I raise my hands over my head. The cold breeze finds its way under my jacket and gives me goosebumps.
“Walk the plank!”
I feel the hard plastic point of the sword I got for my son’s sixth birthday a few months ago press into my spine.
“Go on! Arr!”
“Please, Mr. Pirate, I don’t have any gold,” I say.
“Oh, you don’t?” The pirate sounds confused and momentarily deflated. He takes a minute to consider, and then continues: “But you probably know where it’s buried, don’t you?”
“I have a map,” I say.
The pirate is unable to suppress an excited giggle, then says with a growl: “Well, then give it to me, or I’ll feed you to the fishies!”
I turn around and see my son. His tousled hair is sticking out from a red bandana wrapped around his head. An eye patch is covering his left eye. The plastic cutlass I bought for him at Target for $6.99 is shining in the sunlight.
“Go on, give it to me. Arr!” The kid scowls at me, and I can’t help but smile.
My son, Stevie. God, I love him. He’s a shrimpy little thing, and not the best in school (hell, it’s just the first grade, who cares?), but man, does he know how to have fun. He learns about King Arthur in school, and the rest of the day we’re knights saving the princess (his mom). He sees a horse trotting across a pasture on the drive to church, and boom, he’s a cowboy for the weekend. I’m glad the he has such a good imagination, that he’s so good at make believe. Sometimes pretending protects us from what’s real. And he’s still just a kid.
“Okay, okay,” I say. I reach slowly into my jacket pocket with mock caution and withdraw a thick piece of yellow parchment. I hand it to Stevie, who unfolds it, and man, do his eyes light up! He scans the paper, and with a trembling finger he traces the trail of dotted ink to the X near a crappy sketch of a tree. I drew the map last night, then crumpled the paper and soaked it in a pot of coffee to make it look old. I burned the edges with a match, too, just for a little extra effect. Stevie looks up from the map and smiles at me.
“Come on, dad, treasure!”
I guess he forgot that I was supposed to be his captive.
“Aye, aye, Stevie!” I say.
“That’s Captain Stevie to you!”
He runs off towards the mailbox, as instructed by the map. I jog along behind him. I hope he stays this young forever. Truth is, I need Stevie. He’s about all I got right now. My nine-to-five at the moment is at a Smith’s, behind the deli counter. For the last eight years I worked in advertising, designing posters and jingles and whatnot for different companies. Then it all hit the fan – you know how it goes – and I got laid off. Now it’s salami slicing by day, and treasure hunting (or whatever else Stevie’s pretending) by night.
“I think we’re getting closer,” Stevie says. His voice is a ceremonious whisper. “Dead men tell no tales, huh, Dad?”
“That’s right, Captain,” I say. “Yo-ho-ho.”
“And a bottle of rum!”
We go around the mailbox and walk by the fence between our yard and the neighbor’s. Stevie’s eyes dart rhythmically from the map to the fence as we stroll along. He’s following the map to a T – only deviating once to step on a particularly crunchy-looking Autumn leaf. There’s another chilling breeze, and I put my hands inside my pockets. I feel my cell phone in my left pocket, which reminds me that Amanda hasn’t called yet. She should be done soon.
My wife, Amanda, she was always the smart one. Even back in college, when I was studying (if you could call it that) how to make greeting cards more aesthetically pleasing, she was buried in books about calculus and chemical reactions.
Six weeks ago, we found out that her cancer was back. About a year after Stevie was born, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Stage IV. The bad one. I remember when we heard the news, I bawled like a baby, but Amanda took it like a damn champion. I still feel the heat of shame rise in my cheeks when I think about it: my wife finds out there’s only like a 25% chance she’ll still be alive in five years, and she is comforting me? That’s messed up, man.
She started on chemotherapy, and good lord, she looked like absolute hell. She had to quit her job (she used to be a pharmacist at Smith’s Food and Drug, which I how I got hooked up with the job at the deli). She lost all this weight, and her bones stuck out like a skeleton wrapped tightly in a thin layer of yellowing skin. Her eyes were dark and dim, a combination of lack of sleep and fading hope. Part of me wondered if the chemo was just killing her faster.
