Patrick E. Robel




            Timmy searches the tangled wreckage and finds a pine branch that looks strong enough and just the right length.  Gripping near its broken end, where the splintered flesh is sticky with sap, he steadies his legs and pulls.  It moves side to side but doesn’t come free; somewhere the other end is caught where it splays out into boughs thick with needles.  He wonders if it’s stuck beneath the main branch, wide as a tree trunk, that used to hang forty feet overhead till three days ago, when storm winds twisted and then ripped it from the trunk and sent it crashing into this heap on the edge of the dirt playground.  Timmy’s fingers and eyes follow his chosen branch into the tangle.

            Wet bark scrapes his jeans as he pulls himself along the branch toward the place where it’s caught. “Hey Spencer!”


            “Come here! I need help getting this out!”  Spencer appears behind him on the edge of the heap.  “Just pull on it when I tell you.”

            Timmy crouches and brushes the boughs aside—they shake cool drops on his neck. Needles poke his face.  “Okay, you ready?”  He grips the damp bark with both hands, then lifts the weight and says, “Now.”

            In a minute Timmy is back outside the tangle and dragging the branch to the other side of the great pine, which marks the edge of the school grounds and the beginning of the forest.

            “So what’s it for?” Spencer asks. Ian is sitting inside the fort, balancing a long pine bough at an angle to make the beginnings of a peaked roof. 

            “If we move those out of the way,” Timmy says, pointing at Ian’s roof, “look what we can do with this,” and describes how they can lift the thick branch into place and rest it on the logs that form walls on either side of the entrance.

            “What do we need to do that for?” Ian asks.

            “Cause if we get some of those boards behind the shed and lay them across here, we’ll have a second floor.” He turns to Spencer. “See?”

            “A second floor . . . that’ll totally work! Move for a minute, Ian.”

            “Who cares about a second floor?  What about the roof?”

            “You can still build the roof,” Timmy says. “Just let us get this part done first.”

            In half an hour Spencer is gone—picked up by his dad—and Ian is building the roof again. Timmy drags a sheet of plywood toward the fort. His left hand, just below the fingernails, oozes where his knuckles scraped the peeling edges of the plywood when he pulled it from behind the shed.

            “Timmy!” Mr. Woods, the after-school teacher, is calling to him. “Your dad’s here!”

             He glances over his shoulder and glimpses his dad walking toward them from the front of the school. He can hear Mr. Woods say, “Hi, Tom” to his dad, but Timmy has already turned back around and continues on to the fort.

            Lifting the plywood on one end, he pulls it up to overlap the branch that he set in place as a second-floor support. Ian stands out of the way, and Timmy goes to the other end, raises the plywood off the ground, and pushes it up and forward. It slides at an angle upward as its bottom scrapes the bark of the branch; then it levels off and he pushes it into place—except it snags on something and remains sticking out about a foot past the front wall of the fort.

            “Hi, buddy.”

            “Hi, Dad.” Timmy turns around and his dad is there; he sees the light-brown laced shoes, blue jeans, and grey fleece coat zipped halfway up.

            His dad’s hands grip him under the armpits and hoist him upwards. Timmy feels the arms go around his back and squeeze him close and he holds his body taut, resting his arms half-extended over his dad’s shoulders. He looks across the playground, past oak trees hanging limp with Spanish moss, at the school buildings. The green paint is peeling in exposed places and dark with mold beneath the roof eaves.  “How was your day?”


            His dad tilts his head back and brings them face to face. “Hey, you. Can you look at me?”

            Timmy’s eyes move to meet his dad’s, then he puts his arms around his dad’s neck and pulls his head forward so it’s next to his dad’s ear; he looks toward the school again, where Mr. Woods is closing the shed door. Mr. Woods squeezes the padlock closed and a moment later Timmy hears its low metallic click.

            “Whatcha been working on here?”


            “You guys building a house?”

            “Sort of. A fort.”

            “Cool. What do you say we go get your brother and sister and go home?”

            “Okay.” Timmy stiffens his arms and back and, letting go of his dad’s neck, slides to the ground. On the way down he notices the light blue collar and shirt under his dad’s coat.

            “Where’s Sage?”

            “At your mom’s. We’ll pick her up.”

            When they get Skyler from the little kids’ aftercare room, his cheeks are hidden behind a light-green felt mask.

