You call out, but your father does not acknowledge you. He continues walking down the dirt driveway with five-gallon buckets swinging heavy from his hands, buckets filled with the walnuts you picked the day before. His straw hat has fallen on the wet ground, and his untied work boots do not mark a straight line. Your mother, afraid, woke you in the dark and sent you to search him out in the cold and thin morning light. You shiver now against the webbed fog in muddy slippers and thin flannel.
“Dad,” you shout, “are you okay?”
There is no wind, nothing to deaden your voice except the dripping in the surrounding fir trees, the gathered mist tinking the tin roof of your father’s welding shop. Your words echo against the metal, but his stooped back does not turn, his boots continue sucking through the mud, towards the field of rusted machinery around back of his shop. You carried both buckets in a wheelbarrow, they were so heavy with walnuts, but he carries both at once without resting them on the ground. Even though he has not slept, your father still seems much stronger than you.
“Dad, what are you doing?” you say. “Let’s go back inside.”
He stumbles slightly when he reaches the back field, junking a curse he invented himself, and this, your brain whispers, is very wrong. Your stomach pools with that special freezing acid reserved for family troubles, but like your father you keep walking. Fear becomes frustration, because you only recently learned about the sleeping aids. When your father was still speaking and you canceled work to travel home, he told you he only slept a few hours each week.
“One night in October,” he said, “I slept for two full hours, and it was like God kissed me.”
Three months without sleep and no mention of his lagging work, his doctor visits, or the pills that solved nothing. With his sleep gone, also failing is his ability to speak. How many times have you called home in the last three months? How much of his health have you taken for granted? Your younger siblings have also canceled work or informed their teachers. They have rushed home as well, to a nervous house and footsteps retreating up the driveway, your father’s back to his family’s promises that if he rests, his speech, his coordination, it will all come back. You wish you could scream it back. Through the open door of your father’s workshop are many shelves with many unfamiliar tools that now, in his silence, overwhelm. Along the edge of the back field are so many cracked open engines and half-welded projects you never questioned, because what he knew helped you disregard what you did not.
But now your father is dumping all of the walnuts you picked yesterday into a six-foot cement mixer and attempting to connect the wheel crank.
“Dad,” you close your eyes. “You’re not all right.”
Of course you know that some people never trust their parents, and that others never have any doubts. You know some people parent their parents at a much earlier or older age than you, but right now, in the back field, this the first time you wonder who will help him, who will help your father who helps your family. The tightness begins in your chest and spreads painfully up your throat. Your knees lock, but you want to run. He cannot do this anymore, you think, he cannot continue to live like this.
The wheel crank finally clicks into the cement mixer, your father throws his whole strength into the wheel, the large drum begins to roll, and a thousand cracking sounds fill the surrounding woods. The mixer spits out the smooth-green and the dried-black husks that enclose the nuts. Broken shells are ejected as well. A black dust covers his already dirty t-shirt, his bare head and neck, and you know it is your hands that must take the wheel before the walnuts are demolished. You do not want to take this from him, but when he fails, you know only that the responsibility will fall to you. Your family will turn to you.
“Dad,” you shout with empty hands. “Just stop.”
At breakfast, you will convince your mother and siblings that your father should go back to the doctor. They will insist, your father will consent, to discover a fatal brain disease and learn he has three months. It only ends up being three weeks, only two weeks until your father's face holds no recognition of your face or your voice, so your mind strangles the more real moments that are gone. Your memory hardens over the day with the walnuts, when your father stopped the cement mixer and you looked into the heavy drum. Resting on top of all the fine, extraneous pulp were the edible walnut seeds, a heap of gold, gallons of shelled walnuts waiting to be gathered.
You remember your father leaning into the drum to scoop, and wordless, with his burnt welder’s hands outstretched, showing you two spilling handfuls of shelled walnuts. He still did not speak but he was smiling, proud of his straight thinking, his green eyes fully present with yours. Some of the nutmeats had even been shelled whole, the halves connected and perfectly intact. Shining, fresh, and unbroken.
Thea Prieto was a finalist for Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers, and for her novel writing she was invited to the 2015 Tin House Summer Writer's Workshop. Her fiction has appeared at The Masters Review, NAILED Magazine, as well as in other publications, and she is the co-editor of The Gravity of the Thing. She earned her MFA in creative writing at Portland State University, where she currently teaches writing. “Shells” originally appeared in Pathos Literary Magazine (2014).