"Y'did good, little brother," Douglas said, and even though Tommy chuckled, Ricky felt proud. "Yr gonna make some good money off this."
"I'm ready," Ricky said and rocked back and forth a bit with excitement.
Gravel road smoothed to pavement once they were on the highway. The engine sung a rumbled song as it roared along at seventy-five. Bad Company hissed through the static of the truck's cheap radio. The sky was a dimming but strong blue with barely a wind at all. Pure Florida summer. For ten miles neither of the Crow brothers realized how profusely Tommy Jenkins was sweating and barely able to catch his breath.
"Tommy," Douglas said finally, "you o-"
"Ain't you drivin kinda fast?" Tommy blurted as soon as the hole was opened.
"Seventy-five ain't fast," Tommy said and gunned the engine of the F-150 pushing the three of them back into their seats.
"GODDAMNIT," Tommy yelled as he clutched frantically for something to hold onto.
"Calm down," Douglas said. He let off the gas and let the transmission cool the truck back to sixty-five.
"You ain't got five pounds o'fuckin crank sittin on yr chest. Don't tell me t'calm down, goddamnit!"
The brothers shared a glance.
"Don't be so dramatic."
Ricky blurted out a quick laugh and Douglas followed. Tommy's face turned beet-red and looked about to bust.
"You think it's so fuckin funny," he said directed at Ricky, "you wear this shit. See how laid back you are. We get pulled over, I'm fucked no matter what. No fuckin question."
Douglas, to Ricky's surprise, jumped right in to take up for his little brother.
"Hey, dip shit," he said in that sharp tone that made him who he was and Tommy and Ricky who they were. "If you'd stayed in the fuckin truck like yr s'posed to, you wouldn't be wearin that fuckin shit. No, you just had t'fuckin come in. Whined like a fuckin baby to come in even though you know yr supposed t'stay in the truck. Had t'cut in on Dickie's first time. So yeah, yr wearin th'fuckin jacket. Dickie woulda been wearin it you'd not been such a fuckin baby about it, so shut yr fuckin mouth and wear it."
Douglas' abrupt silence left a hole in the cab of the truck filled now only by the roar of the old 350 engine. After a few seconds Ricky looked up at his big brother and rather than being red with anger, Douglas flashed him a furtive smile.
And then the tire blew. The three of them jumped simultaneously at the explosion. Their eyes winced and flexed as the machine gun whap-whap-whap of the busted tread slapping the wheel well filled the cab and threatened to deafen them. Slowly and expertly Douglas eased the truck onto the shoulder. The staccato slap slowed to a rubbery thump and the entire truck settled down on the flattened tire. Nobody spoke and the windless twilight made Tommy's whimpering obvious.
"Jesus fuckin Christ, Tommy. Shut the fuck up," Douglas said and slammed the column shifter into park.
Douglas slid out of the cab. Ricky followed him out and left Tommy to himself. The two brothers stood on the side of the highway staring at the shredded tire. Douglas was loath to admit it but he could feel the question on his little brother's tongue.
"I ain't got no fuckin spare, bro."
Ricky looked into the cab at Tommy Jenkins who was wiping at his eyes and trying hard to keep a toughened face. No matter. He stunk of his humiliation.
"I guess we're walkin, then," Ricky said and Douglas nodded in agreement.
"Lemme go see about this pussy," Douglas said and kicked some of the gravel on the ground.
Ricky turned around to mind his own business. As Douglas walked up to the passenger door, Tommy rolled down the window but didn't speak.
"It's flattern shit," Douglas said plainly, "and I ain't got no spare."
Tommy just shook his head.
"We're gonna hafta walk, T."
Tommy stopped shaking his head and looked up at Douglas, his face curled in on itself in anger.
"Yr fuckin crazy you think I'm walkin down th'fuckin highway with this shit," he squeaked, unable to match his voice to the anger on his face.
"We ain't got no choice," Douglas replied.
"I ain't fuckin doin it!"
"Then you can stay here, goddamnit!" Douglas growled and slapped the fender of the truck. Everyone knew that tone. Doug Crow was fed the fuck up with the bullshit.
"I ain't sittin here with it neither," Tommy said. His voice was quiet and timid. He was scared. Not only from the drugs he was carrying but from talking back to Douglas. He knew it would take a bit more for Douglas to hit a friend, but he also knew he was skating on thin ice.
Douglas threw up his arms with balled fists and looked at his brother with that lord, help me look, and Ricky knew what to say.
Both the others stared at him.
"I'll stay here," he said throwing up his own hands. "Take off th'fuckin jacket, Tommy. I'll stay here with everything and you can walk yr ass on."
Tommy reddened with a rage he knew he could not act on. Not while Douglas was around. But that didn't deter Ricky at all.
"Y'go on and git a ride back with a spare and pick me up. But I tell ya, Tommy, if the cops come around and bust me, yr payin m'goddamn bail."
"Yr goddamn right," Douglas added. "Git yr ass outta th'truck Tommy."
