“The Beggar King”—a short story by Michael Scott Moore

11 September, 2023

On the 22 anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in New York City at the World Trade Center and other sites, TMR publishes two stories that describe the aftermath and the blowback of the wars that ensued in Iraq and Afghanistan as a result of the George W. Bush Administration’s follies in the region. Here we let ourselves be carried away by Michael Scott Moore’s feline narrator of a family story and an Iraq War vet who can’t quite move on, and in Andrew Quilty’s reporting from Kabul, as US troops pull out in August 2021, we are reminded of the last days of the US presence in Vietnam, when chaos ensued.


Michael Scott Moore




I didn’t like her when she first moved in. They rearranged the furniture, for one thing. They carried in three suitcases, a wardrobe full of clothes, and an unspeakable leather sofa that smelled too much like Rottweiler. She put new sheets on the bed (bargain detergent, mothballs) and a new collection of pictures by the window. Then the sill was no longer mine. To top it off they spent a ridiculous amount of time in bed. I left the house whenever it started because I found it faintly disturbing, and for two weeks I protested her presence by howling for my food at dawn.

Her name’s Melissa Tompkins. She’s a young real estate broker with deep cleavage and bottle-blonde hair. By “young” I mean she celebrated her thirtieth birthday in the backyard here about three weeks ago. She scooted around the pool in a bikini and flip-flops, laughing at Ron’s jokes and waving a glass of wine. She doesn’t watch her step, which can be dangerous for cats.

I prefer the cool silence of our living room at night, which features plush carpet and a glorious aquarium left behind by Robyn, Ron’s oldest child. The fish move in the blue light behind thick glass, and Robyn taught me the breeds — clownfish and firefish and angelfish, African cichlids, “oscars,” and miniature koi. Of course it’s been made CRYSTAL CLEAR to me NUMEROUS TIMES that the aquarium is NOT FOR HUNTING. Whatever. The tank’s built into the wall. It hardly even smells. But the blue light calls to me like a mirage, in constant motion, murmuring perfect dreams.

On one of these aquarium nights, Melissa came down for a snack. She found me on the coffee table and snapped on the light.

“Shit,” she said blearily. “Oscar?”

I got ready to run.

“You startled me.”

Before Carol’s departure I could roam the dozing house undisturbed. Now I watched Melissa fade back to the kitchen and stand in front of the fridge. She sat at the table and consumed the following: a slice of cheesecake, some leftover stir-fry, and a glass of pomegranate juice. When she returned upstairs, I followed her at a distance.

Ron’s voice mumbled through the door.

“Just for a glass of water,” she said. “But I saw Oscar on the coffee table. Staring at the fish in the dark?”


“Does he always do that?”


“I mean is he hungry or something?”


I crept back downstairs and washed my face.

One of us is the freak in this house, lady, and I don’t think it’s me.

“I got an email from Darren,” Ron announced at breakfast, feeding me a bit of sausage under the table. He was a large-bellied Italian with short black hair, now receding from his forehead but not from his arms or knuckles.

“He wants to come home this weekend.”

“Oh, how nice,” Melissa said.

“He’s got a few weeks on base before he’s discharged, but he says he’s ready for a homecoming now.”

“Honey, that’s wonderful.”

“I put something in his account for a truck. He’ll head to Oceanside on Saturday to buy one. Then he’ll drive up here.”

Darren had landed in California a week before, and Ron went with the rest of the family to see him at the base. But Darren refused to come up for a homecoming bash — no one’s quite sure why. Still, I knew good news when I heard it, so I arched my back against Ron’s chair leg.

“He was in Iraq for how long?” said Melissa.

“About a year and a half. Two tours.”

“It’ll be so interesting to hear his stories.”

Ron cleared his throat. “He was surprised to hear about the divorce,” he said in a serious voice. “I guess the question is — do you want to be here for the party?”

Melissa munched a breadstick.

“You’re inviting Carol and the girls?”

“Of course, but you should be here, too. If you’re comfortable.”

She sipped some tea.

“Well, we all have to get used to this,” she said.

Ron was pleased. “Okay. I’ll go out for groceries today. We can have shish kebabs.”

I rubbed the edge of my mouth and teeth against Ron’s shoe out of sheer joy. I tried to include Melissa in my affections, but her shoes were open-toed. “Ow!” she hollered and nearly kicked me against the kitchen wall. I bolted for the living room, but Ron hollered at me. One injustice of life under the current regime is that he always takes her side.

