Lana had asked for a Cabbage Patch Kid doll for her twelfth birthday. One with brown hair in pigtails. There was no way the long, skinny box extending over the edge of the kitchen table was a Cabbage Patch Kid. Dad had wrapped it in beige paper grocery bags held together with tangled strips of Scotch tape, a Frankenstein’s skin of a gift presentation. He beamed a tilted smile that showed a tooth gap dark as a train tunnel. Lana tried to feel his excitement for herself, but there would be no Cabbage Patch Kid for her birthday this year. Maybe it was just as well. The girls at school had made fun of her for still playing with dolls.
It was the night before her actual birthday. They sat on the avocado-green vinyl booth by the broad window that faced the dark road, the prairie beyond washed away, the stars the only sign of a separation between grasslands and space. They ate store-brand mac and cheese, orange as a safety vest, and canned green beans warmed on the stove. Dad had a single pork chop because Lana didn’t like pork chops with their bones and gristly translucent bits, shaped like fleshy commas. He let her pick out a TV dinner for her birthday the next day. She chose the turkey with the apple cobbler even though it was the middle of summer.
“Happy early birthday!” Dad tapped his fingertips on the box. “I hope you like it. I had one a lot like this when I was your age.”
Lana worked a fingernail under a looping piece of tape and tugged. A whir of tires grew louder outside and they both leaned to the window as a single blade of light flashed forward along the road.
“Jesse,” they said together.
Jesse lived a mile down the road. The driver’s-side headlight on his Chevy truck had been out for two years. He finally fixed it, and then the passenger side went out. Watching cars go by was like television. It was always full of reruns.
Dad speared a forkful of green beans, stacking them on the tines one by one. “Your grandma gave me mine when I was nine. I tried to find a pink one, but they didn’t have a pink one.”
Lana gave up on the tape and ripped open the brown paper, stripping it away like brittle leaves off an autumn tree, until a white box came into sight, the words “BB Gun” in big blue letters across the top. She pulled away the rest of the paper.
“It’s a Daisy!” Dad said, his tunnel tooth on full display. “You like daisies.”
“I like flowers, Dad.” She put on a smile when she saw his fading. “It’s great. I love it.”
The rest of the box said “1894 Spittin’ Image” with a line drawing of a rifle. Lana peeled the cardboard away on the end and slid the rifle out. It just kept going. She could have used it for a walking stick. She hefted it in the dim yellow of the ceiling light. It had a brown plastic stock and steel barrel and a gold middle. It was kind of pretty shining there in the light.
Dad pulled a small yellow box from his pocket and shook it like a maraca. “These are the pellets. I’ll show you how to use it. It’s easy. There’s just one rule.” He paused.
“Same rule your grandma had.”
“If you shoot something living, you have to eat it.” He held up a finger like he was taking the temperature of the air. “Raw.”
“What if I shoot a grasshopper?”
“Eat it raw.”
“What about a tree?”
“Plants are an exception. Living, breathing only.”
“Wait. Do grasshoppers breathe?”
Lana was skeptical, but her dad knew almost everything. He was an accountant and consultant for farmers, a job that took him all across western Illinois. He’d sometimes be gone a night or two. That left Lana alone at home a lot, but she didn’t mind. She had her dolls for company, mostly old ones Dad found at thrift stores or had been given by his clients. Some had porcelain hands and fading faces. Some were handmade from cloth with yellow or black mops of yarn hair. The only one she didn’t play with was the one her mother had given her years ago, a Little Miss Sunbeam with a blonde bouffant and a blue and white dress. She cared for them all, but she really wanted a new doll. A doll with dimples and one cute little snaggletooth. Instead she had a gun named after a flower.
* * *
Lana pushed her fingertip into the loading gate on the side of the Daisy and dropped the small silver balls into the abyss. “Like that?”
“You got it.”
It was late afternoon on a golden day across the prairie. Purple clover bobbed in a wind that felt like a sauna. They had gotten back from town where Dad bought her donuts glazed with translucent shells. Lana had eaten them in big bites as they watched the red and blue paddle boats turn in wide circles across the quiet waters of Lake Storey.
At home, Dad set up a row of empty Pepsi cans on a sawhorse facing well away from the road, the house, and his brown pickup truck. Lana wasn’t good at it. The BBs plunked into the ground or sank into the wood of the sawhorse. The cans stood there waving their red, white and blue flags, immune to her aim.
“Just gotta practice,” Dad said. “Look down the top and try to hold it steady. Don’t blink so much. It won’t hurt you.”
Lana kicked her heel into the ground and walked right up to the cans. From three feet away, she lifted the Daisy and fired. Plink. A can swiveled and dove to the ground. “Take that!”
Dad laughed. “Don’t get frustrated. I was no good at first, too.”
