Derrick Martin-Campbell: "Space Heaters"

This work first appeared in Yemassee 23.2 as Winner of the Yemassee Fiction Prize judged by Claire Vaye Watkins

My mom famously kicked my dad out on Christmas Eve, eight months pregnant with me, their third child and only daughter. The picture my Aunt Jodi took proves it: Mom in her nightgown, robe open, barefoot in the snow outside our old apartment, mascara smeared and her fists balled. Her back is straight and her shoulders are square and her belly is huge with me. My mom hates seeing that picture now and my Aunt Jodi keeps it in her wallet and shows it to everyone.

The story is one my brothers used to tell every Christmas, tell it to our family as they drank and smoked in chairs around the space heaters in our garage, door half up to let the smoke out, music loud and everyone shouting. My brothers were both still active duty then so it was a big deal when they came home. First mention of my dad, my oldest brother Dustin, the marine, would smile and commence catching everyone up on a favorite hobby of his: the perfect, evidence-free murder of our father. He favored different methods at different times, liked fake drug overdoses for a while, but then got into something with putting D batteries in his gas tank. He’d walk us through each one, step-by-step. Whether or not he was booed or encouraged was usually a good measure of how drunk everyone was.

“Yeah but, Nathan, I know you remember the night Mom laid down the law.”

“Dude, I remember that night like it was yesterday, that picture—”

“Mom, I know this is kind of fucked up, but you look beautiful in that picture.”

“Hey, shut up, you guys, he’s serious. Mom, for real, who was looking out for us in the middle of all that shit? Who’s the reason we’re even alive today, you and me, Dust? And Caroline?”

“Dude, especially Caroline.”

“You know what? To Mom!”

“To Mom!”

And of course, every voice agreed. Kids even raised their mugs of pop.

Though I’m sure her sons’ devotion moved her, I mostly remember Mom as frowning through these toasts. She always pointedly did her best not to speak ill of our dad in front of us and disapproved of those who did, which often meant that no one was allowed to speak of him at all. I’d seen old pictures of him, could pick him out of snapshots and VHS home movies: Dad pitching a tent next to his rig out by Chimney Rock; Dad at grandma’s kitchen counter in his young man’s beard and sunglasses from the 80s, Dustin in his lap and a beer in his hand. I even talked to him once on the phone, held the handset to my ear and listened as a breathy, ominous voice whispered and slurred through our connection until some adult realized what was going on and hung up.

The only times I ever saw him though—like, in-person saw him—were the two times he kidnapped me.
The word makes it sound like something else, but that’s still what everyone calls it; that or, in court, “the abductions.” I was six the first time he did it, materializing unaccountably at my school one afternoon to sign me out of first grade. I remember the secretary casually asking me to confirm that he was in fact my father. Looking him over, squinting him up and down, I considered this possibility, weighed the grey in his beard against the familiar way he leaned, just like Nathan, stared at him and, doing so, suddenly realized that, behind his sunglasses, he was staring right back at me. I admitted what seemed likely.

“Yeah,” I said, “he’s my dad.”

That day ended with the two of us floating in a rowboat in the middle of a man-made lake two towns over, cops accumulating along the shore, Dad drunk, shouting who-knows-what, and pointing a gun at his head. When it got dark, they shined a spotlight on us. I don’t remember much other than feeling embarrassed, cold, and stuck in an awful boat. I was six years old, kidnapped by a grainy photograph.

The second time he kidnapped me, hilariously—ingeniously, I think—he did exactly the same thing. Now twelve, I felt the gooseflesh climb my arms near the end of lunch when, for the second time in my life, I heard my name paged over the school’s intercom. I recognized him as soon as I walked into the office, understood immediately what was happening, maybe even saw flashes of the evening awaiting us. He’d aged terribly in those six years, remained tall, but was now even skinnier and with a permanent hunch, eyes wrapped in his same dumb sunglasses, beard now long and white as a character’s from the Bible.

As a different secretary asked me a question I’d already answered six years before, I again felt his gaze heavy on me, his expression deadpan and patient, like all good liars. I searched his sunglasses for his eyes, deadpanned him right back. Best I could at twelve, anyway.

“Yeah,” I said. “He’s my dad.”