“I don’t think Oscar likes me,” Melissa was heard to complain while I crouched for my life under the sofa.

The three women arrived together — Robyn and Kristin, with their mother Carol — and it was such a relief to hear their voices ringing in the entryway that I almost get stepped on again. Ron played proud father and host, pouring out juice and champagne. After a lot of preliminaries we settled around the crab dip. Robyn wore a soft blue fleece coat, tennis shoes, and wire-rimmed glasses. I settled next to her on the dog-smelling couch, where she rubbed my ears.

“Where’s Darren?” she said.

“He’s driving up,” Ron said.

Kristin had a new job in L.A., for a fashion magazine on Wilshire Boulevard. While she discussed it I watched Carol’s flat, canny eyes observe Melissa. The younger woman leaned forward for a stick of celery and ate it without dip. Her sheer top was low-cut.

During a lull in conversation Carol said, “These hors d’oeuvres are lovely, Melissa, did you make them?”

“What? No, they came from the store.”

Carol had blonde hair shaped like a bell, fading to gray, with an inward curl at the neck. Her loose knit sweater was maroon but modest compared to Melissa’s clothes. She smiled, enigmatically, and turned to Robyn.

“How was your trip?” she said.

“Great, we just got back from Kauai. I was there with my lab last week,” Robyn told everyone, “and we went on some interesting dives.”

Silence fell while Melissa processed this information. She’d met the kids maybe twice before, and she tended to forget the things Ron told her.

“… With your labrador?” is what she came up with, and the silence grew profound.

“My laboratory,” said Robyn. “We study coral reefs.”

“She’s a post-doc,” Ron reminded Melissa, with a hand on her thigh. “She’s got a Ph.D. in marine science.”

“Oh, of course.”

Melissa handed around the crab dip without indulging. I bathed in the odor of seafood and cream.

“Oscar’s being so good,” Carol said. She wiped a small amount of dip on her finger and handed it across Robyn to me. I snatched it expertly with my tongue. Carol had moved out maybe eighteen months ago. I’ve missed her ever since. Her cooking, her common sense, and her awareness of the family infused this house with an intelligence that Melissa seems to lack.

I purred and meditated on what exactly had gone wrong around here. Cohabitation, of course, is complicated. But things grew tense after Darren joined the Marines. Carol didn’t like it; she just tolerated his decision as some kind of phase, like having a pierced ear. “At least the world’s at peace,” she said.

That was five years ago. But the tone of the household changed a year later, when a clock radio clicked on in the master bedroom and announced a confusing piece of news. It was a beautiful fall morning, with early sunshine pouring in from the yard. The whole green-carpeted bedroom seemed to glow. I sat alert at the foot of the bed, listening to birds in the sycamore.

“… What kind of plane?” Ron asked the radio, still half-asleep.

“Must’ve been a Cessna,” murmured Carol.

Their feet moved under the covers, but I held my ground.

“Well, in Lower Manhattan —” Ron yawned and rubbed his face. “Must be a mess.”

“What time is it?” she said.

“About six.”

He sat up. He wore sleeveless undershirts in bed that showed off his hairy shoulders.

“Might go for a run,” he announced.

But when he trotted downstairs, in silk shorts and a T-shirt, he happened to snap on the Samsung.

“See what’s going on real quick,” he said. “Right Oscar?”

The TV would stay on for three days. The spectacular explosions of the Twin Towers, the sight of planes vanishing with sinister softness into walls of glass, raining fire and debris, weren’t unusual to a cat raised in a home with American teenagers. But they welded Ron and Carol’s attention to the screen.

“Where’s Darren?” said Robyn on the couch, still stroking my fur.

“Not here yet,” said Ron.

“Want to see pictures from the trip? I have a thumb drive.”

Ron agreed; I think he worried about lulls in conversation. Robyn plugged a small device into the side of the Samsung, and used a remote control to click through colorful pictures of Hawaiian fish. I jumped onto the coffee table.

“Oscar,” said Ron and pushed me down.

I placed myself on the floor some distance from the dip, to signal my good intentions.

“Leave him alone, he wants to watch,” Robyn said.

“Isn’t it funny how he likes TV,” said Carol. “Some cats don’t care at all. But this one likes to watch the news.”