Ricky watched the two walking away with a smile of satisfaction on his face. It alleviated the fear of sitting in the dead truck with a jacket full of crank crumpled up on the seat and nowhere to hide. He reckoned Tommy tried to say something to save some face because just as they were about to disappear over a hill in the highway, Douglas turned around pointing back at Tommy. After a few steps more he decked him. He got through an entire cigarette before Tommy was ready to walk again.
Twilight dimmed into the hazy calm of near dark. He listened to the radio a bit more, but turned it off realizing how bad a move it would be for his brother to come back, change the tire, then find the battery was dead when he tried to crank the truck. He tried to keep his mind occupied with the excuses he would give a trooper if one came by and found the drugs. He thought of how he would plead and play dumb and try to act surprised, but that just wore him out and he stopped. He looked across the highway at the tree line that divided northbound traffic from southbound. The trees, evergreens that would have been at least fifty feet tall, were, at ten feet or so up, snapped nearly clean and laying against their neighbor. The week before a tornado had come through this stretch of north Florida and caused quite a stir. Ricky tried to imagine what it would have been like. He tried to imagine the howling wind and things flying through the air. He noticed there was still clothes and things cast off into the ditch that lined the inner shoulder of the highway. On down a bit there was a chunk of tin roofing wrapped around a still-standing tree. He could almost feel the fright and confusion he imagined such a thing would bring, but that wore him out too. Night came on, and to assuage the nervousness of two hours of waiting and not knowing how long that waiting might continue he let his thoughts focus only on the random scuffle of critters scurrying here and there. Opossum moseyed and squirrels darted back and forth stopping for a frenetic look around and then continued on. Only once did a car pass and he looked for it to be his brother up until it passed, not slowing a bit. It was just him and the squirrels and the chattering birds.
He had been walking all day with no idea where he was or where he was going. He'd wandered away from the gas station where the bus let him off happy he had not gotten caught. Every time they stopped he expected cops to board the bus and take him off in handcuffs. He knew he was somewhere in Tennessee, even knew the name of the town, but that really meant nothing to him. All he knew was it wasn't Florida and he was lucky and he better get out of there before the luck ran out. Then he started to get hungry and tired.He tried to take some food from an unattended picnic he had come across, but he had been spotted and had to run from a group of kids that came after him. He lost them in the woods but became completely lost himself. As night fell, he stopped and sat at the base of a tree. Darkness fell. The orchestra of frogs and insects and beasts illustrated the utter terror he felt in his heart. He had followed the lights through the trees toward a line of houses, the lights being enough to carry him an extra few feet past his exhaustion point. Then he saw that one of those houses had a large shed in it's backyard and he thought of a place to sleep, a place to hide, but once it came to actually hopping the fence and sneaking in, he lost his nerve. Exhaustion brought him down to the ground, his back propped against the tree.
Sleep edged in on him. The light of the full moon and the surreal cut of the woods' shadow made him feel like he was already dreaming, stuck in a place not quite day and not quite night. Enough time had passed that he once again thought of hopping the fence, but then he heard a noise up the hill. It was something moving toward him, feet falling heavy in the underbrush. The light of the moon laid a chaotic patchwork of twinkling light and inky shadow that wavered in the slight breeze so that it was impossible to tell which of the shapes laid out before him were actually moving closer. The air itself was moving. All tumbling downhill toward him. He would pick out a shape, follow it, then loose it. The myriad scattering sounds of wind and insect and animal across the undergrowth created a symphony of particularly menacing whispers. Just as he thought it might be time to run one of these shapes took on a particularly human silhouette. It was indeed headed right for him, and fast. He was amazed at the speed the thing hopped and dashed. It seemed to glide over ground Ricky himself could barely make out. The thought of running was replaced by rapt amazement in watching the thing move. As it crossed in front of him he saw it was a boy. A smallish boy, thin and pale, soaking up the moonlight, breathing evenly and quietly. As the boy neared the fence his stride became wider and in a rolling, sideways hop, he pitched himself over the fence, stumbled a little, and took rest against the corner of the shed. From what he could tell, the boy was at least near his own age. Immediately Ricky knew the boy would help. He would let him sleep in the shed. He would get him food.
Making his way across the scraggly, clover-filled yard, he started out stepping carefully and quietly. Soon enough, not even halfway across, the dark and the tension picked up his feet and pushed his head forward and he sprinted the last thirty feet to the corner of the house. His blood was up and pumping through the rejuvenation of his fear. He didn't see the boy standing there in front of him. He didn't see him reach out. By the time he realized he was being attacked, he was already on the ground with the wiry boy's knees in his chest, a fist cocked high, aimed right at his nose.
The boy couldn't say anything, but his big shaky eyes and stiff quivering chin told Henry all he needed to know. Henry had been waiting for him and grabbed him when he came around the corner. The kid went down easy and Henry straddled his chest and resisted the urge to punch.
"I seen y'in th'trees back there," Henry said. He kept his fist ready and his knees firmly planted even though he knew it was hurting the boy like hell. "Y'been follern me?"