The clacking of a bad lifter preceded the appearance of a white mail truck tottering down the road.
“Mail’s coming!” Dad called.
Lana leaned the rifle against the sawhorse and ran down the driveway a good hundred feet to greet Candice the mail lady by the road. Candice reached into the opening behind her and pulled out one letter.
“Just this today.”
Lana was confused. It was her mother’s handwriting, but it wasn’t addressed to Lana and it wasn’t shaped like a birthday card. She took it to Dad.
Dad looked solemn, his mouth an unbendable line as he opened the envelope and read through the letter once and then read through it again. Lana’s mom used to send her little gifts for her birthday, like a neon-green-haired troll doll or a stuffed monkey that could fit in her palm. But then mom just sent cards, bright ones with illustrations of birthday cakes and candles burning bright against confetti skies.
Gold veins streaked through the blue of the air. Prairie cicadas sang in the distance, like the sound of watch gears whirling, amplified from the tall grass.
Dad folded the letter and tucked it back into the ragged envelope. “Let’s go make your birthday dinner.”
“Aren’t you hungry?”
Dad sighed and tapped the letter into the V of his hand. “I’ve got to go to Chicago next week. We’re going to make it official. Sign the papers. Nothing’s going to change for you, I promise.”
“Am I going?”
“I’m gonna ask Jesse and May if you can stay with them. I’ll probably be gone a couple nights.”
Lana wrapped a hand around the barrel of the rifle, the butt pushing into the soft soil as she leaned on it. “I want to go.”
“I’m sorry. You can’t. Your mom wants to keep this just between us.”
“She doesn’t want me to come.”
“It’s not that.”
Lana let the Daisy fall over and she ran back to the house, her ankles swishing through the bluestem grass to the sound of her father calling her name, ever more distant as she moved, flying like an insect that had learned a fear of the light.
* * *
Dad didn’t make her go to Jesse and May’s. They were nice, but their house smelled like bleach and peppermint air freshener and they ate pork chops almost every night because Jesse’s brother was a hog farmer.
Lana took the sawhorse and the Pepsi cans out back to where a forest of oaks and gingko trees grew. Her grandfather had planted them all and now they were big and green and threw shade across the wild grass. A creek ran along the back of the property. When she was little, it seemed like a river, full of gray fingerling fish and slick bullfrogs the color of moss holding their bulging eyes just above the surface of the water.
Dad left her with a whole carton of BBs. She was getting better. She could get one out of ten of the little bullets to hit a can. It sounded like hail landing on a metal roof, a remembrance of winter in the heat and humidity of summer.
Lana brought her dolls out to cheer her on, arranging them side by side on the bright-red clamshell metal chairs that sat like oversized cherries on the deck. She even brought out Little Miss Sunbeam.
Unlike some of the other kids at her school, Lana never fantasized about her parents getting back together. She was young when they split up, and it just seemed like the way of the world. One day, her mom packed up three big beige Samsonite suitcases and loaded them into her Volvo. Her mom’s hair — was it golden like Miss Sunbeam’s? — had fallen all around Lana’s face as she hugged her mother that day. That afternoon, Lana and her dad ate Twinkies and played Chutes and Ladders for hours. When night dropped and the windows turned blank with dark, Dad went into his bedroom and came out with Little Miss Sunbeam.
“Your mom wanted me to give you this.” The doll, lips pursed and unsmiling, wore tiny little Mary Jane shoes and a blue gingham dress. “She said it should remind you that she loves you. Okay?”
Lana took the doll and smoothed its white apron and carried it to bed, tucking it in on her own pillow, a ritual she would carry through the years.
At first, Mom came back every few weeks and they spent the weekends pumping the pedals of the paddle boats on the lake and eating twirling cones of ice cream. And then her mom came less and less. Weeks to months. Months to years. A birthday card to mark the passage of time.
When she got older, Lana asked her Dad about the separation.
Dad started by staring at the ceiling, something he did when he needed time. “I’d like to say it was complicated, but it wasn’t. She couldn’t live here and I couldn’t live in Chicago.”
“So why did she marry you?” Lana could be blunt.
“She thought she’d learn to love it, but sometimes we don’t know if we’ll like something until we try it.”
Lana bit the skin on her knuckle and thought about that. “Like pork chops.”
“Yeah. Like pork chops.”
Dad made her breaded chicken strips for dinner that night.
* * *
On the second day of Dad being gone, Lana went from a terrible shot to an okay shot. She rolled a tall stump over near the deck and balanced her elbows on the rough cut side. That made the Daisy more stable. She began to look ahead at the Pepsi logos rather than at the tip of the rifle. The cans started to look like cheese graters with all the holes she had made.
