The Family Flea

“I’m sure you get sob stories all the time but believe me I could really use your help here. My father just passed away…”


Don had led Garret out into the dining room in a somber way. He was told nothing and his dad sat with his hands crossed with the tiny blue box in front of him on the dining room table. “Son, you are getting older and I have something very important to show you.” He pushed the box forward slightly. “This has been in the family for a few generations now. It belonged to your great-great grandfather. He passed it to his son, and him to my father. One day it will be yours. Your birthright. It’s our most precious family heirloom.” He nodded. “Open it.”

The tension of the moment was exhilarating. It was like he was being given the family’s holy sword to wield in battle. Garret opened the box, revealing a tiny flea dressed like a sailor. It had been fitted with a microscopic sailor’s garb, complete with a hat and a red handkerchief. Don couldn’t hold in the laughter after that. “It’s the family flea.” Chuckles flew from Don left and right and he slapped his knee. At first Garret had to process the flea. The what-the-fuckery of the situation ticked away in his brain until finally, DING, he understood. A joke. At which point he joined in with his dad in laughter.

Now they sat in silence. The only sound between the two of them was the humming of the car’s engine. His dad put on the turn signal and pulled off the highway. They had arrived at their destination. “Fourth time’s a charm,” Don grumbled as he took the key out of the ignition. Garret exited the car and caught a glance at the fading neon sign that read “Pawn Shop” before following Don inside. The surveillance camera stared at them judgingly. He held the tiny box tight in his hand.

Don approached the front desk and began chatting with the clerk; meanwhile Garret perused the shelves. He found a first generation PlayStation for five dollars. Five! He picked it up and recalled how he and Don used to play one of these together when he was a child. That made fun father memory number two so far on this trip. All from when he was little. Garret wondered just where exactly Don had dropped the ball. When Garret turned eleven maybe? All those sales trips to who-knows-where for far too long each time. He’d return and Garret would be a different person. Back then all he wanted to do was spend some time with Don, now—“Garret bring the flea up here!”—he wished that he was back home watching Survivor with Mom.

Garret carefully placed the flea box on the counter and the clerk removed the top to display the miniature seafarer. The clerk snickered quietly to himself at first but after a few seconds he graduated to a full-on fit complete with pounding the countertop with his fist. “I’ll give you three dollars for it.”

“Three dollars!?” Don said. “Look this thing was from one of those old flea circuses, we got it appraised a few years ago. It’s worth at least two thousand, and I’m not walking away from it with less than one and a half.”

He scoffed. “Nah nah nah, five dollars.”

“Let me reason with you here,” Don continued. “I’m sure you get sob stories all the time but believe me I could really use your help here. My father just passed away after years of assisted living. It drained his savings, there is no inheritance. We got nothing to pay for the memorial services, my sisters are no help, they want me to put together this slideshow and…well without getting too much into it I just need a grand or so—so that we can do something.”

“Can’t do it, the owner would kill me for paying that much for that.”

“Fuck you then. Come on Garret, we’re leaving.”

Despite how each rejection prolonged Garret’s ability to go home, he felt slight pleasure each time. It was like proving his dad wrong for how estranged things had become between them. As if to say, “Hah! See! That’s what you get for awkwardly sitting in my bedroom while I am doing stuff!” Garret quickly scooped up the box and followed Don out.

By now night had fallen, and Garret volunteered to drive to the next pawn shop while Don navigated. As a fresh 15-year-old his learner’s permit granted him access to the wheel. Don held the flea box in one hand and Garret’s cell phone in the other. He rubbed his forehead trying to figure out the navigation app.

Garret felt elated to be driving. He felt like he was all grown up and had been brought into the fold. That finally he was being utilized to help with the family affairs. So what if mom had forced him to accompany his father? He was doing his part after all. All Don did was yell at him in pawn shops and occasionally jump in reaction to Garret’s driving. Which Garret hated; it was like each mini panic attack was a jab at Garret’s ability to drive.

“You remember the handkerchief?” Garret said.

“Should I?”

“From when Grandma died?”

Don looked at him with raised eyebrows.

“He came up to me and gave me a purple handkerchief, and was all ‘I was trying to find something that a young boy might like that belonged to her, so I found this.’”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, like she didn’t leave anything for me specifically, but Grandpa gave me the handkerchief anyways. I thought maybe he just didn’t want it. Like I was an easy target to pass on old junk to. I never asked any of the cousins if they got weird things though.”

“That’s funny.”

Garret paused. “Well I lost it.”

There were no other cars on the highway but up ahead Garret could see a shadowy figure of some sort. “Don’t hit that deer,” Don said.

“I’m not going to hit the deer, Dad.” The headlights shined upon the creature who looked straight at them and jumped forward. “See, it hopped out of the way.”

“Okay just don’t hit it.” The deer then pranced backwards. A single mighty bound in reverse. It planted its hooves firmly back on the pavement and then looked directly into Garret’s eyes.

“What the hell? Why is the deer just standing there?” Garret said.

“They have a whole saying about it son, the deer in the headlights look. Slow down and wait till it moves.”

“No it’ll move.” Just as Garrett uttered the “it’ll” portion of his prediction a magnificent BOOM thundered against the front of the car. The collision felt heavy, as if the deer had been constructed of lead. The loudness of the impact startled Garrett. His heart beat rapidly and his face flushed. The deer flew sideways and landed on the pavement.

He struggled to pick himself up and his head just dangled as if it were separate from the body. Each bony leg trembled but finally managed to lift the weight. “Fuck you,” the deer said before dragging itself toward the tree line.

Garret sat dumbfounded at the wheel. “Did that deer just say ‘fuck you?’”