The boy's shaking head preceded his whisper of an answer. "Nnnno, I ain't. I just seen ya comin through the woods."
"Why y'hopped m'fence then. Y'know y'lible t'git shot that way."
"M'pa's a mean man an he'd shootcha fr shr you come up on'is property like'at."
"I didn't mean nothin by it," the boy said. He squirmed a bit under Henry's weight and when he stopped his voice was a bit louder and more steady.
"Well," Henry went on. He lowered his fist and rested his hands on the boys knobby shoulders as if he was puking his voice into the boy's face. "Whatcha doin here. Whatcha want."
"I just seen ya comin in and I's hopin t'maybe git some food. That's all. I ain't eat all day and I just wanted a little bit."
Henry looked the boy over careful. He was thin, but then again, so was Henry. He knew the wiry guys were the ones to look out for. The boy had on one of those sleeveless undershirts which showed off some very unimpressive muscles and a deep tan under a wispy down. He noticed how dirty the boy was. It was forest dirty too from rubbing up against trees and sliding down embankment and the small, random holes from the briar. There were even bits of dead leaves in his hair.
"If I's t'let y'up, y'gonna stay cool?"
"I ain't lookin t'hurtcha 'r nobody else, man. I'm just hungry is all."
"I beatchr ass y'try anything funny. I mean it."
"Aight," the boy said gaining his composure once he was free of Henry's weight.
He slid up on his ass and leaned back against the side of the house brushing himself off.
"Goddamn," he said, his face curling into a supremely pissy look. "Ya'll's crazy round here. Everbody wantin t'kick somebody's ass. Wantin t'scrap all th'time. I'm from Tampa and I ain't never seen such pissed off people."
"Flarda?" Henry asked.
"Yeah, Tampa, Florida. There's some mean folks down there, but not like here."
"Even if y'hop they fence an sneak aroun in they backyard?"
“Well, git on now,” Henry said, and pointed up toward the house they had their backs set to. “That’s m’folks room an we keep jawin they gonna tan both us.”
Henry made his way up to his feet and started toward the front of the house when Ricky stopped him.
“Whatcha want,” Henry said irritably.
“Come on. I ain’t eat all day. Can’tcha get me somethin?”
“Goddammit,” Henry spat and studied the boy a bit more. “Hode on a bit.”
Without waiting for a word, Henry stalked up to his bedroom window and just as deftly as he hurdled the back fence he slid himself up and into his room.
Ricky had taken a seat just under the window and Henry almost crushed him sliding back out. They scrambled apart and Henry only gave him a look. From the fridge he had pulled out an apple and a couple biscuits wrapped in wax paper and a can of beer from the case on the bottom shelf. They sat against the house while Ricky chomped viciously at his food.
“What’s yr name?” Henry asked.
Ricky chomped a bit more then washed the mouthful down with some beer and said, “Dicky Crow.”
“Dickie, huh. That aintcher real name is it?”
“Don't reckon I’d want folks callin me Dickie,” Henry said innocently.
Ricky gave him a look but decided he was too hungry and too tired to start an argument. He simply shrugged again.
“You done run away from home, huh?” Henry asked.
“Yeah,” Ricky said. “Guess so.”
“Sometimes y’just gotta go, I guess,” Ricky said and took another sip of beer.
“Yep,” Henry said but looked at Ricky with disbelief. Finally he said: “Long way t’go t’git gone. Guess y’coulda gotten away a few hunnert miles less, huh?”
Ricky swallowed the last biscuit and slugged down the last of the beer before he answered.
“I got as far as I could with th’money I had. I'm tryin t’git t’New York.”
“Don't reckon yr gonna git there without no money.”
“I got this far. I'll git there.”
“Why you hidin out round here?"
Ricky threw out his apple core and kicked a little dirt out after it.
“Them same kids, I reckon. I got off the bus way the hell down the road. Just headed north, y’know. Been on that bus sixteen goddamn hours not a bite t’eat. I come down the street and through them woods a good piece and see a whole bunch of food out on a picnic table. I figure nobody gonna miss a little something, y’know? I just got me a piece of corn bread and some beans and here come a whole goddamn family o’folks runnin out the back door. The older folks stopped once I ducked back in the trees, but them kids. Them fuckin kids chased me forever. I didn’t know which way I’s goin. I finally just plopped down t’rest. Then I seen the shack out back and looked t’git in it and sleep. Then I seen you.”
Henry shook his head and ran his finger around in the grass and dirt.
“I don know how they do thangs out’n Flarda,” he said with a smile, “but Tennessee’ll shootcha you go t’stealin food. I say y’got off lucky. Hell, them kids find ya, they likely t’stomp y’ass fr real.”
“I’s just hungry.”
