Prodigal Return Season

By Misty Ellingburg

When he got back to the reservation Sophia was upstairs turning a trick in the master bedroom. He waited. Downstairs in the kitchen the countertops were three layers thick in crumbs stuck to grease and soda spills. A pot of macaroni and cheese, crusted and discolored, was pushed to the back burner of the stove. He didn’t know how old it was; god knew. Crumpled up aluminum foil, tossed haphazardly into the trash bin, piled up on the stained linoleum. He remembered when the house was new and they slid on their socks down the wood floors in the long hallway to the guest bedroom and half-bath. She said everything was backwards — the stairwell was carpeted and the living room wasn’t, and he promised to vacuum the stairs because she hated to lift the vacuum over and over.

That was three years back, when the kid was barely tottering and the dog kept busting through the child safety gate. That was back when she had all her hair and her face didn’t look like his mom’s, lips chapped and visage scarred, skin thin. It didn’t make no sense so he didn’t try to make no sense of it.

Waiting for her to get done with the man in his bed, he opened the fridge and cracked a beer, paced to the sliding glass door, still taped over with tarp from when he put the chair through it, and passed into the back yard, overgrown with play horses rusted into the lawn, the faltering slide, and the lawn chair where he left him.

He’d skipped town eighteen months ago and come back as wordlessly as he left, twelve thousand dollars richer and with another man inside his wife. He’d lost his key, but the door wasn’t locked anyhow; she never remembered to do things like that, even when he got her a new flat-screen television and surround sound speakers. After he shattered the glass door she said it didn’t matter if she locked the front door anyway, and he said why did he get her nice things if she wasn’t going to take care of them, and she said it wasn’t her that smashed the door in, and he said he might as well smash the T.V. if she didn’t care what junkie took it. She said the dog would protect the house.

That was when she was his nice thing, before the accident when the dog busted the baby door for the last time and the kid sent hisself careening down the stairs and she came home to the dog licking the carpeted landing and making a noise like moaning.

It was her fault, he said some weeks later, for going to the gas station for them chicken tenders she loved and leaving the kid on his lonesome. He’d been asleep, she screamed, and how did she know he could climb out of his crib and fall at such an angle? She’d barely been gone for five seconds, she had screamed, and where was he every day and every night leaving her alone with only the fucking television? And then she said he had to kill the dog and he wouldn’t. He said if he was going to kill whoever’s fault it was, he’d kill her, and she slapped him in the face, and he choked her, but only for a second, and then she walked all the way to her sister’s house and he was always regretful for not following her, because that was when she slammed dope for the first time, and even if it was her stupidity for going to the gas station, he didn’t hate her.

But she didn’t come home for a long time and he couldn’t take the silence, the stained landing purple like wine. And he took the dog to his brother’s house and cut out for Alaska and spent a year and a half on a boat with grizzled old men and, sitting in the back yard and staring at the little blue horse, now split through the muzzle with weeds growing out of the broken saddle, he figured it was his fault about Sophia. His fault about the kid, too, for working long hours and late into the night as a floor manager at the casino. He should’ve known to get someone to help her. She never was good with the particulars. When they married she was just sixteen, three years younger than him and never made it through high school. She was barely twenty when the baby died, but it was different. When he was twenty he knew things about the world, but Sophia. She was wide-eyed and wonderfied by the least thing. Just by the stupidest little thing.

He sipped the beer. It was cold and condensation dripped down its side and over his fingers and he was glad for the coldness because the sun hung overhead like a dead man from a tree, burning thick yellow and hot. Sweat like tears started at his scalp and ran down his temples and over his cheekbones, them proud cheekbones, them high cheekbones. Real Native cheekbones, his mother said, like his Great Grandma Rachel, she of the three live husbands turned three dead husbands and thirteen children, all named Charley after her.

It was awhile before Sophia came downstairs, stepping over the bloodstain. She showed the man out the front door just like that, never caring what neighbors might see. He revved his engine and pulled out and Sophia came padding into the kitchen in her house slippers and saw the sliding glass door was open and her husband was in his lawn chair sipping a beer.

“Oh, for God’s sake,” she said, stepping onto the deck. “Aaron. I thought I seen a ghost.”

He looked up at her and she was wearing a thin blue dress with big, ugly blue velvet flowers splayed across the front and cut in half at her shoulders. She was skinny like his mom after his dad left and he thought he was going to cry but he inhaled instead of sobbing and she stepped off the deck and into the lawn and he wanted her to be pretty like before, when she curled her bangs and wore her hair in long braids, but she just couldn’t manage it.

Misty Ellingburg is a Shoalwater Bay Indian from the coast of Western Washington. Her great loves include Tribal Journeys, teaching English Comp, and writing grants. Her work has appeared in Yellow Medicine Review, the Rag, eFiction Review, Specter Magazine, Hello Horror, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and 100 Word Story, to name a few. Misty is currently working toward her MFA at the University of Idaho, class of 2016. Find her at, and at