Step Nine

Photo by Several Seconds
Step Nine by Michelle McGurk

Guard just stood there, watching the both of them, seeing straight through the falsehood. Fluorescent tubes overhead buzzed. Shining white-green light everywhere, spotlighting the pores in Danny’s skin. Kid had a scab on his chin like he’d been picking at a pimple, and shiny yellow skin, raised and stretched, where another was forming.

Joe would admit his memory was imperfect, but Danny never had zits. He’d grown his hair long, messed around with guitars, attracted a certain kind of girl. Of course, Joe hadn’t seen Danny much in those days—first the divorce, the back and forth between houses, then the moves, his ex-wife’s death, her mother stepping in, saying Joe was unfit to parent. If he could do it over, Joe would start at that point, when his boy was eleven, choose blood over that mess he’d called fun. Hardly saw Danny again till the kid was seventeen. Then he showed up with Jessie in tow, said they needed a place to crash, there was a baby on the way.

To make conversation, Joe asked about the food. “They do anything special for the holiday?”

Danny just stared at his knuckles. Joe caught the guard’s eye, and the man said, “Come on, Ryder, tell your old man about the feast you had.”

“Turkey?” Joe asked.

“Cornbread stuffing too,” the guard said. “Cranberry sauce. Two kinds of pie.”

“Any good?”

“Don’t tell my wife, but it’s a hell of a lot better than her mother’s cooking.”

Joe let out a laugh, a faint weak laugh, like he was trying to be nice to some new fellow at AA, make him feel welcome. He looked at Danny and all he could see was that shiny ball of pus.

One report diagnosed post-traumatic stress. Another said bipolar disorder. Doctor said it emerges in the late teens and early twenties.

Joe didn’t care about the labels. He just wanted it gone.

He’d asked Jessie once if she’d had any idea, and she’d started to cry. First time he’d seen such a thing.

She told Joe she’d been scared, more scared for the boy than herself. “I thought being back with his unit, things would change. I thought the discipline was good for him. He missed the action.”

How much of it did he own? How much did bad genes or shitty upbringing contribute?

“You know, son, there’s things I wish I could do over,” Joe said. Step Nine of Twelve: make amends to those you’ve wronged.

How would the boy ever apologize? What was he going to do, track down his old unit and apologize for what he did to their sergeant? Danny had sat stone-faced through the court proceedings, not a goddamn word. Joe had tried to intervene, pleaded with his son before the sentencing. “You did some bad things, Dan, really bad. You’ve got to face facts and ask your Higher Power for forgiveness. You’ve got tell the court you’re sorry.”

Joe had talked to Mac, even tried talking to one of the prison chaplains, back during the sentencing. Told them both he believed in redemption, wasn’t he Exhibit A, but he was having a hard time believing in a God who could forgive Danny what he’d done.

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Michelle McGurk is a former reporter and now works in public policy in San Jose, California. She holds an MFA from Lesley University. This is her first fiction publication.