Henry rose up out of sleep slowly and effortlessly. He was lifted from a dark, dank hole into the bright, golden contentment of his bedroom bathed in the dawn. The new sun filled his eyes with a soupy light that kept him there, in bed, sort of swimming in the blurry, relaxed confusion of a deep sleep. He imagined himself lifted up, or at least out of, the whole mess of his life and laid gently in this warm bed of light nestled in the arms of an ethereal mother that could give him, eternally, what his real mother seemed to refuse to. A comfort. A breath. For just a little while there where no mistakes and no anger. His father was a bad dream long gone. His mother was a misunderstanding. That horrid school and it’s roaming bands of thoughtless, mindless drones only a bad movie he had seen on a cheap television with shitty reception. Here, in the bright gauze of warmth, the woman from his dreams hovered over him, the soft, powdery form of her breasts brushed softly against his face. The warm, smooth grip of her pussy enveloped him. Her smell, flowers and sweat, came around him as thick as the golden dawn. The desire was sunk deep in him. It was at the core of that dark that put him in this world, it’s blossoming force, and he felt no need to contain it. As big or as little, it made no difference to him.Ready to give himself up to it all, be enveloped by this Elysian Flame, he heard a noise. The creak of a floorboard... a belch and a fart... the dream was over and reality tumbled in like a drunken sailor returning to his ship. The sound of the coffee maker. He rolled over and curled up, disappointed. In front of him, on the table, the jar sat still and quiet. Fuck you, Henry thought and covered it from sight with a pair of dirty underwear he plucked from the floor.
Whatever mystical aura the morning light may have held in the bedroom, it was nowhere to be found outside it. In the kitchen, as he hovered over the sink standing in his underwear, Briar Pupp was bathed only in the dingy gloom of wood paneling and dirty dishes. Henry watched his father from behind. His skin was slipping into it’s baggy old age and covered in small dark dots he was sure weren’t there before. Even from across the room, the smell of stale beer and sweat rolled off the man and filled Henry’s nose with what he could only describe as a rotten ham sandwich. His first feeling was of sadness, maybe even pity, and his first thought was how can ma sleep next t’that stinkin ol thang.
“Sleep good, boy?” Briar asked without turning.
Henry didn’t answer. He watched his father straighten up at the sink and wipe his mouth.
“Huh?” Briar asked, finally turning toward his son.
“Heardya messin around outside with one o’ya friends last night,” Briar said as he got the milk out of the fridge.
Henry felt a fright come burning up in his chest and thought of the kid who was probably still out there in the shed.
“I don really care so much, butchall woke yr ma.”
“Jes keep quiet nights, boy. T’sall I’s tryin t’say.”
“Alright,” Henry said with his head down.
They were both silent. Both looked wild and awkward with sleep as if they had just been pulled apart from a savage fight. They stood at opposite ends of the kitchen, Henry against the wall and Briar with his butt resting against the lip of the sink. There was all this space between them, time and place, life and violence, and still the void was ever present as if there was nothing at all. They stood there in the kitchen staring at anything but each other as if they were strangers who had just met... lovers of the same woman caught in an uneasy morning after. These were two men joined by blood and time, but couldn’t read a thing about the other. It was like staring into a mirror and not recognizing the reflection.
The coffee pot started percolating as if to illustrate the moment. Briar thought to ask the boy if he wanted a cup of coffee then figured he didn’t drink it. No fifteen year old should, he guessed. He just wanted the boy to go away like he usually did, but at the same time wished it could be easier being around the kid.
“Coffee’s done,” Henry said quietly
Briar didn’t realize he was staring at the boy, off in his own place, and by the look in his son’s eyes he had scared him good. The coffee pot was bubbling hard and he pulled it off the heat to keep it from burning. As he poured his cup full he saw Henry watching him with a look somewhere between scared and pissed.
For a second Henry thought maybe his pa would turn back hard and pitch the steaming coffee in his face, but throwing things was more his ma’s style. Plates and beer cans and pound packages of hamburger meat when you complain about her not getting you any sodas at the store. She was even known to, if you were dumb enough to be giving her a hard time long enough to smoke a cigarette, flick the lit butt at you and walk away. She was a damn good shot with her Pall Malls. No, Briar Pupp was more for exhibiting his rage with fists and spit and hard words.
He turned, and instead of a scalding, he just rested his butt back on the lip of the sink and sighed.
“Boy,” he said, “I know who ever yr friend is, he’s back in m’shed, an less y’want’im hurt y’better go get’im outta thar.”
That was it. He walked out of the kitchen scratching his ass. From the bedroom, Dolly yelled: “Hope yr bringin me coffee too.” When Briar turned to do it, Henry was already back in his room.
Henry dropped himself onto the bed and snatched up the backpack with the idea to pack. Pack what? He reinserted the jar into the tangle of clothes and zipped up the pack and sat there. Unfair was the word that ran through his head. His father being there. His mother's silence. His trouble.