Lana hit her targets, three in a row. Plink. Plink. Plink. The cans fell down like children pretending to be soldiers. She looked back at her dolls, but she didn’t hear the cheering in her head, the congratulations, their tiny voices rising in a celebratory chorus. Maybe the girls at school were right. Maybe she was too old to play with dolls.
If her mom could do it, she could do it. She could leave them behind. With the Daisy under her armpit, barrel pointed down, Lana took Little Miss Sunbeam by the hand. The doll dangled, a ballerina in the air, vacant blues eyes staring behind as Lana walked down to the creek.
Away from the trees, it was a carpet of green. The creek had carved its way into the soft ground, cutting a ribbon of silver, shushing in soft murmurs as the water poured over smooth rocks. There was a big, flat, gray stone at the edge. Lana had once been small enough to stand on it with two feet, holding Dad’s hand, reaching over to float paper boats on the seemingly endless sea.
Lana stood Little Miss Sunbeam against the rock. The doll had an upturned nose. Did her mother have an upturned nose? Lana walked ten paces away, like a gunfighter preparing for high noon. She pushed a BB into the chamber, pulled the lever and clicked the hammer back with her thumb. The metal plate on the stock felt hard as bone against her shoulder. Her sight slid down the top of the rifle. A fly landed on the barrel and wrung its hands, eyes a prism. She blew a puff of air and it zipped away.
Lana focused on the doll’s bleach blonde hair. Maybe her mom’s hair wasn’t blonde. Maybe it was brown. It should remind you that she loves you. She loves you. She loves you, but not enough to want to be with you. The head or the heart? What would it sound like? Not like the clicking coin-fall of cans, but more like the call of a pebble breaking the surface of the creek. The plastic of the body would yield, carve a dark hole through into the emptiness inside.
Lana squeezed the trigger, but she blinked and dropped the tip of the Daisy. Little Miss Sunbeam stared blankly back at her, untouched. The grass beside the gray rock rustled. Lana ran to the creek. A bullfrog, a young one not yet full grown, twitched in a marshy spot of dark dirt and moss. A shiny wet dot red as a raspberry glimmered on its mottled green and brown shoulder.
She had killed mosquitos, smashed them into black smears on her bare skin. Once, a firefly, accidentally smothered in a mason jar overnight. She knew bullfrogs breathed. She had watched their throats distend, pumping like billows, over and over in rhythm. There was a place inside her chest where she knew her heart to be, and it felt like a thunderstorm with a blackened cloud belly, letting loose its rain burden in waves across the prairie.
* * *
Lana sat in the green vinyl booth. It squeaked as she shifted. The window was a shining black rectangle, reflecting the kitchen light, the table, her face, the white plate with the brown butterflies around the rim, the bullfrog at its center, like the head of a saint wearing a halo. Some people ate frog legs. But they probably cooked them first. Lana had a fork and a steak knife with a serrated blade that glinted along its jagged edge.
A whir of tires grew louder. Lana leaned into the window, close enough to see through the dark as the headlights of Dad’s truck turned into the long driveway. He was back early. She worked the knife against the frog’s hip, the blade sliding into the slick skin, leaving the flesh at the joint exposed, raw red as an unripe watermelon.
The front door rattled, opened and closed. Dad strode into the kitchen, smiling until he registered what was on the table. He carried a duffel bag in one hand and a big pink paper bag with ribbon handles in the other. He lowered them to the linoleum floor and slid into the other side of the booth.
“You don’t have to do this.”
“It’s the rule.”
“We can change the rules.”
Lana prodded the unattached frog leg with the tines of the fork. “No, we can’t.” She pierced the leg with the fork and raised it.
“Wait.” Dad opened his palm to her. “Give it here. It’s got bones.”
Lana let him take it. He held the leg on the plate with the fork and sawed off two ragged piles of pink muscles and glistening green skin. He scooted one to the edge of the plate on Lana’s side. He gave her the fork. “This one’s mine. That one’s yours.” He kept the larger for himself.
“Uh-uh.” He twitched an index finger in the universal sign to stop talking. “On three. One, two, three.”
Lana swallowed the mass without chewing. It tasted marine, like catfish. It felt like the inside of a snail, soft and slick.
Dad scrunched up his face and stuck his tongue out to show his portion was gone. “Your mom got you something.” He set the pink bag in front of Lana and took the plate with the bullfrog away to the counter by the sink.
In the bag was a large yellow box. Inside the box, a brown-haired Cabbage Patch Kid doll looking out a clear plastic window like a tropical fish seeing the world.
Lana tapped on the plastic. “This is from mom?”
“Yeah. It’s your birthday gift from her.”
Lana knew he was lying. She squeezed the box. The plastic crinkled. She remembered. Her mother had blonde hair, the color of the prairie grasses gone brittle and dormant for the winter.
“I like the Daisy better,” she said.
A bullfrog rasped from the unseen creek, voice muffled by dark and distance. They listened.
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