            “Hi, Dad!” Skyler says when their dad squats down in front of him.

            “Hey, what’s your name, Mister?”

            “It’s me, Dad!” He pulls the mask off.

            “Woah! Skyler, I didn’t know that was you. Where’d you get the mask?”

            “I made it.”

            “You made it?”

            “In handwork today.”

            “I love it!” 

            Skyler grins. 

            “Can I borrow it tomorrow and wear it to work?”

            “Dad! Your head’s too big!”


            Once they pick up Sage, she sits in front in the passenger seat, then exits the car right away when they get to the house. Timmy climbs out of the car slowly, carrying his blue lunch bag and music book in one arm and his violin in the other. When he gets inside, Sage’s binders are spread on the table and she is doing math homework.  Timmy hears the sound of dishes being put away in the kitchen.


            “Yeah, Timmy?”

            “Can I go over to Spencer’s?”

            “Why don’t you come here, buddy, so I can hear you better.”

            He goes to the kitchen doorway. “Can I go over to Spencer’s?”

            His dad has a yellow bowl in his hand and has just opened the lower cabinet next to the doorway. “Don’t you have homework to do, buddy?”


            “What do you need to do?”


            “Anything else?”

            “Read in my book. And practice violin.”

            “How about if you play your violin now?”

            “I don’t want to.”

            “Okay. Then bring your spelling in here. I can read you the words while I make dinner.”

            “I don’t need to do it now. It’s not due until Thursday. Why can’t I just go over to Spencer’s?”

            “Timmy.” His dad’s face looks tired. He puts the bowl away and closes the cabinet.  “Didn’t you just spend two hours playing with Spencer after school today?”

            “No, his dad picked him up early. And he invited me. Can’t you just let me go?”

            “I’m trying to get dinner started.”

            “So. I don’t need to be here for that.”

            “And I just feel like having all of us home right now. Do you want to help me make dinner?”


            “How about build a fire?”

            “No.” He looks past his dad and out the window over the sink. “Can I split some firewood?”

            “Yes, buddy. Just be careful. And can you split some small pieces for kindling?”

            “Yeah.” He turns and starts walking toward the front door.

            “Hey Timmy?”


            “If Skyler wants to help, give him a turn. Okay?”

            Timmy pulls the front door open.

            “Okay, Timmy?”

            “Okay!” he yells over his shoulder and steps down the porch and onto the sidewalk, ducking under the potato vine’s leaves and blue flowers. The sunlight is gone, and the air is cool and carries a breeze that smells of ocean in the shadows of the narrow driveway that leads to the back gate. He can hear Sage’s voice shouting inside the house as he pops open the gate latch. Then her voice comes more clearly behind him.

            “Timmy! Close the door when you go out!”

            He hears the front door slam and picks up the heavy long-handled splitter in one hand and the Collins axe in the other, bringing both back to the driveway and setting them on the pavement outside the kitchen window.  Examining the pine rounds that sit flat on the driveway, he squats by one and digs his fingertips underneath, then lifts. He feels a strain in his lower belly and back, sets the thing down, then moves to another round and does this again. On the third one he lifts it onto its bark side, then rolls it to the biggest round in the driveway—the splitting block—and pushes it up onto the block. A movement in the kitchen window above him catches his eye, and he looks up.

            Through the glass Timmy watches the top of his dad’s head move between the sink and the stove, a mix of brown and grey hair sticking up, a glimpse of the forehead with one crooked vertical furrow descending between the eyebrows. That line seems deeper every time Timmy notices it. It reminds him of the pair of lines he can’t see right now, which angle down from the bottom of his dad’s nose and cast symmetrical shadows around his mouth. Timmy looks away.

            Three times the Collins axe-head bounces off the pine round, so he switches to the long-handled splitter. He remembers what his dad showed him and measures two fist-widths up from the end of the handle, grips it there, and lifts its weight straight over his head. In a single motion Timmy brings the weight down. The flared axe head penetrates the wood near the outer edge of the pine round and sticks in a couple inches. With the heel of his right hand he hits the handle’s end downward twice, then upward till he knocks the axe-head free. When he brings the weight down the second time and the head penetrates again, he pauses, listening as the force pent up in the flared axe-head spreads cracks outward and downward through the grain. On the fourth try the downward stroke passes through the entire round, leaving two halves joined by thin shards on either side of the steel head that bites into the splitting block’s surface. Timmy pulls the axe free, then grips near its head and with short strokes breaks the remaining splinters that keep the halves clinging together. He sets the axe on its head upside down, kicks one half of the pine round to the pavement, and rotates the remaining half on the block till it faces him evenly. Then he hoists the axe again over his head and resumes splitting.