“This one likes to watch a lot of things,” Melissa blurted, and all the women stared.

“I mean, I found him once on the coffee table,” Melissa said. “Just like that, watching the aquarium.”

“He does like fish,” said Robyn. “Don’t you, Oscar?”

I played it cool and licked my paw.

She found some pictures of a coral reef destroyed by a hurricane: no anemones, no crabs, no vegetation. Kind of boring.

“This was right after Hurricane Iniki, about thirteen years ago,” she said. “It did so much damage off Kauai you could see the reef’s rock foundation. These rocks used to be covered in shelves of coral, mounds and forests of it. The hurricane just took it away.”

The sun-shot water seemed dusty with bits of sand. Robyn moved to another photo of the reef, this time spotted with spiny purple blossoms. “Those are crown-of-thorns starfish. They’re eating what’s left of the coral. A few of these starfish are normal in a healthy reef system, but so many of them all over the rocks is just devastating.”

“Why?” asked Melissa.

“Too much imbalance. It killed the reef.”

The next picture showed the same submarine desert, just stumps and knobs of rock and bone. But now it was covered in slime.“ About a year later,” she said, “predators had discovered the starfish. By then there was algae on the reef. That’s also bad for coral, but the algae attracted turtles and fish. You can see them grazing in the background.”

Ron’s phone buzzed.

“Is that Darren?” asked Carol.

Ron nodded and frowned at the device. “He isn’t coming.”

“What?” said Carol.

“He bought his truck, but he’s gone back to base.” He read out loud: “‘Sorry, dad, I just can’t make the barbecue. Hope you all understand.’”

He glanced up at his family in a way that was meant to be curious, good-humored, questioning, but there was a depth of bewilderment in his brown eyes that he couldn’t mask.

Darren did come home a few weeks later. Everyone gathered, again, for crab dip and wine. No shish kebabs, to my disappointment. But Darren acknowledged me with a stiff, hard scratch on the head. His touch was rougher than I remembered.

Ron asked for a “front-line perspective on the war,” and Darren’s answer had an edge of mockery; it showed the same off-key defensiveness as his refusal to drive up for shish kebabs.

“Iraq doesn’t have a front line,” he said. “It’s asymmetrical warfare. You can be miles from some pocket of hot fighting and still get whacked by a bomb.”

Ron sipped his cocktail. “Okay, but how are things going? Pretty good? I mean, the mainstream media won’t show us the victories. They make it look like a mess.”

Darren looked serious. “Well, no one who goes over there comes back with a clear idea. On our way up to Baghdad, we couldn’t tell what the fuck was goin’ on.” He smirked. “We got our news from the BBC.”


The smirk broadened into a massive grin. “To see who was winning.”

His bulky frame and dark-haired, brooding face looked cheerless and hard, with a shamming smile I would see more and more of in the next few weeks. Behind it lay a pool of hatred and cynicism. His mother studied him with real concern. Robyn and Kristin were curious about anything he had to say. Melissa, as usual, was tone-deaf.

“Darren, we were so sorry you missed the barbecue last week — we had shish kebabs on the grill.”

“That’s what I heard.”

“We were gonna do it again today, but Ron said you didn’t want us to use the grill.”

“Yeah. Sorry.”

“I hope you didn’t turn vegan out in the desert,” said Melissa, trying to sound pert, and in principle I agree with her about vegan food. But Darren fell into a stone cold silence. He seemed to consider a sip from his beer, then reconsidered.

“I just hate the smell of burning flesh,” he said.


Happy Chopper by Banksy
The anonymous artist Banksy was a chronicler of the Iraq War. In this piece, “Happy Chopper,” he features Apache helicopters, a recurring theme in his work. The painting has been used in various anti-war protests (courtesy Banksy Explained).


Ron offered him a job at the bank he managed in town. Darren moved into the house a few weeks later. If he used to be sort of sturdy and loyal, now he had a brittle crust of sarcasm. His amiability was exaggerated, like a mask. He dressed up for work in smooth chinos and wraparound shades; he jangled his keys and drove his new Suburban. He also took pills labelled ANTIDEPRESSANTS. Over breakfast he listened to Melissa’s chitchat, and I never saw him look more confused.

Sometimes he retreated to his room, and I smelled a strange wild odor from inside, like burning rope. In these moods he was possessed by a manic vigilance or a tension that seemed to squeeze the air around him.