Then he started to think of Albert King. He felt that rage again in his body, how it burned and how it lifted him out of himself. He thought about hitting the boy and how after a minute he stopped feeling it. It was like his fists had gone numb and he couldn’t tell how hard he was hitting this poor boy, this bleeding mess under him. It felt like he was hardly hitting him at all so he punched harder and still it felt like barely a slap. The only reason he had stopped, that he had known he better because he was seriously hurting this kid, was he got silent. At first, Albert had been grunting and snarling and putting up a good fight. Once he had gone from fighting to trying to not get hit anymore, the snarling turned to screeching and whimpering, and by degrees with each punch, simmered into the exasperated huff of registering pain. Then nothing. He didn’t whimper anymore. He didn’t beg or demand. Even the crowd that had gathered around them had gone silent with disgust and bewilderment and all that filled the hallway for those few seconds, were the meaty, blood-soaked thumps and slaps of unconscious fist to unconscious face. He had long enough to stare at the blood pooling around the boys head and the unrecognizable face before he was pulled away by the principle and paraded down the hall before the stunned, revolted faces of the other students. And now, in his room, he thought about it all, and Albert King stopped being Albert King but was his father, and he was not Henry but some other boy, brave, and able to take down the beast, the unfair torment
There was something else. Something he did not want to admit to himself. As he rolled the jar in his hand, wishing all this would be a bit easier and not just some horrible labor he was going to have to push through, he tried to get the thought, the memory, out of his head. He tried to concentrate on the task ahead, the getting rid of the jar, but the thought kept coming back. It was like trying to ignore a tooth ache or an itch. He could not keep his tongue out of the wound...
Out the window, concentrating on his shoes sliding and squeaking through the dew-soaked grass, he tried to forget. Watching his shoes turn dark at the toe and the water creeping back, he tried to forget that smile. Counting the seed pods caught in his shoelaces, he tried to forget that feeling. There was an echo of that feeling, and then that smile, whenever he even thought about the day he almost killed Albert King with his bare hands.
Henry stood at the edge of the opening to the shed. He didn’t really think about going in. He knew he wasn’t going to. He just stood and stared. Somehow it took that memory away. Just staring, not knowing if that boy was there or gone, it stopped him from thinking. Knowing that he should go in and see, and knowing that he wasn’t, that made him stop thinking all together.
“You liked it,” a voice said, and Henry, still staring into the depths of the shed, flinched just a bit. It was just a blink and a little twitch of the head. “Beating up that boy, you liked it.”
The corners of Henry’s mouth drooped and he sucked at his unbrushed teeth. He looked down at the jar and rolled it a bit back and forth in his hand. “Shut up,” he said, and left from in front of the shed, embarrassed.
His secret was out, vocalized by that ghostly voice, so there was no need in refusing it anymore. Not now. He hopped the fence and as he landed in the clover undergrowth it came out like a grunt from his belly: “Yes.”
He moved briskly along, the wet weeds and vines tugging at his feet and slathering over his shoes.
“Yes, yes, yes, yes...”
It was true. The feeling of pushing his fists into that boy made him feel better than he had ever felt before. He was pushing everything down into that softening meat, and it was going away. The feeling stunned him as much as it pleased him. He felt like he was exploding with every punch, but his fists landed softly, numbly, so he had to do it again, and he exploded all over again. Again and again. He was horrified both at the thing he was doing and how it made him feel.
The green briar pulled at his clothes and made little slits in the pink flesh of his arms. The low pine branches swiped at his face. The hard ash poked at his head and his shoulders, but he just pushed through.
“You didn’t feel bad a bit, did you?”
“Goddamnit,” Henry yelled and stopped in his tracks. “That ain true. I felt real bad ‘bout what I done. I felt awful bad fr a long time.”
“But all those people saw you,” the voice said. “They saw you, and when the principle sat you down...”
“Goddamnit,” Henry yelled again and looked down at the jar in his hand. “If y’don shut yr fuckin mouth, I’ll pitch ya out inna these woods here an bustcha ‘ginst a fuckin tree.”
“Please don’t be mad at me,” it said, “I’m just surprised is all.”
Henry studied the jar and thought a lot of things at once, but all he could say, in a low, near hiss, was: “Fuck." He was talking to it now. Talking to it for real.
He came out of the woods squeezing through a dense thicket of bamboo. He stood on the curb of Simpson Avenue where a thin line of houses and grassy yards cut its way down the south side of the hill. Just ahead was Berkley Avenue and another long row of houses that gave way beyond to Hyde Hill and another huge patch of woods clogged with dying pines and green hackberry, maple, ash, and elm.
He didn’t stand there long. He was mad, and that anger mixed with rising heat wafting off of the street’s asphalt carrying him up to Berkley. Random dogs barked at him from behind rusty fences. They clawed at the screen doors that held them in houses. He thought of Sam, his old dog. He thought of the day he had been passing through this street and Albert King started throwing those little snap pops at him, and he got even madder.
“Please don’t be-”
“Shut up,” Henry hissed at the voice. He was out on the street, every dog he passed barking up a storm. He felt exposed. He felt like every eye in the universe was on him and they all knew what was in that jar and they all knew it was talking to him... and he was talking back.
He crossed Berkley and cut between the two houses he knew didn’t have fences or dogs. Soon enough he had made it back into the underbrush and the cover of the canopy.