            Six new sticks of firewood are scattered on the ground around the splitting block when Skyler arrives. His mask is back on his face and in one hand he carries a bunch of yellow flowers surrounded by green clover. Sourgrass. 

            “Hey, Timmy. Do you want to see something?” He stands on Timmy’s right side, a few feet from the splitting block.

            “No.” Timmy brings the axe down again and two more sticks of fresh pine tumble to the pavement.

            “But look at this sourgrass I picked. Don’t you want to know what I found?”

            “I’m busy.”

            Skyler turns and lays the flowers and clover on top of one of the pine rounds.  “Can I split wood with you?”

            “No. Leave me alone.” With another downward stroke he splits what remains of the first half of the pine round, then drops the axe and lifts the other half onto the splitting block.

            “Come on!” Skyler reaches for the axe where it lies on the driveway. “Let me have a turn!”

            “Get out of here!” Timmy picks up the axe and pushes Skyler with his free hand.

            “Boys!” His dad has opened the kitchen window. “Boys, stop it!  Now!”

            “He won’t give me a turn!” The voice is shrill and tears are starting in the corners of Skyler’s eyes.

            “Timmy!  Do you remember what I asked you to do?”


            “I asked you to give your brother a turn.” He is on the verge of yelling. “Will you please take turns?” What Timmy sees in his dad’s face, and hears in his voice, Timmy can only call hate.

            The axe bounces, head and then handle, off the pavement and crashes into the fence as Timmy, focusing on the driveway, blinks away tears and passes through the gate into the backyard.

            When he returns Skyler is trying to split the other half of the pine round with the Collins axe. The head barely bites into the wood, but Timmy stands to the side and watches Skyler lift the axe above his head and bring it down with both arms, five times, six times, and still get no closer to cracking the surface. Then Timmy notices Skyler’s mask, draped on a piece of wood next to the bouquet of sourgrass.  He walks over to it, picks it up in his right hand, and examines it. There are sequins glued to the felt around the eye holes. One sequin is loose and Timmy picks it off with his fingernail and flicks it away. He hears the chopping stop behind him.

            “Hey! Put that down!”

            Timmy turns around. “No.”

            “That’s mine!”

            “So. You don’t need it. You’re splitting wood!”

            “Give it to me!” Skyler comes toward him and Timmy backs up, grinning and holding the mask in one hand behind him. “Dad!”

            Hearing his dad’s voice shout something from the window, Timmy crushes the mask in his fist and tosses it into the air behind him. Skyler moves past him, his free hand reaching up toward it, and Timmy kicks a foot out. Skyler stumbles and lands face-first in the rose bush and Timmy laughs aloud, as the mask catches among branches a few feet above their heads. Then his brother begins screaming. 

            “Dad!” There are white scratches on Skyler's face. “I hate you!” He lifts the Collins axe with both hands and rushes at Timmy, who steps back and lifts both hands in front of his face.

            “God damn it!” Their dad is between them, one hand against Timmy’s chest and the other gripping the axe head. He wrenches the handle up and out of Skyler’s hand. “Skyler, what the hell are you doing?” 

            Skyler looks uncomprehendingly at him.

            “Sky, you could kill somebody with that! How could you do something like that?”

            Skyler’s eyes are pinched almost shut and his voice makes a keening sound. “Dad—he—stole—my mask!” 

            “That’s no excuse to attack him with an axe, Skyler. Use your words. Do you really want to hurt your brother?”

            Skyler can barely breathe. “He threw—my mask—in the rose bush—” The white scratches on his face have begun oozing blood, which mixes with the tears running down his cheeks. 

            “Wait—why are you bleeding, buddy?”

            “Timmy made me fall in the rose bush!”

            His dad looks at Timmy. “Timmy, is that true?”

            Timmy feels a smile creep over his mouth. “No.”

            “What are you smiling about? Is this funny?”