My dad signed a piece of paper, turned and walked wordlessly out of the school office, incidental as the shadow of a passing desert cloud. And I followed him, followed him down the empty hall and through the heavy clanging doors and across the parking lot. I’m sure our postures were the same. Catching the door after he’d pushed it open for me, I climbed inside his truck. I don’t know what I expected to happen next.

“Put your seat belt on, please,” he said.

Feeling around in the crease of the seat, I was surprised to find two straps and a buckle.

“You put seat belts in,” I said, impressed. He said nothing, turned the engine over, bounced us off the curb, headed for the highway.

I buckled my seat belt, cinched up the slack.

Chugging through gears, his own swung slack at his sides.


*


We drove in silence. The ranch homes thinned quickly into actual ranches as we drove, before evaporating, finally, into the taut nothing of late-afternoon high desert, a flat and long-shadowed place. Abandoning I-26 an hour out, he turned us down a dirt service road that dropped us deeper into the land’s cooling fold, pulling right up alongside the river as it rushed ahead of us into the evening, water high. He drove with an open beer between his legs but at least it was the same beer the whole time. Staring out the window, I sometimes felt my hands begin to tremble, my heart to pound fast, then I’d take a deep breath, let it out slow, and try to camouflage it as a a sigh. Sometimes I heard him do the same thing.

“I don’t want to get stuck in a boat again.” I said.

He looked from the road to me, back. “Deal,” he said, “no boats.”

Then we were quiet again for a while. I heard my own pulse in my ears.

“Do you hate me?” I said.

“What? No,” he said, even laughed. “Ha ha, no, you’re my little cowgirl, you’re—”

“Then why are you doing this?” I said, and burst into tears. “Why would you do this to me if you don’t hate me? Why would you come and kidnap me out of my school—again!—and drive us out into the middle of the desert and... and... who are you even? Don’t you know I’ve got a huge project due for school this week? That I’m working on it with my group tonight and if I don’t do my part they’ll be mad? Do you want me to fail? Do you want my group to hate me? Don’t you know I’ll miss dinner? And that Mom, and Grandma, and Aunt Jodi and... and that all you ever do,” I said, “is make everybody angry and sad?”

I shook my head, dripped snot and tears into my lap as he pulled us off onto the shoulder, removed his sunglasses. His eyes were as wet as mine behind them, wet but ringed in red like an old man’s.

“Why do I do it?” I said. “Why do I go with you? What’s wrong with me? Why am I so—”

He reached out, probably just to comfort me, but at the brush of his bony old hand I jumped a foot off my seat and wound up pressed flat against the passenger door.

“Don’t do that,” I said. “You can’t do that! Everyone said you would do something like that! Everyone said—”

“Shit, Caroline, jeeze,” shaking his hand like he’d burned it.

But he knew the score and just let me go for a while then, let me shout at him, the two of us parked there along the side of what had to be the oldest road in the county, March sun falling fast behind us. He held both hands up and took it, nodded and shook his head at the same time, even grunted affirmatively sometimes, agreeing that my points were sound.

“Tell me where we’re going, then,” I said, sniffling, “if you can. If you can’t tell me where we’re going then it’s because you’re a crazy person who doesn’t even care where he goes, just like everyone says.”

“Look,” he said, “it’s just camping. I just wanted to take us camping, that’s all. No boats, no nothing. Just camping. And only if you want to.”

“‘Camping,’” I said, testing the word, the idea. I wiped my nose on my sweatshirt sleeve, looked back into the truck bed where there appeared to be some tent poles and a few vague bags, turned back to face the gross, old handkerchief he now offered me, stared hard at it for a long while before accepting. I blew my nose and tried to think.

“Look, I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s just... I don’t have any money. Not to do most of the cool stuff you kids want to do. And even if I did, well... your brothers already think I’m a dick, and hey, no argument. And then your mom, well, I mean, jeeze...”

He took the last pull on his beer, shivered, threw it out the window.

“But out here, you know, there’s none of that shit. It’s free, Caroline,” and he gestured broadly, stretched his hands grinning to the valley walls, to the river at our side, and to the sky. “I mean look at it,” he said, “it’s free. Free as the day it was made. Shit, smell it—smell it, Caroline, serious, just—” and then he stuck his head out the window, began to huff deeply, sucking air through his nose, eye watching me sideways as he did. He kept at it until I relented and stuck my head out of my own window, breathed deeply. He grinned wider, kept doing it.