“That sumbitch d’served it,” Henry finally huffed. “He d’served it, an yr damn right I liked it. I’m glad I done gave’im an asswhippin cause he needed one.”
He didn’t get another ten feet before he fell sobbing. He dropped the jar into the blanket of dead leaves under his knees and let his face fall into his hands. It was no longer Albert King under his thoughtless fists but himself. He was not giving the punches, but his father. And on Briar’s face: that smile. Henry’s smile. The same one the Principle was so shocked to see cut across Henry’s face as he sat him down in the school office still bloodied and panting. His smile and his eyes in his father’s face and both of them are sucking up all that blood, laughing.
“Don’t be upset,” the voice said. “I was only curious.”
Henry could only manage a grunt. The cool wetness of the early morning was turning into a torturous steam bath as the sun pitched higher and stronger in the sky. The heat was settling into Henry’s skin and his entire body shook with his misery.
“I was only-”
Ricky had never seen anything that vicous before. Sitting in the hospital waiting room, his brother Douglas shoulder to shoulder with him in the little plastic chairs, the sight and the sound of it was so alive in him it was like a moment suspended in time occurring not over and over but all at once continuously.
“Why’d she do it,” he finally asked his big brother.
“Everbody’s got a breakin point, Dickie. Mama reached hers.”
Standing behind the tree, afraid to move for being caught, Rick knew he was seeing this boy’s breaking point. Crying like he was and then taking off like he was set to kill, and then this.
He watched as the boy tossed the jar he was carrying aside and dump his backpack onto the ground. He moved a bit closer. The boy was making so much noise grunting and spitting and rifling through his pack, there was no way he was going to hear Ricky moving around.
The land was slightly sloped, just like the patch of woods below them, but the trees were more sparse. The undergrowth was thinner. The occasional arc of briar or a vague stretch of poison ivy. The floor was more dead leaves than anything else. The sun had pitched high in the sky, and beat down through the young canopy. Ricky could see the sweat flying off of Henry like he was a dog that had just gotten a bath. Finally, after spreading the contents of his backpack out in a wide fan around him, it seemed as if Henry had found what he was looking for. Ricky expected something lethal, maybe just dangerous, or at least somewhat intriguing. Instead, the boy held up a rusty gardening spade with a moldy wooden handle. He held it aloft as if it was Excalibur and shook it over the jar. Ricky could tell by the look on the boys face, and the silent mouthing of words that he was actually taunting the jar. And with a deathblow, the boy plunged the spade into the ground and pried out a solid chunk of black earth. And again. And again. The dirt flew all around him. He chipped away at the damp soil. Dark speckles clung to his skin.
When he was finished, he wasn’t tired. He was exhilarated, but all he could do was stare into the hole he had dug. It was deep and narrow and the earth was so dark he could hardly see the bottom. It struck him that this wasn't just a hole he dug. He wasn't just staring into a pit. He was staring into a grave. It hadn’t hit him until he was done. During the digging he wasn’t culling out a grave. He was working at revenge. He was creating a cell for that which was tormenting him, and the digging was justice. He wanted the voice to stop. It had convinced him that he was crazy. It had tried to make him believe that he was the same as his father, just as violent and in love with his ability for violence. For cruelty. But Henry wouldn’t accept that. He wasn’t about to take his father’s place. Even if it seemed he would, he was going to be something different. Anything. He wasn’t going to allow his mind, his body, to give up now. Not after the year he had just survived. Not after all those drugs. Those sleepless nights. Especially not at the behest of this thing that shouldn’t be in the first place. So he would bury it. Let it be gone. Let it be dead as it should be.
He was left staring into the hole. His sweat dripped down into it. His hot, boiling breath filled it. The same dirt that was there, that would cover up that thing, covered him, cooled him. Then he looked over at the jar. The once-pink thing inside was now dark and sludgy. He picked up the jar and held it over the grave. The dirt and the thing looked alike, as if the mess held that same earth in it, just under a soft, translucent flesh. Henry loosened the jar lid and there was a slight sucking sound. The smell of the thing, a noxious odor bigger than the thing itself, poured out almost knocking him off his knees. It was a smell more potent than he thought it should have been. In a spasm of disgust and finality, Henry turned the jar over and the thing slid out slow and landed inside the grave with a thick, juicy thump.
It laid motionless and wet just as it had landed. It didn’t protest. It did not scream. It simply laid there silent, drawing flies. Henry didn’t know what he expected it to do, but he expected for something to happen. He expected something dramatic in proportion to the feelings inside him, but it was nothing. It was a lump of dead matter lying cold and stinking and rotting in a hole in the ground. It’s dramatic placidity was a brick wall up against which a cannonball of rage and fear had just pounded and fizzled out like a dud firecracker. There was only the pungent smoke of sadness lumbering in the air.
Henry reached out for one of the clods of black earth to begin covering the thing, and that was it. Unexplainably, and unreasonably, Henry began sobbing. He felt the darkness in him, the thing that kept him in place among all the strange beasts and ghosts of the world, dissolve. It seemed to wash over him, a feeling of being totally and utterly lost. He felt at any moment he would be consumed either by his own unexplainable sadness or some lesser hellish beast. His body was not his own. His mind was far gone, yanked away from him. He had no control over it. Some kind of poison was working itself out of him. The past year? The drugs? The blood and the sadness? This was the destruction it left behind.