             “I’m not smiling.”

            “I just watched you smile.  Did you throw his mask in the rose bush?”

            On the side of the neighbors’ house, Timmy sees how a morning-glory vine is poking out from under the brown painted wood shingles mid-way up the wall. Its leaves are green but there are no blooms.

            “Did you, Timmy?”

            “He did!” Skyler says. “And he tripped me when I tried to get it and made me fall into the thorns!”

            “Timmy. Look at me please.” Timmy looks at his dad’s face, then back at the morning glory vine. “Timmy, did you do that to Skyler?”

            Timmy does not answer.

            “Okay. I cannot deal with this right now. I have to clean up Skyler’s face. And make dinner. Timmy, go to my room right now—close the door—and do not make any noise or come out till I come talk to you.”


            The bed in his dad’s room is unmade, just like Timmy’s bed at home, the single heavy comforter twisted on itself in memory of many nights’ sleep. He climbs on the bed and stands, kicks the comforter to the head of the bed, then thinks of Spencer’s trampoline and jumps. One, two, a third and his head almost touches the glass light fixture over the bed. He thinks he can touch it on the next jump and gives an extra bounce with his feet and—crack!

            Something in the bed—his dad’s new bed—has made that sound. Timmy sits back down and waits. He can hear his heart thumping in his ears, then quick footsteps approaching. The door is pulled open and his dad is there.

            “What was that?” 

            “What?” Timmy looks at the doorway.

            “That sound? I heard a crack. What just happened, Timmy?”


            “Were you jumping on the bed?”

            Timmy looks at him. “Yeah. Sorry.”

            “Please don’t do that, Timmy. Beds aren’t made to handle that.” He crouches down and puts one hand on Timmy’s knee. “Buddy, I need your help taking care of this place. Not breaking things. Can you please be gentle on our house?”

            Timmy feels something hard in his chest and looks at the floor. In the corner, between the dresser and the closet, a few dark grey mounds of fur catch his eye. 

            “Timmy, did you hear me?  Can you be gentle on our house?”

            “All right.”

            “Thank you. Now I need to go take care of your brother and get dinner on the table.”

            When the door is closed again Timmy climbs off the bed and crouches on the floor. There are more clumps of fur under the bed; they slide and tumble when he blows breath at them. Then he sees one place under the bed, near the center, where something inside the bed is poking down against the bottom lining. He reaches along the floor, blowing more clumps of fur away from his face, and pulls himself toward it, then touches the bed’s bottom lining with his fingertips. It feels like the broken edge of a board poking downward, like someone stomped on it from above and cracked it in half. Timmy pushes up against it, but the broken edges remain fixed where they are. Then he pushes himself back out and stands. 

            A clump of fur clings to his knee and he pulls it off, then brings it to his face and studies it. It’s not fur, he realizes, just dust. His dad doesn’t have any pets. He blows a puff of air at the clump and lets it go. It spins from underneath and rises like dandelion fluff, then floats down to rest on the dresser top in front of him. Timmy steps closer and blows another puff, and the clump slides past a framed picture and drops off the back edge of the dresser.

            Timmy looks at the picture. He remembers seeing it before, in an album that they used to look at on the couch at home. A young man and a plump blonde-haired baby, close together, are looking at the camera, surrounded by greenery and light. The frame is wood, a maroon color. He reaches and picks it up.

            Through the wall on his right he hears voices in the bathroom—his dad and Skyler. Then, there is the sound of water running through pipes in the wall, so he knows they’ve turned on the faucet.

            The picture is of Timmy as a baby, with his dad holding him. They’re in the backyard at home, next to the redwood deck. He can see tall grass and the thick leafy hedge behind them. Timmy studies his own face. One side of his head, temple and ear, is pressed to his dad’s jaw. His hair is a thin layer of white over his scalp, his skin is a smooth light-brown. His eyes meet the camera without question, judgment, or joy—no emotion he can name. Is he concerned or just curious? He thinks maybe he was looking at his mom or listening to her voice when she took the picture. Then he wonders if it was even her with the camera. He could ask Dad, then he thinks no, ask Mom instead. Then he decides it’s probably better not to ask about it at all.