When we’d pulled our heads back in, he said, “It must sound weird cuz we don’t really know each other, but I feel kindered to you, Caroline. I can’t explain it but—omygosh, looky there!”

On a rise before us, just below the early moon, a lone coyote stood poised, head cocked considering us, tail slow-wagging. We both froze seeing it, and watched, watched it watching us.

“Will there be cops?” I said, whispered.

“No cops out here,” he said.

The sun just touched the valley wall. The coyote, even minutes later, still regarded us, gaze unblinking.


*


Feet swinging from the tailgate, I tried to study in the truck’s bed as he set up our camp, then moved in closer to the fire as it got cold. All he’d brought for food was a backpack full of warm beers, some water bottles, a thing of American cheese slices, and a bunch of jiffy pop tins.

“I’m no great shakes as a chef,” he said, “and I admit it up front.”

I sat in the tent flap with my algebra book in my lap and a slice of american cheese in my hand, stared into the fire, and didn’t talk. Once he caught me shivering and draped an unzipped sleeping bag over my shoulders, but otherwise he kept busy with vague tasks, stuff like arranging and rearranging his firewood, drinking beer, adjusting the jiffy pop tins he’d set on stones around the fire, sitting down, standing up, and drinking more beer. I watched him as he did, tried to imagine him at different ages and in different contexts: dead in a coffin, a little boy with a crew-cut, dressed in a soldier outfit like Nathan in a picture on our fridge, incredulous and bleeding from his nose in the Christmas snow.

“Nate and Dustin don’t really look like you,” I said.

“Nope,” he said, “they are the spitting image of your mom’s dad, your Grandpa Calvin. You ever see pictures of him?”

“Yeah, I guess,” I said, “but he’s so old in all of them. It’s hard to imagine.”

He said, “You ever—” grew cautious, more addressing the jiffy pop he nudged with his boot, “you ever see pictures of me when I was your age?”

“Yeah,” I said. “You looked just like me. I know. Everybody says so.”

He looked at me, then back to the fire, smiled.

“But it’s more than just that,” I said. “When I do things they don’t like, when I do bad stuff, everyone says how it’s because of the part of me that’s like you. Like, ‘she sure is her father’s daughter, isn’t she?’ or ‘that’s just her dad in her.’”

“Jeeze,” he said, “really?”

But I just sat there, holding my cheese, trying not to cry again.

“Your Aunt Jodi says it a lot, I bet.”

“Yeah. Sometimes.”

“Does your mother say it?”

Still I said nothing. He started to repeat the question, but then looked up and saw me shaking my head “no,” cheeks wet and shiny in the firelight. I took a long, trembling breath, wiped my nose on my sleeve again. “She really doesn’t.” I said. “Mom never talks bad about you like that. Not to me.”

“She never compares you to me?”

“No.”

“Well... why not?”

“I don’t know,” I shrugged. “I guess because she knows how bad it makes me feel.”

He stared hard at the fire then, at the popcorn that never popped; he frowned and was quiet.

He built the fire up high, leaned bone-white branches against each other in a tepee, built it up so big that I was sure anyone could have seen it, from miles away in the desert, obvious and fierce and tiny against the endless dark.


*


As the night grew late, the world became less distinct and I dreamed scenes that, though surreal, were really only minor variations on our actual circumstances. I dreamed that my father and I sat together in the dust as we watched police helicopters push searchlights along the horizon, helicopters my father eyed warily, calling them “bears” and advising me, “you don’t try and outrun a bear.” I dreamed that my father's greying beard stretched to his boots where it seemed to braid with the brush and creosote roots, kneading thirsty in the hard, dry earth. I dreamed my father came to me in the night, shook me gently awake, tickling my face with his leaves, and said it was time to go.

“Mm. But it’s the middle of the night,” I said. “Where are we going?”

“To find the treasure,” he said, grinning as he threw his backpack over his shoulders. “The heck you think we’re doing out here, anyway, all the way out in the middle of nowhere? You think your old dad’s gonna lead you astray? You think I’m really as crazy as everybody says?”