The changes were like blank spaces, more than differences you could grasp or discuss. Ron didn’t know how to handle them. He led conversations at the table with an expansiveness that included Melissa but seemed to ignore Darren’s gloom, as if the darkness could be joshed away.

Then something went wrong at work. I didn’t understand the problem, but Darren quit his job. He spent more time in his room, vanishing at night only to come home drunk, sometimes with bleeding cuts on his knuckles and face. He slept till noon and irritated Melissa with his glowering moods at the table. When Ron joked about it, Darren would explode.

It went on for weeks, this low-burning domestic war. One morning Darren made coffee in the kitchen while Melissa and Ron moved around in their robes. Melissa’s voice rose and fell. She noticed out loud that Darren seemed “disinterested” in everything, so she suggested joining a tennis club or “meeting a girl.” Darren went to the garbage basket with a part from the coffee machine to tap out some used grounds. Instead of tapping, he started to slam the plastic piece into the side with a surge of fury. The plastic ripped apart and coffee scattered across the floor. Darren’s expression never changed. He looked almost deadpan, as if it were a bleak joke.

Uninterested,” he said at last. “That’s what I am. Disinterested means something else.”

Ron and Melissa stared.

“I’ll clean it up.”

One salty morning while I scouted on the roof, I heard the front door open and saw Darren straining under his rucksack. He hefted it into his new Suburban, but instead of slamming the doors he clicked them carefully, quiet as a leopard. He wore a green t-shirt and combat boots. The truck motor rumbled. I watched his taillights float up the Eighth Street hill, and that was the last we saw of Darren for a long time.

There were rumors — updates from friends in San Diego, whispers of a job in Oceanside — but his absence depressed Ron. Melissa started to ply him with remedies like magnetic bracelets and Vitamin D. She bought him an air ionizer, a mysterious electronic machine that sat in the corner and hummed. Ron was used to approaching life with large-bellied gusto, and watching him sail into a fog of uncertainty over Darren was sad. Depression, or Darren’s absence, became a shadow on the plaster-walled home.

I missed him, too. But I thought his absence made sense. Cats understand disharmony. In ourselves, in our surroundings — either way it’s a reason to leave. We disappear when we feel sick, when we sense the approach of death, when we lose our minds, or when home feels, for whatever reason, deranged.

One night I spotted a new beast in the middle of Eighth Street that was like no rodent I had ever seen. It leaped from a neighbor’s tree and snaked along the blacktop, sniffing around in a pool of orange streetlight. A sort of mouse or rat, but with a long midsection. It stank like something not-quite-wild. I knew most of the pets on our block, so I hesitated, in case it was a trick.

I should point out that I don’t need to hunt. Ron keeps me well fed. But curiosity can be hard to resist. I bolted forward. When I landed the creature bit with its spiny teeth and the thin rank rodent smell grew strong. We rolled on the pavement. The beast howled and almost twisted away. We wrestled until I could grab with all fours and aim for its neck. I was fierce as a raging lion, furious at the thing for resisting but somehow delighted to savage it. The more it resisted the more aroused I felt. Fur flew. We hissed and at last I clenched my teeth on gristle and held the neck while the long, snaking body bucked. Soon its little claws quit pushing. Throat vibrations ceased. The carcass relaxed, and there was a taste of blood.

Ron came out to holler. Maybe we made too much noise. Before I knew what was happening he bundled me back to the claustrophobic fug of the house. But sitting on the sofa would have felt stupid with my blood up, so I darted to the garage to hide.

I heard Melissa’s voice. “What on earth happened?”

“He killed a ferret or something.”

“Oh no. It must have been somebody’s pet.”

“Whose, though? I’ve never seen a ferret around here.”

The place next door, called the Seahorse House, is full of drifters and hippies. They run some kind of food charity. People move in and out all the time, and the next day at dawn I noticed a new volunteer sauntering out to the trucks in a hooded sweatshirt and a pair of jeans. He was stoop-shouldered, with a mop of dark hair and a fringey beard. He climbed into a truck cab, on the passenger side. When the trucks returned a few hours later, I made a point of waiting by the door.

The shaggy man came in with the others but held himself like a beggar. At first he didn’t talk. Something about his movements looked familiar, but I kept my distance until I managed a decent whiff of him. His smells were baffling, too — he was like the homeless people you find sometimes on the beach.