            Almost against his will, he brings his eyes to his dad’s face. He is smiling easily, his hair still dark brown, maybe a hint of blonde on top. His face is so young. There are no lines in his forehead or around his mouth. No hollows around his eyes that make them look like they’ve sunken into his skull, the way they do in really old people, or in pictures he’s seen of people who are starving or dying of some disease. He has no memory of the man in the picture and wonders when he changed into the man who was just in here a few minutes ago. How old must this picture be, he wonders. Then does the math. Ten years. In ten years this is what happens. As he sets the picture back on the dresser, he hears a shriek through the wall to his right.

            Skyler is crying and his dad is saying something. Timmy steps to the closet doors and pulls them outward to open. In the wall the sound of running water stops. Now the voices are clearer.

            “I’m sorry that hurt, Sky. I just needed to get these cuts washed off so they don’t get infected. Can I put some soft medicine on them now?”

            Timmy hears Skyler make a whimpering sound, but he can’t make out any more talking. Looking down, he notices the wicker hamper in the closet is spilling with collared shirts, which all seem to have been draped around the hamper’s rim, rather than being dropped straight in—as if his dad didn’t want to commit to the decision that each of them needed to be washed. Then he sees rows of his dad’s shoes set in pairs on the closet floor—and in the back are the worn brown and grey hiking boots his dad has always worn on family camping trips. Like that week in the Sierra wilderness a couple summers ago, camping on the edge of a lake at ten thousand feet with two other families, surrounded by huge pines and white granite crags and peaks. And the trip to the Yosemite high country the summer before that. The campground was crowded and noisy even late into the night, but they hiked to a deserted stream one day where Timmy, Sage, and their dad all swam in a narrow swimming hole, the water like ice and clear to the bottom. Afterwards they were so cold they couldn’t stop laughing as they shivered.

            One hiking boot has a rip over the big toe. And on the other one, half the brown lace has shed its outer covering—it looks like the surface wore all the way through, and then his dad must have torn the remnants off, leaving a thin white string where a thick brown lace used to be. 

            Timmy tries to remember the last time he saw his dad wear these boots. Probably the last time they went hiking together, which was last year’s Thanksgiving when his mom left for almost a week. She said she was going to visit Aunt Liz by herself, and it poured rain the whole time she was gone. One day in the thick of it, just to get outside his dad took them hiking up the fire roads in the hills. Timmy and Skyler kept running and trying to splash each other in the puddles, and for most of the hike their dad yelled at them. Stop running.  Don’t splash. Boys, stop pushing each other. He said they might slip and fall, or people on horseback could suddenly come around a corner. He made them come back and, crouching in front of them with soaking hair, waited till they looked him in the eye and listened while he told them he just wanted them to be safe. Which just made Timmy want to run all the more, get farther ahead on the trail and away from him, and as soon as they rounded the next corner they’d run and shout and laugh while he just got more and more upset. And then reeled them in again. What other escape was there.

            It was that same week when Timmy woke one night wondering if his mom had finally come home. In the dark he climbed out of bed and tiptoed to his parents’ room, but their bed was empty. He could tell lights were on the kitchen, and he crept to the kitchen door and paused there. He heard a chair shift on the floor, and then his dad’s voice muttering something Timmy couldn’t make out. He peered around the door jamb to see who else was there, but it was only his dad, sitting alone at the table. His shoulders were hunched forward, his elbows on the table, both hands pressed to his face. His back was rising and falling and Timmy could hear the labored sound of his breathing; then his head started shaking side to side and his voice began making a low sound that rose each time he exhaled. Timmy felt a ball tightening in his throat and he backed away from the kitchen door and returned to bed. 

            He is still standing on the verge of the closet when the bedroom door opens.

            “Hey, buddy. What are you doing?”

            “Nothing.” He hears the bedroom door close.

            “It’s a pretty big closet, huh.”

            “Yeah.” Timmy is still facing into the closet. His dad comes up behind him.

            “Too bad they didn’t put one like this in your guys’ room when they built this place.” They look at the clothes hamper. “I guess I’ve got some laundry to do, huh.”

            Timmy pushes the closet doors shut but doesn’t turn around. 

            “So dinner’s gonna be ready in about ten minutes, buddy.” He feels a hand rest on his shoulder. “How about if you come on out and we get some of that homework done before we eat?”

            Timmy’s hands go to his face and he feels his eyes and forehead drawing up tight. “No, Dad.” He turns to the side and ducks out from under his dad’s hand. “I’m not doing it.”

