her head at the boy’s magic. The Man With The Top Hat steps back into a bow, his one arm extended tent-ward. The could-be father is now on his knees, in his tan down-and-out pants, looking for imaginary bullet casings with his maybe-five-year-old daughter. The maybe-five-year-old daughter is discovering that her real-deal father would never pretend to search for anything he couldn’t already see, and the bullets are solidifying, and becoming real, inside the no-longer-father’s chest and head. He lies back down again in the grass, with less theatrics. The real, and the surreal, and the unreal are taking turns crouching and leapfrogging over each other. They are rechecking and spinning the rotary phone tabs. There is a father on the wrong part of the planet, and a father in the vanity strip between the asphalt and the pavement. There is me and Sierra staring into each other’s eyes, under a funnel cloud, two seconds before impact.
The first thing to remember is that “I” is a number and a pronoun. The second thing is that math is a constant. The future deals in constants. The future counts backwards; its native tongue is Subtraction. One + one – one = oneness. The maybe-five-year-old daughter is every age, and always five years old again. The could-be father is no-longer-a father, and every-father she sees him in. The boy on the Schwinn joins the circus and brings the world to him, but his father comes back from the world different. His father comes back bearing too many helmets to deal with. The storm clouds above Sierra and me are the ghosts we think we are, and the ghosts we haven’t become yet. They are sure friends. Sierra is pulling on the drawstrings of my hoodie trying to crawl into me, trying to save us simultaneously from the nature of our existence. She has her own visions to hide from, and grind on, through the cold nights to come. She’s all black lips and beautiful eyelids. I tell her that years after the boy joined the carnival/circus; the always-five-year-old girl comes to his Baseball Toss stand and knocks down the milk bottle pyramid. “Nobody ever wins this,” says the once-boy, his hands in his carnie-smock pockets. “But I won,” says the changing-five-year-old. “I won it.” And the once-boy, hands the changing-five-year-old his sheathed machete and slingshot, but he keeps his folding knife for eating apples with later. He shows her where she can find a Schwinn, and teaches her the secrets of pedaling it. She gives him the silver revolver and a handful of bullets and a kiss at the side of his lips. And the again-boy says, “Thank you, Ruth Ann.”
“What happens next?” asks Sierra, blinking once.
I tell her that the girl pedals into the hills. I tell her she finds family there.
“I one,” Sierra says, like trying on language for the first time and ending up in bed with it. Her eyes close gently, though she may still be peeking.
I bend. She rises. My lips begin to cultivate a taste for her Chapstick—cranial nerve seven—Strawberry Fade Fanatic.
Sierra pulls back from our first kiss, having not been struck by lightning, having not been pulled into the eye of the great whirlwind, having not had her heart melt out of her chest and solidify in my hands.
“We might not be right for this, after all,” Sierra says. “You seem pretty distracted.”
“I am distracted,” I say.
I don’t say that she is the distraction. I don’t tell her that the future counts in reverse and assigns each of us a weapon, but never trains us how to use it.
I don’t ask what she’s packing in her waistband or want to know what the rattling in her pocket is. I don’t say that addition is a risk, but that subtraction is a promise. I just nod and squint.
There is a bright light pillar from the ground. There is smoke in the mountains.
Sierra turns her long neck, displacing her dark hair, looks over her shoulder, and pauses.
I say, “Is that the sun in the distance?”
Jason Arias lives in Portland, OR, with his wife and two sons. He enjoys breakfast anytime. Jason is a waffle man and a pancake lover, and regulates his obsession with bacon amiably. His work has been published in Perceptions Magazine, *thick jam, On The Premises, and more.