“Yeah you pissed it off! I told you slow down and let it pass! Criminy Christ! The front of the car is probably ruined. Why didn’t you listen to me?” Don exited the car and examined the damage. He ran his hands through his hair and rubbed his chin. “Welp!” he said while throwing his arms up. “Let’s go kill it then!”

 Garrett flung himself out of the car. “Wait, why kill it? Why not try to save it!?”

“You don’t save a deer that you hit, you run it over a second time to make sure it’s dead!”

“What!?”

“Yeah, it’ll just be in agonizing pain for who knows how long, and that just isn’t right.” Don paused. “There’s also a part of me that’s angry at the deer for insulting us like that, but you kind of had it coming.”

Don had made his way into the woods, but not before yelling at Garrett to pull the car over so it wouldn’t get hit by oncoming traffic. When they found the deer it had propped its head up on a log. Its scream was terrifying, “AHHHHHH,” it cried.

 “How do we do it?” Garret asked.

“AHHHHHHH!”

“I don’t know,” Don replied. “Try kicking it?”

“This feels cruel Dad; can’t we just leave it to die?”

“AHHHHHHHH!”

“No, that’s even more cruel.”

Garret rubbed his temples.

“This is your show son,” Don said. “You’re the one who hit it.”

“Okay,” Garrett nodded. “Okay,” he said again. “Maybe we start digging a grave. By the time we’ve dug a hole large enough for the deer we will have either thought of some kind of solution, or the deer dies naturally we bury it.”

Don sighed and rolled up his sleeves. “Fine.”

Together they scraped dirt out of the ground, using their hands. Garret likened it to digging in the sand at the beach. Except there was no sand castle being drafted in the process, and the deer continued to scream horrifically on the log for the entirety of the dig. The soil was loose on the top and comprised mostly of twigs and pine needles. As they dug deeper the dirt was harder to burrow. Garrett found a small rock which he used as a shovel. “Criminy!” the deer said. Don later got a rock of his own, to which the deer followed up with “Christ!” In about an hour and a half they had dug a large enough sized grave and Garret noted two glaring issues: they had neither thought of a good way to put the deer out of its misery nor had the deer died from its injuries.

Don suggested they could at least move the deer into the grave while they continued to think. Afterwards Garrett figured they could cover just half the body with dirt so that they would be halfway done burying by the time an idea was thought of. Then the second half of the body was covered due to the same logic. Finally, it was just a head sticking out of the ground crying out in agony while Garret and Don scratched their heads.

“I wish it would just die already,” Garret said. “Is that shitty of me to wish for?”

“No. Nononono. Felt the same way about Dad.”

“Grandpa was in pain that whole time?” Garret asked.

“The man couldn’t even talk, couldn’t do anything without help, couldn’t even decide what to do if he even knew what he wanted to do. That’s no way to live.”

The deer took one look at Don and said, “Fine.”

Don dropped himself onto the ground and sat. He sighed and looked the deer in the eyes. He reminded Garret of a child. Like he had been told that he couldn’t watch TV or that there was no dessert after dinner. Garret wanted to give him a pat on the back but his hand only hovered. He couldn’t quite touch him. Instead he placed his hand on the deer’s snout and held it tight. Garret clamped the deer’s mouth closed and placed his other hand over the deer’s nose. The deer shook its head and convulsed beneath the ground—as much as its body could still move at least. Garret closed his eyes and waited until he didn’t feel any more movement.

As he let go the deer’s head fell limp. A solitary deceased head growing from the Earth. If one didn’t know any better, they might think that they had come across a decapitation in the forest rather than a botched gravesite.

They retreated back to the mangled car and continued their drive to the next pawn shop. The car made a few angry puts as it started up but seemed to run alright. Don drove just to be safe, and Garret let him. They did not converse for the duration of the ride, with one exception. Within the first five minutes Don began to speak, he said “It’s… yeah.” And that was it. He needn’t have added anything else, and Garret said nothing in response.

The deer’s gasping broken head buried in the ground was burned into his memory.

They pulled up at the next pawn shop at 3:00 AM. The lights of the shop were off, as were the neon signs that littered the front window. All they could do was press their faces against the glass and squint.

“Hot damn!” Don said. He slapped his knee and gave Garret a hard pat on the back. “Look!”

Garret took a close look. Within the shadows Garret could see a table laid out with a small display on it. A circus tent backdrop with hoops, ladders, and a small trapeze set up in front. Garret couldn’t be sure, but it seemed incredibly likely that if the lights were on they would be able to see several flea-sized black dots littering the small circus grounds. “Is that a…” Garret began to say. “Do you think they’ll accept a sailor?”

“Hell yeah I do! Hand me the flea.”

Garret, in over exaggerated movements, patted his pockets. “I don’t have it. You had it last.”

“No. I drove, so you would have held onto it.”

“Well you didn’t hand it to me after we got back into the car.”

Don swung his arms upwards and turned away from Garret. “You lost it?” He faced him again. “Your birthright?”

“It was your birthright too!”

Don checked the passenger seat over and under and grunted to himself. He kicked one of the front tires and rested his forehead on the disfigured hood of the car. “Let’s go home. Your mother is probably wondering what took us so long.”

“What? You’d give up that quick? What if we buried it with the deer or something? We could look some more if you want. What about paying for the funeral?”

Don sat dejectedly in the passenger seat with his legs hanging out of the car. He rubbed his knees and began taking slow controlled breaths. “We buried a deer for free. We can find a way to bury my dad.” Don clutched the pocket on his shirt. “It’s just a flea.”

“No its not,” Garret said. He paused. Garret placed both of his hands into the front pocket of his hoody and clutched the tiny box. “It’s a sailor too.” Garret smiled.

Written by Adam McDonald

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