The gray-haired woman in charge of the house, whose name was Gail, said, “What’d you think of the work? Think you can stick with it? Floyd says you’re a trained mechanic.”

The man nodded.

“We need a mechanic, so you’re welcome to live upstairs. But we need you to work. Those grocery distributors you met today are real gentlemen, they keep old food aside for me every day. If we can’t pick it up for some reason, because a truck won’t start — or whatever — that’s a problem. You want some coffee?”


I ran over at the sound of his voice.

“Floyd, pour him some coffee.”

“He says that ferret this morning belonged to him,” said Floyd.

“What ferret?”

I listened to them talk and rubbed my back against his pant leg, because the shaggy-haired stranger was Darren.

“Hey, where’s the bathroom?” he said at last. “Is there one downstairs?”

“Yeah, over by the side door, honey.”

I ran to wait there with my tail wrapped around my feet.

“Hey there,” he said and patted my head.

“That’s the next-door cat, he comes over for breakfast sometimes,” Gail said from the kitchen.

“How you doin’?” Darren said in a whisper, careful not to say Oscar. But I arched my back again and rubbed against his leg.

“We take in all kinds of strays,” Gail explained.

His room at the Seahorse House had a clutter of other people’s things, and the old paperbacks with cracked spines bore unfamiliar names: Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts. Yellow drapes cast a strange tint on the wooden floors. Darren kept his things in a rucksack. His personal items weren’t orderly, but contained; he seemed to be camping out.

In the ashtrays Darren kept cigarettes rolled with his noxious, wild-smelling weed. He also kept a small stash of orange pills, which had replaced the ANTIDEPRESSANTS. Every afternoon he cleaned his weapon. This was a new item, something acquired on his wandering. It was a complicated-looking rifle that he could assemble and disassemble in quick deft motions. He oiled certain parts and wiped everything with a rag.

He did not go home, so I paid visits to the Seahorse House. Darren seemed to have two selves, like phases of the moon. One was the sauntering, helpful stray who checked the oil and the air on the trucks and folded himself into the cab every morning under the orange sodium light, a young man who wanted no credit but seemed to thrive in situations where his mechanical expertise, his tendency to rise before dawn, and his talent for executing orders had a clear benefit for other people. But another phase came on late in the day, after work. It was the nervous vigilant mood I’d noticed before he left — a muted ferocity you wouldn’t expect from his shambling appearance. He was like a man seized by an electric current. Sometimes he lit those wild-smelling cigarettes, and sometimes he woke up deep in the morning to pull the rucksack from his closet, assemble the rifle, and stand by the yellow-draped window, as if he expected company.

He kept the pills as well as the rifle hidden from Gail. She paid no attention. She roved the house like a dry-haired scarecrow and yelled out the windows at her “boys,” sometimes with a cackling laugh. “I have M.S., honey, that’s the only reason I smoke so much pot,” she would say. There was discipline as well as generosity at the Seahorse House, but also flashes of diva behavior. On some mornings she was so stiff from her condition that she had to call for help on the toilet.

“Floyd! Darren! Someone come here and help me wipe my ass!”

But one night he stood guard while I sat on his bed. It was after eleven o’ clock. Darren had assembled his weapon. We heard voices, music, and while I studied the wall to make sense of the noise I noticed a weird silence behind me. When I looked at Darren he had his eyes closed. The barrel of his rifle was in his mouth. When his hand moved for the trigger, I twitched and stood, ready to run, and he opened his eyes. He put the rifle down and seemed to deflate.

Gail knocked on the door.

“Hey honey, I just wanted to —” She froze and wiped strands of gray hair from her face.

“What are you doin’?” she said.

“Just sitting.”

“… You protectin’ us from harm?”

“The safety’s on,” Darren explained.

“Okay. Well.” She pulled a wooden chair from his desk, moving carefully, and sat. “We just haven’t seen too many terrorists in this part of the world since Patty Hearst.” She cackled. “You in Iraq, or Afghanistan?” she asked.


“And your head’s goin’ a hundred miles an hour.”

Darren nodded and wiped his mouth.

“You need help?”

“I’ll manage.”

“You wanna go back and change the past,” she said, hoping he might open up. “You remember people who didn’t make it, you wanna go back and bring ’em home. You wanna go make everything right again.”