“Do you think he’s dead?” Ricky asked Douglas, who was sitting uncomfortably in the little blue plastic chair with his head in his hands, elbows on his knees.
Douglas looked over at his younger brother with that You-Just-Said-Something-Really-Fucking-Stupid look.
“You think a man c’n git done like that an live?”
“Guess not,” Ricky said, and frowned.
“You really care?” Douglas asked and poked the red welt just under Ricky’s left eye.
Ricky slapped his brother’s hand away and said: “No.”
The two boys sat in the waiting area of the emergency room. Anywhere else they would have been suspect, out of place, but here they fit right in among the disheveled and tired crowd of the wounded and worried. The sun was just rising upon the muggy, stifling Florida flatness. The long night wore on their eyes. The blood and the sweat of trauma formed a dull sheen over their flesh. It stained their clothes in subtle, fading rings that stiffened in the air-conditioning. They appeared calm because they were exhausted.
The policeman had deposited them there, waiting for their mother, in the liminal netherworld that is the waiting room of the county hospital. There everything is on hold, obscured and lost in the deceptively antiseptic unknown like a modern-day purgatory. They waited for the doctor, the police, anybody to appear before them and tell them what came next. All Ricky wanted right now was his bed and the dark familiarity of his room with his brother snoring across from him. All he could think about was that sound, and the blood, and the pain throbbing in his head.
The night sort of rewound through his mind too fast to play it all out, but he caught images and words and the searing burst of fear and anger that filled up his body. It had all happened so fast and so unexpectedly that he wasn’t quite sure about any of it really. It frustrated him trying to make sense of it all. It had frustrated the police when they questioned him, but it wasn’t like recalling a movie or retelling a story somebody had told you. It was real and it was furious. In the middle of it was his mother and brother and himself. They expected him to be able to just rattle off the facts clean and simple, but none of this was simple, and it sure as hell wasn’t clean.
He had been lying in bed looking through one of his brother’s old Playboys. There was a bare bulb burning dim on Douglas’s night table. Miss April’s spread legs and milky, even skin had cordoned him off from the world. His brother was rustling about in the kitchen cooking up french fries and frozen chicken patties for dinner, and his mother was folding laundry and smoking a joint in her bedroom. They were miles away. It was just him and Ester McArther lulling him into an easy night that would traditionally end in the bathroom and then sleep extending on into the late summer afternoon. Then Karl came home.
He shot through the door like a bolt and everything in the house stiffened and got quiet. Ester McArther faded back into the glossy two dimensions of page sixty. He could feel his muscles clench tight against their bones. Douglas had stopped moving pans and plates around. The only sound was Karl stomping and the swaying, airy haunt of Joni Mitchell singing from his mother’s bedroom.
When the beastly clomp of Karl’s footsteps tightened into the staccato tap of his faux-gatorskin boots on the kitchen linoleum, there were words. Ricky listened intently but couldn’t make them out. He could only discern the tone. Douglas bristled immediately as his mother’s boyfriend said something in his unmistakable Creole left over from a boyhood in the French quarter smoothed out and tainted by a life in Florida. He didn’t hear his mother. She was probably hiding just like Ricky. Karl had been gone for three days, on a binge, and it was understood that whenever he made his reappearance, there would be trouble. When the door had swung open and the unmistakable sound of his boots echoed through the floor, the mother and the younger brother stayed away. As usual. And as usual, there was Douglas left to deal with it. Which he did. And he did it the only way he had learned how in the four years of Karl’s existence in the Crow household. He handled the coked-out son of a bitch with unperturbed violence and disrespect.
Through the walls, hiding behind the magazine clenched tight in his hands, Ricky could hear the indecipherable words getting louder, heavier, meaner. Douglas was questioning, no doubt, why Karl had even come back, and Karl was answering that it was none if his business. Then something got thrown. Something broke. Ricky was glued to his bed. Somewhere in him he knew he should get up, he should help his brother, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t get out of the bed.
Then he heard his mom yelling for them to stop. The dull, fleshy thumps of the two men’s bodies rolling around, crashing into the walls, shook the house. His mother’s voice got increasingly scared. He flinched every time she shrieked or they crashed into something else.
Finally she said it. “HELP!”
He jumped out of bed and crashed through the door. In the kitchen he was stopped dead. Karl had Douglas on his back, his skinny, sunburnt hands wrapped around his brother’s throat. His mother, wiping blood from her face and trying to straighten herself, looked to her younger son for help. Ricky, in a spasm, planted his foot into Karl’s forehead. It sent him rolling off of Douglas who settled back into the floor trying to catch his breath.
“You little motherfucker,” Karl yelled and lunged after Ricky.