            “Timmy!” There’s a pause and he can hear his dad breathe. “Why does this have to be such a big deal?”

            Timmy’s shoulder and one side of his head are pressing the closet door; his dad can’t see that he is crying.           

            “Please. Can’t we just do it and get it over with?”


            “Why not?”

            “Because I want to play.” His voice is breaking and where his face touches the closet door, the white painted surface is wet. 

            “You played for two hours after school today. Your homework still needs to get done. If you ignore it, how are you going to feel when you go to school tomorrow?”

            “I already worked all day at school. That’s all I do every day, is work.” He turns to face his dad. “Why do I have to do more work here?”

            “Because it helps you learn what you need to learn.”

            “Nothing helps me learn. I never learn.”

            “Yes you do, buddy. You learn all the time.”

            “No I don’t. I never learn.”

            “What are you talking about?” 

            “I’m stupid. I make the same mistakes and forget everything I’m taught.”


            “I hate school. Why do I have to go to school?”

            His dad’s eyes close and stay that way a moment, then reopen. His lips are pinched shut and his chest rises and falls. Then he speaks. “Timmy, I really don’t want to have this argument right now.”

            Timmy mutters something.

            “What?” his dad says. “What did you say?”

            “I really don’t want to be here right now.”

            “What is that supposed to mean?”

            An edge of white rubber mat is sticking out from the rug under Timmy’s feet. Timmy sees the grey fur-like dust stuck to the rug’s edge. 

            “If you would get along with Mom, we wouldn’t have to be here.”

            His dad sinks to a crouch on the rug in front of him.

            “Is that why you think I’m living here?” Timmy studies the rug. “Because I can’t get along with her?” 

            Timmy looks at the floor.

            “Is that why?”

            “She said that’s why you moved out.”

            “Timmy, please look at me. Please.”

            For a second his eyes meet his dad’s, then out the window he glimpses green leaves. Rising from left of the window, fern stalks bend and waver across his view. 

            “I don’t know if you can understand. I am trying very hard to make the best of this.”

            It is shady in the side yard. The fern leaves flutter lightly and the stalks move in the wind.

            His voice is shaking. “This is not what I wanted, Timmy, not at all.”

            The brick chimney next door is covered with ivy and the roofline is curved down toward the center. Timmy wonders if the roof would hold a person’s weight.

            “Are you listening to me, Timmy?”


            “Then will you please look at me when I talk to you?”

            “I can hear you, Dad. Why do you always force me to look at you?”

            “Because that’s what you do to show someone you’re listening.” He waits.  “Okay. I’m sorry.” 

            His dad turns and looks out the window too. 

            “That’s a cool fern, huh.”

            “Yeah. Is that your—is that our yard?”

            “No, it’s the neighbor’s. But we could buy a fern and plant it in the back. You think you might like to do that?”

            “I guess.”

            “It’s late. I hope I haven’t burned the dinner. Are you okay?”


            He turns to Timmy and, on his knees, closes him in a hug. “I love you, buddy.  I’m sorry for getting angry.”

            “That’s okay.”

            “Are you hungry?”


            “Well I’ll have dinner on the table in five minutes. Can you get your hands washed?”


            Back outside, light from the kitchen window illuminates the narrow driveway and the rounds of pine. Timmy picks up the split pieces and sets them in the crook of his arm. 

            He hears the electronic chirp of a car and looks toward the street. A few sticks of firewood tumble from his arm, and he lets the rest drop and walks to the front gate—it must be his mom’s minivan. But it is the older neighbor lady across the street who never says anything to anyone. She has just parked and locked her car, and is walking up the sidewalk to her front door.

            The sky glows red and orange in the West and the wind is cold and steady off the water. Timmy stands and breathes through his nostrils, he smells the ocean. He turns and walks back to the pieces of wood scattered on the cracked concrete, then bends down to pick them up. There is the crying of seagulls above and he cranes his neck to look up at them.

            Five or ten of them are in flight beyond the rooftops far overhead. Their grey and white forms move ghostlike amid the wind currents, replacing each other, then soaring off to one side or another in the darkening sky. Their cries fade. The only sound left in Timmy’s ears is wind.


Last modified: Wednesday, May 9, 2018, 4:02 PM