Darren snorted. “I just wanna go back. That’s the stupid part.” He adjusted his hands on the rifle. “Place was awful, but I miss it.” He rubbed his nose. “I don’t know how to live in California anymore. I have memories that don’t belong in normal conversation. And I want — revenge on certain people.”

“I know, honey. Believe me. My first husband died in Vietnam. People think because I’m a dinosaur from the Sixties, I can’t stand soldiers. That’s not true. My husband stepped on a land mine at Khe Sanh. Simple as that — gone from this earth, baby, and nothing could bring him home.” She looked fierce. “You’re not the first vet we’ve had in this house, but I see your rifle and I see those little pills, and I see you’re livin’ somewhere between helpless desire and horrible fear. I can get some friends in here tomorrow if you want. Ex-soldiers like you. I can get ’em here tonight.”

He shrugged. The length of his hair, his changes since he first left home, and the fact that neighbors never talk to each other in this town had kept Gail from recognizing Darren. But she may have sensed his secret.

“I take each stranger as they come, honey. I believe in person-to-person, like Mother Teresa. She’s my role model. I smoke more pot than she did, but she’s my role model.” She cackled again. “You know what Mother Teresa said? ‘Everyone who comes to me is Jesus in a distressing disguise.’” A toothy smile. “Or the Swami Vivekananda, you hear of him? He said, ‘Approach no one except as God.’ Or, ‘Want nothing, desire nothing.’ You know what that means? It’s not easy around here. Where everybody thinks they deserve something. And he said: ‘Want makes us beggars. But we are sons of the king.’”

I licked my forepaw. Pure hippie nonsense.

But Gail kept up her patter. She had powers of persuasion that were rare in our neighborhood. “I was born in 1942,” she told him, “and my daddy was a Pennsylvania farm boy who won a Purple Heart in France. He worked that farm with a bullet in his hip until he dropped dead of the pain. I’ve seen too much of war, not too little of it. So you can talk to me about it or not, I don’t care, but this is a house of peace, honey, and I’m gonna have to ask you to put that rifle away.”

Darren nodded, at last, like a soldier taking an order. He dismantled his gun and stashed the pieces in his duffel bag and straightened up with a kind of pride. I could smell the gun oil from where I sat. He never uttered a word.

“Thank you honey,” Gail said, and went out.

A few weeks later Melissa and Ron watched TV in the living room, wearing magnetic bracelets, unaware that Darren was out front, changing oil in a truck. From the window I saw him carry a soiled pan, a wooden rolling platform, and two quarts of Valvoline across a patch of Ron’s manicured yard.

“There’s a hippie on the grass again,” Melissa said.

Ron stretched his neck to look outside. “Do they always have to park in front of the goddamn house?”

Darren’s schedule had kept them from seeing him. He woke up too early in the morning, and retired upstairs too early in the day, for Ron to notice him; and Melissa basically didn’t care. I also had the feeling that Darren didn’t want to be discovered until this moment. They watched him lie on the rolling platform in the street and half-disappear under the cab. Ron stepped out the door to start the sprinklers. Water bloomed in the yard. Darren twitched and rolled sideways before he managed to stand.

“Sorry!” Ron called and shut off the water.

He sat down in a much better mood. “That felt good,” he said.

“That person scares me,” said Melissa.

One night there were noises in the garage — footsteps and rummaging — so I crouched in the kitchen and listened. After a while, Melissa came blearily down the stairs. She didn’t hear the noises and put out bagels, jam, and a leftover pork chop. I stared at her, sort of frantic. She noticed nothing until she’d settled into her food.

“What was that?” she said. “You have a friend in there, Oscar? Another ferret?”

I glanced between her and the door. At last she stood up and padded across the linoleum.

“Well, you might as well go get it.”

My haunches tensed. It was not a rodent. She opened the door and said, “Come on, what are you waiting for?” — and for a second I looked straight into the electric-lit garage at Darren’s bushy face. He grinned, but neither of us, I think, was quite prepared for the volume of Melissa’s scream.

“Put that thing down!” she hollered. “Who are you, anyway? Why are you trying to creep us out? Ron!” she yelled, running up the stairs in her sweatsuit. “Ro-on!” She trotted up the stairs. “Wake up, honey, there’s a hippie in the garage.”

Darren held a surfboard, a long dusty blue thing with a layer of unclean wax. He seemed shaggier than usual. But the look on his face was amused more than depressed. He leaned the board against the kitchen wall to pat me on the head. And when he noticed that Melissa had left her meal on the table, he sat down to eat.