I looked woozily about our site, found my math book still in my lap; the pile of empties had grown larger and, despite the high, whipping fire beside us, the high-desert night was bone-cold. I clasped the sleeping bag around my neck and looked at him, waited for this dream to pass, for everything to melt away and to maybe even wake up in my own bed, finally, safe and warm at home.

“Don’t look at me like that, I’m serious,” he said. “We just had to wait until it was late enough no one’s gonna mess with us. Don’t need any good-doing rangers butting in.”

“‘Rangers?’” I said, “but you said no cops, you said—”

“Hey hey hey... relax, okay? I said no cops and I meant it.”

“What about the fire?” I said. “It’s not safe to leave this huge fire here with no people. And I’m still hungry—I’m starving!”

“Look,” he said, “remember how I said I didn’t have any money? Well, this isn’t just some daddy-daughter bullshit show I’m running here, okay? We are on the hunt for some actual, honest-to-God treasure. There’s a plan and a way it works. We camped as close as we could so it wouldn’t look suspicious, but the treasure’s still a good ways off. Not real far, but it’s not getting any closer either. The fire’s the way it is so we can find our way back.”

I looked from him, to the fire, back to him again. Still waited.

“Caroline,” he said, and just the way he said it. Just the way he said my name.

Long legs set wide, thumbs hooked under the straps of his dumb backpack, he waited a minute more, then shrugged and turned halfway into the darkness before I panicked and called him back, shouting, “Dad, no wait! Please! Don’t leave me, Dad! I’ll go.

“Please don’t leave me,” I said, “I’m just tired is all. I just really want to go home and go to sleep now.”

He considered this, gauging something secret in me. Then, with a strength I had not anticipated, he grabbed me under my arms, spun me upside-down over his head and, before I knew it, had fit me neatly into the narrow space between his backpack and the small of his back. My arms were easy over his shoulders, and the straps supported my hips like a chair.

“Comfortable?” he said.

I didn’t say anything. But I was. Warmer, too.

“Hey. Caroline,” he said, and I felt his voice vibrate through his body.

“What?”

“I love you.”

It was physically the closest I’d ever been to him, would ever be. His hair smelled like a million different things, smells familiar, if from a very long time ago.


*


“He told me he was a writer the first time we met,” my mom said, this years later, as she sat up in bed late at night and near the end of her life.

“That or, I don’t know, sometimes I saw him fill out the ‘occupation’ section on paperwork with stuff like, ‘philosopher.’”

And we both laughed at that then for awhile.

“He worked construction a lot is what I remember,” she said. “Sometimes he’d disappear to Bend for a day or two, Redmond, show up late at night, always drunk, but sometimes with a bunch of cash, money we always needed too bad for me to really ask where it came from. Or that’s how I thought then, anyway. One night, he showed up at the apartment with a big, old gash up the back of his arm and not one word to say about it. Took the hospital thirty-two stitches to close it up. Driving us home afterward, I had the nerve to ask him how he got it and he slapped me so hard that I lost a tooth. He could have just lied. He was a good liar. I don’t think he even had to try, it came so natural. Maybe that’s what he meant by ‘writer.’”

“Did he ever actually write anything?” I asked.

“Some things,” she said. “Lots of letters. Oh he wrote letters to all kinds of people, friends, strangers—long, formal letters to movie stars and the heads of weird government agencies you never heard of. He’d send them newspaper clippings, offer to do things. But then there were the letters he wrote me, not many of those and mostly just from that fall he worked picking apples in Washington. But those really were lovely, full of things about family and the boys, he and I and our future together, and even some about you, you know, though you were still just a bump in my tummy. They’re hopeful letters, mostly, but also intense in a way that I didn’t always understand. They remind me of you, actually, all the little things you write.”

“Mom,” I said.

“I know, I know,” she said and sighed, rearranging her blankets. “Not much on follow-through, but boy could your dad write a letter. Or even just talk. Sometimes, when things were bad, all I wanted was for him to talk, reassure me it was all part of some plan, any plan. He could always explain it so everything was actually going to be just fine, that all of our problems were really just illusory and soon to pass. Oh gosh, I almost want to believe him now, just thinking about it.”

