Family Matters

by Geeta Kothari

There are only so many places in a wooden hut on stilts where you can hide a shotgun.

In the watchtower, time passed slowly. Tick tick, tick tock. I was always waiting for my shift to end. That's how I saw those nights in the fire tower with my uncle Mickey—interminable shift-work of the volunteer kind. I was an only child with her eye on the future, the future being an unoccupied planet—no farm, no stinking sheep or skittish alpaca to round up every evening, no nightly patrols along an imaginary border with Mickey.

"See anything?" he said. He'd made a fresh pot of coffee, and the smell filled the cold space.

The tower had a roof but was otherwise open. We were on planet patrol, keeping our world safe from whatever lurked beyond our borders. "Just make sure he stays alive," my mother said. "Remove the bullets. Hide the gun."

I handed him the binoculars.

"Christ," he said. His thick glasses interfered with binoculars, and he always said it was like looking through a keyhole. This time, however, he just took a deep breath and said, "Alien incursion." He said this with no question mark, no inflection, as flatly as he might have said, "Got my groceries" or "The clock is broken," (which is what it seemed to be, two hours away from 7, the minutes moving at a turtle's pace).

I couldn't see anything on the bridge. No ghostly forms with backpacks humped on their backs. No strange lights. Beyond the bridge there was the shore, the shadows of pine and birch dark against the dawn sky. There was the sound of water lapping against the rocks, and the occasional chirp of an early bird.

Mickey paced the small room, and I knew he was looking for the gun, though he didn't know this yet, he knew only his agitation. He wanted proof of aliens and other planets, and yet he wanted to be absolutely safe. He wanted to prove he wasn't a dumb sheep who followed doctor's orders and took his pills.

Take care of your brother. A father's dying words to his oldest daughter. Within a year, my mother had quit her job and marriage. We moved back to the farm. The sheep had missed shearing season; the alpacas had thick mats behind their ears. Every cushion we turned over, every drawer we opened revealed Mickey's pills.

I called my mother.

"I've never seen aliens before," my mother said when she got there. She'd been up with a sick lamb for three nights. Her hands were raw and rough, reptilian to the touch, no longer the hands of an advertising executive who scheduled manicures like clockwork.

"Lucy," Mickey said. "This is it. Once I bring them in, no one will want to put me away."

" No one wants to put you away, dear. Why don't we wait until it gets light? Then you'll see them better."

"Help me find my gun, Luce."

My mother gave Mickey some coffee. I knew she'd mixed his powdered pills in with the creamer. Her face was puffy, and her eyes teared, from fatigue or cold or both. She refused to commit him. Family matters, she said, and I wondered if she included herself in that equation. How would she manage when I left for college next fall? It was a question neither of us could ask.

"You go on home," she said.

I didn't argue. Six years of clocking in on Mickey time. Six years of interrupted sleep. Six years of disrupted dinners. Six years of caution, worry and regret. I was done.

At home, I dreamed of alien incursions, collapsed bridges, the world on fire. When my mother came home, she didn't wake me to tell me that Mickey was gone.

The lamb lived.

My mother never asked why I forgot to unload the shotgun.

I never asked how she found it.

BIO: Geeta Kothari is the nonfiction editor at The Kenyon Review and the editor of "Did My Mama Like to Dance?" and Other Stories about Mothers and Daughters (Avon). Her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in various anthologies and journals, including New England Review, Superstition Review, Massachusetts Review, and Best American Essays.