“Don’t let the boy see me like this,” she told me. “I don’t want the boy to see.” Stevie was about two or so when she was at her worst. Amanda never called him by his name until her cancer was cured. I think it made it easier for her somehow, but it was a hell of a lot harder on me. When she got better, she started calling him Stevie again. But then a month ago, we had one of her routine follow-up appointments, and some guy comes in with a tie and a white coat and a fake frown and says “I’m very sorry to tell you this but the cancer is back and we’ll do everything we can and blah blah blah…” Stevie has been “the boy” again for the last month.
“Over here!” Stevie screams, and he plops down on the grass at a spot that roughly correlates to the X on the map. There is a small mound of dirt in the lawn.
“I think this is it!” Stevie exclaims. He’s right. I buried the treasure before I took Amanda to the doctor this morning – her first round of chemo for the second time. I begged her to let me be with her, but she said, “No, the boy needs you. Be there for the boy.” Tears sparkled in her defeated eyes as she said it, and there were some in mine too as I dug a small hole in the hard October earth to hide the treasure. As I pushed the cold dirt over the little cardboard box – my hands freezing, dirt under my fingernails – it felt like burying a coffin. “Be strong for the boy,” she had said, and then she kissed my cheek and walked into the hospital. We still haven’t told Stevie about the cancer. What would we say?
Stevie starts digging at the ground with his hands. His blue jeans look more like camouflage with all the grass stains and caked-on dirt. He is laughing, almost hysterically as he claws at the earth.
“I feel something!” He shrieks, and seconds later he pulls out the cardboard box.
“Whatchya got there, Steve-O?” I ask, trying to sound curious.
Stevie pulls the patch from his eye to get a better look. He brushes the dirt off the box and tries to read what’s written on the side.
“Mo-Modell…R…R…” (He’s just in first grade, remember?) He hands me the treasure, a gesture of complete trust. “Hey, dad, what’s this say?”
“It says, model rocket.” I underline the letters with my finger as I read, but I don’t think Stevie is watching too closely.
“A rocket?” Stevie says. “A rocket!” Stevie screams. “Cool! Can we try it out, Dad?”
“You bet, big guy!” We open the cardboard box and start assembling the plastic pieces, right there in the grass. It takes us about five minutes, and we’re left with a sleek little red rocket, ready for take-off.
I walk with Stevie to the street. Our neighborhood is usually pretty dead at this time of day, so I think it’ll be ok. We set the rocket on the stand in the middle of the road. I attach the wires to the engine and hand the launch button to Stevie.
“Alright, not until I say it’s okay, got it, Stevie?”
“That’s Commander Stevie to you,” he says. He can go from swashbuckling pirate to space-exploring astronaut in the blink of an eye. Or in the beat of a heart, and I think about the chemo that’s likely pumping through Amanda’s right now. She had been gaining her weight back, she was healthy, she was happy…and now this all over again. My heart breaks thinking about her. But my god, she’s so strong.
“Ok, Commander, count us down,” I say, and the crack in my voice is disguised by a whisper of wind.
I see the joy in Stevie’s face, the excitement. I hope that never goes away. What’s going to happen if Amanda dies? The boy needs his mom. I can’t do it without her.
“Seven…six…five…” Stevie’s voice gets louder the closer he gets to zero.
I work at a deli – a deli – and chemo costs a hell of a lot more than $8.75 an hour. I tell Amanda I love her every morning, and, come evening, every day I feel like a fraud. Remember when she found out she was dying? She comforted me.
Somedays I feel like giving up. I don’t want to see Amanda suffer. I don’t want her to be sunken and hurting and for all her hair to fall out. I don’t want her to die. And most of all, I don’t want Stevie to find out. How could he possibly make believe that pain away?
“One…blast off!” Stevie shouts in excitement and slams his thumb down onto the launch button. There’s a brief tearing sound, like fire ripping through air, and then a whistle as the sleek red cylinder shoots into the sky. Stevie cheers, his arms over his head, jumping up and down. He’s beaming, and his eyes are fixed on the rising rocket.
I see the rocket as a pinprick reflection of red in my son’s eyes, but I don’t look up at the sky. I can’t take my eyes of Stevie. I know in my heart that Amanda won’t make it through Round Two, and I know I’ll have to tell Stevie before it’s too late. But Amanda’s right: I have to be there for the boy. God knows he’s here for me.
BIO: Markus Eckstein is an avid reader and a new writer. He is studying medicine at the University of New Mexico, where he enjoys writing short stories between classes.