That was how Ron found him, leaning over a pork chop. The board stood like a disinterred relic next to the microwave. Ron had crept downstairs with a baseball bat, and there was blind anger in his eyes at the spectacle of the haggard stranger, eating their food in the pristine kitchen.

He cocked the bat. Darren leapt to his feet and grabbed a chair for defense.

Dad,” he snapped. “It’s all right. I just wanted my board.”

He obviously wanted a great deal more than that. The electric tension in Darren’s bones was like a steady hum. The anger in Ron’s face drained away, but even before Darren smashed his chair on the floor I was darting for the other room. “DON’T THREATEN ME LIKE THAT,” Darren shouted. “DON’T YOU FUCKING DO THAT TO ME.” Splinters of wood scattered and he raved for a while and there was even a scuffle between the men. I crouched under the coffee table. There was sobbing, then silence.

“Ronnie?” Melissa said from upstairs.

After a while Ron asked his son, in a bleary but irritated voice, “Where the hell have you been?”

For some time after the kitchen incident, Darren lived next door, with Gail, to work on the trucks. Her kitchen became a meeting place for grizzled veterans who came to eat breakfast with Darren and trade stories about the wars. Over omelettes and coffee, the Seahorse House became a gruffer, more intense-feeling place. It took some weight off of my memory of Darren with the rifle. He never did that again. But he was different. Ron said he needed to “detox,” whatever that meant — something to do with the little orange pills — but for now he needed the presence of different people. Wherever he’d disappeared to on his catlike excursion, Darren had become a stranger at home, and he behaved according to a newer, more peculiar set of rules.

One morning I followed him out to the beach and perched on a cinderblock wall while he surfed. The people of Los Angeles come here in herds on summer days, which to me looks ridiculous — humans lying around in a giant cat box. But when Darren dropped his towel and strapped the leash around his ankle I watched his long shape run for the waves. He plunged through the darkened whitewash and waited for clean swells to rise, then paddled and stood, only to glide on the water with the odd grace of a pelican.

Sharp lights burned from the pier. The beach was uncrowded. I got bored and left. Strolling back to the house, I remembered Robyn’s slide show from the family reunion, which ended with pictures that would be hard for any cat to forget. The old photos of reef destruction gave way to more recent snapshots from Robyn’s trip, of coral colonies and colorful marine life. “Those turtles cleaned up the reef so new coral could grow,” she said, “and today it looks like this. You can see harlequin shrimp, spotted pufferfish, raccoon butterflyfish, turtles, triggerfish, sturgeon, octopus, even moray eels. That blue fish is a humphead wrasse.”

“Wow,” said Carol.

“The reef isn’t back to where it was before the hurricane. Overfishing has damaged the populations of predators who would clean up the starfish and the algae. Coral bleaching is also an issue. But overall it’s amazing how quickly these systems bounce back, if we let them.”

The humphead wrasse was a meaty, stupid-looking fish with electric blue skin. The harlequin shrimp resembled a spotted cherry blossom. What she called a triggerfish had a bulldog look and a triangle of yellow war paint by the tail. The whole reef seemed to tilt on a knife-edge between life and death, and to me there was something elegant about the way it had grown in such uncertain, ravenous harmony: razor-jawed fish all shimmering in the tide, hungry for each other but afraid for their lives. Milt and slimy litters of sea life slipped on currents between light and shadow, while poisonous fingers of anemones waved with a fat, ripe, almost sexual softness.

“Look at him, he’s completely entranced,” said Carol.

“Did you like that, Oscar?” Robyn said.

“I think he’s purring.”


Michael Scott Moore is a journalist and a novelist, author of a comic novel about L.A., Too Much of Nothing, as well as a travel book about surfing, Sweetness and Blood, which was named a best book of 2010 by The Economist. He’s won Fulbright, Logan, and Pulitzer Center grants for his nonfiction, as well as a Silver Nautilus Award in Journalism and Investigative Reporting; and Yaddo, MacDowell, and DeWitt Wallace–Reader’s Digest fellowships for his fiction. He worked for several years as an editor and writer at Spiegel Online in Berlin. Michael was kidnapped in early 2012 on a reporting trip to Somalia and held hostage by pirates for 32 months. The Desert and the Sea, a memoir about that ordeal, became an international bestseller.

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