She paused a while then, head tilted, remembering.

“Hey Mom,” I said, when I thought I’d waited long enough, “remember that night he took me out in the desert with him? Out to steal th—”

“Please,” she said, raised her hands up in surrender, already shaking her head. “I don’t want to talk about that night. Let’s please just talk about anything else, thank you. Please. Thank you. Anything else but that.”


*


The straps were tight enough that, even as he ran, I was held fast against him. The moon had clouded over and the river was loud enough so that I felt blind and deaf both as he ran. The air was dry and freezing and rattled in his chest, but his legs were strong, steady. Sometimes he crouched low running, affecting stealth, others he saved us from stumbling only by leaping suddenly across some ditch or crevice, even once cracking the night with a crow of pride that hurt my ears and made me wonder if we were actually hiding from anyone.

Nothing seemed to faze him, not until, jogging blindly down into one more hollow, dark as any other, he came up short, splashing into what sounded like more than a few inches of water. He stopped, lifted a boot, swore.

“What is it?” I asked. “Is this the river? Please don’t take us into the river!”

“River’s over there,” he said. “This... this must be a wash I didn’t know about, flood from the early melt or something.”

He tried steps in a few directions, tested rocks with his feet, nearly slipped and caught himself.

“Whoa,” he said.

“Are we almost there?”

“Where?”

He stumbled and caught us again and I shut my eyes, gripped handfuls of his work shirt.

“Please don’t make me say it,” I said. “I’m not a baby and I’m not stupid.”

“Ha, you mean the treasure?”

“There’s no such thing as treasure,” I said, “not anymore. It’s either all gone or somebody took it all already. I don’t know. But it’s all gone, gone or just in stories.”

“Not this treasure,” he said. I felt his left leg tremble, then steady beneath us. “This one’s been here awhile now without anyone even knowing about it, no one willing to do the job, anyway. And I’m telling you, it’s right on the other side of this—”

And then we were in the air.

Spinning blind through freezing darkness, strapped to my father and anticipating our imminent crash into whatever hazard we’d been fording, I don’t remember what I thought. Time, like the cliché, really did slow but, stubbornly, it did not expand. I experienced no singularity as we fell, no deep insight into either mine or my father’s heart. Instead, I remember only the smell of his hot, beery breath, hearing him suck air into a gasp as we slipped and then—much, much later—that same air being forced from his lungs as we landed, his skinny, old man’s chest compressing flat as exhausted bellows between my legs. I remember feeling my left knee dig deeper into the side of his ribs as the backpack’s strap coiled tighter and tighter around my leg, pulling it further and further. My leg is going to break, I had time enough to think. It was not a revelatory premonition. But it proved correct.

“Oh shit,” he said, once everything had stopped, him coughing and wheezing as he struggled to hands and knees. I gasped as I came up with him, pulled from the freezing water still strapped to his back, pain opening my mouth wide, but lacking yet the breath to scream.

“Oh shit. I heard it, Caroline,“ he said, searching for me behind him. “Car? Car?!”

He crawled the rest of the way across the water, me writhing in breathless silence on his back, both of us soaked. I felt him grasp what I at first thought to be a big rock wedged up inside the leg of my jeans, a rock that, at his touch, I realized was in fact the broken end of my leg bone, splintered to a jagged edge and pushed by our impact through the skin of my thigh, just above the knee.

“—oh shit, Caroline, oh shit oh shit oh shit—”

I felt his hands beneath my arms as I flew through the air, leg limp as a sock full of change, before landing hard on my back atop some solid, flat surface, like a table, a few feet off the ground. Landing, I felt the bone-ends grind against each other and immediately threw up all over myself, my father, and the large metal box he’d set me on. I puked until I was empty. Then, finally, I screamed.

“Shit, okay,” he said, kept saying it through my screaming, his voice coming from somewhere deeper now—“Shit, just hold on a minute, okay?”—and then I was covered in light. I did not stop screaming.

