My father sleeps skeleton-folded in a closet box. His face is pressed against his knees, a jumble of paper bones and battles, neck bone connects to the thigh bone connects to the hand bone. We unfurl him on holidays, a faded tribute laid on an empty dining room chair while his flag hangs triangled on the wall, bone stripes lined up in honor too.
Before I was born, he rucksack-packed my mother to Saigon, accordion-pleated her black and white honeymoon smile against camouflage olive green, all before the universe saluted him into crane and lotus. That time, he came home only slightly creased.
In between wrinkled returns, my brother and I arrived. We four went to the beach together in matching rainbow-striped swimsuits. Even though he knew the roads by memory, he still struggled with McNally on the dashboard, laid out guidance like a sextant. On the way home, our towels dried out of windows flag-waving at other vacationers, letting them know he was home.
We hoped he would be home until the next summer but it didn’t happen. In spring, the call for him came at dark night o’thirty as he called it. He answered in a whisper, told her in a solemn inside voice.
“Why?” My mother asked in her small voice I knew too well at age 5.
There was silence between them broken only by harried packing and polishing. I gripped the new picture of the four of us standing at the sand’s edge, the scent of the sea clinging to the Polaroid taken by a stranger. Before he boarded a plane that needed no atlas on its dashboard, I gave him a crayon family drawing reduced to a tiny square to fit in a uniform pocket, packed to travel.
When he left for that last time that we didn’t know was the last time, she stood sentinel, a suburban guard with her hands knitted to his beloved left-behind telescope periscoping a silent search. We stood by her side. While we waited, she drew constellation finger maps to sky soldiers that weren’t him.
The swimming pool was dark for us that summer, each splash sounding a war cry. Stop fighting she told us but we knew she didn’t mean us. Marco. Polo. We called out to each other, reuniting in water breadth-breaths that swallowed us, rainbow stripes glimmering under chlorine. Our summer beach vacation without him felt hollow. We got lost several times, finally skip-counting sand bit wishes on frothy tides, hoping he’d suddenly wash up in his creased dress blues as the sun set.
At night, we gathered to count star hops to Saigon, praying to the sea god which stole him. We looked for him blind because there were no smoke signals or skywalkers showing us where he slept. Thousands of miles away, we missed the flashpoint, the falling star moment when the enemy telescoped Father’s bones. Mother seemed to know, collapsing to the ground with her pleated skirts unfurled onto shag carpet. Her tide tears flowed but she continued pointing for us, showcasing star stops to Vietnam and Venus, trying to blink away fear until the faded fall mornings curtained down.
His letters stopped coming. There were no inked star maps and love notes and war diaries. She sought out answers in the way military wives do. After listening to radio men who echoed empty promises and wrong guidance, mother told us tales of Greek star sailors, soldiers called with noble goals to walk among the stars, to leave I was here notes and flags on milky chalkboards.
At school, I learned there were black holes in space.
“Did my Papa’s submarine drown in an ocean black hole?” I asked my teacher.
She didn’t answer, only looked at me with the sad, wet eyes everyone used when I asked questions.
I knew my father sailed in a submarine where no stars glittered, where he saw schools of wave-sodden paper fish children as he floated paper sailboat last words and love letters. I wanted him to sail in space where there were no predators and no wars.
While we waited for answers, my new sister danced in my mother’s belly sea, caught by time’s tides waiting to be born until after heaven’s paper artist stole our father. My mother was left to telegraph grief messages before the notice arrived. She sat ready in a black sea dress, billowing folds surrounding her, protecting my sister with her hand bones connected to the arm bones. We huddled next to her, the smell of the sea and the skies and war all around. I pinched her skirt fabric over and over with my kindergarten fingers.
Without warning, official men in midnight black swam up on the sidewalk, block-folding our sun, leaving us with a certificate to hold-frame, a flag to hold-fold and metal medal stars, bars and hearts to pin on the sky’s dress blues.
We traveled one last time to the empty winter beach. With hands big and small and baby, we tossed our father, husband at the day, light until he reached Mars and reported to Orion. The ashes fly-floated as white-wet cranes to the sea of far stars, scattered on generations as he received his migration-promotion to star sailor.
Amy Barnes has words at FlashBack Fiction, McSweeney’s, Popshot Quarterly, Flash Fiction Magazine, 101 Words of Solitude, X-RAY Lit, Stymie Lit, No Contact Mag, Streetcake Magazine, JMWW Journal, The Molotov Cocktail, Reflex Fiction, Lucent Dreaming, Reckon Review, Anti-Heroin Chic, Flash Frog, Leon Review, Perhappened, The Lonely Press, Spartan Lit, Blink-Ink, The Mitre, Complete Sentence, Gone Lawn, Cabinet of Heed, and others. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best Microfiction. She’s a Fractured Lit Associate Editor, Gone Lawn co-editor and reads for CRAFT, Taco Bell Quarterly, Retreat West, The MacGuffin, and Narratively. Her flash collection “Mother Figures” is forthcoming in June, 2021.