“It’s just a headlamp,” he said. “Hold still and just lemme—shit. Okay, shit, oh Caroline, God fucking—”
Looking down, I saw the swelling lump in my jeans, tennis-ball-sized, a lump that, many hours later, the doctors would explain to my mom was the knife-sharp edge of my broken femur. It felt good to scream, looking at it. The light that I knew was him walked off muttering, then returned to cover me once more. I screamed at him and at the light and at my leg, no longer cared about how wet or cold I was, how tired or hungry. I lived only to scream at my father who, even then, seemed to keep dipping his head-lamped gaze from me to the metal box below, dipping and, maddeningly, lingering there.

“I need to go home!” I said. “No. I need to go home, right now!”

“I know, Car... just hold on, baby...”

Covered in tears and vomit, my body growing indistinct in shock, I tried to prop myself up enough to get a look at what he was doing. Just visible in the light, my father crouched before the box he’d set me on, screwdriver spinning as fast as he could turn it at the box’s metal corners.

“What are you doing?” I demanded, “I said, I want to go home!”

“Okay, okay, just hold on, Car...”

When a panel came off in his hands, he swapped screwdrivers for a smaller one and went to work on whatever came next, dug deeper inside the box. His beard hung long and wet, covered in dust, his face hard and deep-shadowed beneath the light.

“Dad!” I said, “Dad! I want to go home!”

“We will, we will, don’t worry. We just got to find that treasure first, Car. We just got to—”

But then he stopped as something deep inside the box came loose, something heavy and decisive. Over my body, I watched him peer in, his red eyes wide.

“What is it?” I said, straining to see.

Except for the water, the night was quiet. He looked deep inside, expression empty. Except for the water we had just crawled through, early snowmelt from the mountains black around us, everything was calm and quiet.


*


“Copper wire,” Dustin says, laughs flatly, bitterly. “He leaves Caroline sitting there—her leg’s broken, she’s in shock, his only daughter is bleeding to death—all because some meth head once taught him how to steal copper wire out of a pump station.” He’s only five-foot-five, my brother Dustin, the marine, shorter than me. Standing heroic on his folding chair, though, he’s a full head taller than everyone else in the garage. And they, in turn, are in love with him, mesmerized anyway. “And the best joke of all?” he says, gleeful. “Turns out, that pump station had just replaced all their copper wiring with new CCS. Not a scrap of copper in the whole fucking place, so that motherfucker got nothing!”

“Nothing!” echoes Nathan and, once more, the chorus cheers.

“Aw, come on, Car...” says Dustin, seeing my expression. “Hey, I’m sorry. It’s Caroline’s story everybody. Tell em, sis. How long did he wait before taking you back, after breaking his only daughter’s leg? How long did it take him to check every fucking control box in the whole fucking place? How many did he have it in him to unscrew before finally giving up and carrying you back to the truck, driving the hour back into town, and leaving you burning up like a bag of shit on the emergency room doorstep?”

The way my brother speaks is vicious, snapping his grinning, predator’s teeth at me and all of us. He’s angry, obviously, but the object of his anger has dematerialized and is part of everything now; it’s outside, floating in the cold, night air, held only just at bay by the part that is also in the space heaters and cigarette smoke and the roar of our bloodthirsty family. Listening to him, to all of them, I feel compelled to say that I do not feel the same. Not exactly.

“But you are like him, Caroline,” insisted my mother. “You are just like him. You have his troubles.”

“Mom,” I said.

“You have his troubles, Caroline.” And she’s right, I guess. My adult life has not been untroubled. But it has been my life and I don’t have to share it with anyone, not if I don’t want to.

Later, going through my mom’s things, I found the letters she'd mentioned, written by my dad while he was working orchards outside of Spokane, letters preserved in a ziplock freezer bag, the plastic smudged with fingerprints. And she was right, they’re beautiful; they’re moving and hopeful letters, but also mysterious in their insistent reference to people and events I will never know. One mentions the night I was conceived, on a camping trip my parents took along the coast. Ignoring signs prohibiting it, they pitched their tent right on the beach, heard the waves crash through the night. “It was cold,” he begins, “we ran out of wood for the fire... ”


Derrick Martin-Campbell is a writer living in Portland, OR. His work has appeared in PANK, Blunderbuss, Go Read Your Lunch, Nailed Magazine, and New Dead Families, among other places. You can read more of his writing on his Tumblr and follow him on Twitter at @dmartincampbell.