For a split second that seemed to stretch for minutes, Ricky could see the imprint of his shoelaces in this man’s forehead, and it made him smile. Next was the bony fist blocking out the light, a bolt of sharp pain, a ringing in the ears and all went black. When he came to, the ringing faded away into a bestial heaving of breath and insanity, and for a second Ricky thought: “He’s killing the fuckin dog, too.”
He rose up off the ground apprehensively. The pain in his face throbbed and circled all around his head. On the other side of the kitchen table, Ricky could see his brother standing against the wall, blood splattered across his chest and face with pink tracks run through it from the tears. His mouth hung open and he looked as if he was trying to say something, but his mouth couldn’t form the words, nor his throat the sound.
The shrieking, vicious sound burned out to an ashy husk of exhausted air, heaving in sync with a soggy, slapping sound. Ricky rounded the table, and saw Karl lying face up in a chunky pool of blood and guts. His mother straddled him. She plunged her fists into a gash in his gut as big as Ricky’s head. Just her hands. Whatever tool she had used to open him up like that was gone, maybe buried in the ripped flesh, maybe tossed, but gone. Now she just sat above him, trying to wail, pounding his innards to soupy pulp.
The tears ran down his face having to think of that night and all the events that came after. It seemed so distant now, but ever present. It was that sound that made him think of it just then, hiding behind the tree. The sound of the boy wailing was like the sound his mother had made killing her boyfriend.
The boy fell to the ground. He dropped flat to the earth, and as if he had been pounded in the chest with a sledgehammer, an inhuman tidal wave of aqueous mewling poured out of him. It was uncontrolled and spastic. The boy had simply opened up and let this horrible thing out. Ricky got a burning feeling in his chest like real fear. It drew up into the nausea mounting in his stomach. This wasn’t something he wanted to see. This wasn’t something he should see.
He jerked around and set his back to the thin tree he convinced himself would hide him, but it wasn’t enough. He couldn’t see the boy, but he could hear him. It was that sound that was getting him. It was absolutely horrible. Definitely a reaching of limits, and then being pushed right over them.
Ricky left the boy there in his throe and followed their path back toward the shed in which he had spent the night. If he had ever known, he had now forgotten why he had followed the boy in the first place. He knew he had stopped at the shed on his way out and thought that very peculiar. After a minute of standing there, he thought the boy might attack him in some way. It scared him. He knew from the night before that this boy Henry was strong and fast. Then the boy just walked away. That made Ricky feel uncomfortable. He guessed he was just intrigued, and that led him to follow Henry up the hill through the woods. No matter the reason, now he was sorry he ever had.
It was once he had crossed back into the woods from the thin stretch of houses along Simpson Avenue that he thought about going back. He thought of the night his mother became a murderer. The last night he ever saw her. He had been ashamed of himself for not doing something. His first instinct was to hide. For weeks after it all everyone told him that there was nothing he could do. They told him that it was horrible and senseless and it wasn’t his fault. He had done all he could. Of course, he thought, that’s because they didn’t know. They didn’t know he had waited. He left that part out every time he had to tell the story of that night. He left out that he didn’t go out into the kitchen right away. He didn’t tell people he was a coward. A coward never would. And here he was, running away again. Being a coward. That boy up there was kind to him, fed him and gave him shelter, and in his pain Ricky decided to abandon him.
By the time Ricky made his way back to the fence in back of the boy’s house, he still had no idea what he should do. He knew only that he should do something, and then he thought of the only truly compassionate person he had known in his short life. His mother. And then it came to him. Water.
By the time Ricky got back to Henry with the water, Henry was sitting up again and the hole he had dug was filled. He was quiet, just sitting. Ricky didn’t quite know how to approach him, but he had the water in his hand and the determination in his mind to go through with this and not run and hide like instinct told him.
“Y’all right?” Ricky asked walking slowly toward the boy.
Henry jerked around startled.
“Whatta y’want,” Henry said and drew his knees up to his chest clasping his arms around them.
“I’s just comin t’see if you were alright.”
“Well,” Ricky said hesitantly. “I just heard ya up here and thought maybe you were hurt or somethin.”
Henry bristled and pushed the sadness out of his face with a scowl.
“I ain't hurt.”
“Well,” Ricky said sitting beside Henry, “Y’want some water?”
Ricky held out one of the beer cans Henry had given him the night before. He had filled it from the spigot in back of the Pupp house. He drank the first can-full himself, but had to hurry out of the yard while filling it the second time when he heard someone moving around in the house.
“It ain’t beer,” Ricky said.
Henry took the can and sniffed at it. The faint flower of Busch Lite lingered under the more powerful chlorine smell of municipal water. He took a drink and couldn’t help but relish the cool elation of the fluid filling the dry, parched cracks of his throat and spreading out through his chest.
“Whatcha been buryin,” Ricky blurted tactlessly.
“Nothin,” Henry tried, but saw Ricky staring at the freshly covered hole.
“Jus some shit I needed t’git rid of.”
“What’s your name again?” Ricky asked innocently.
“I’m Dickie, case ya forgot. Thanks for lettin me sleep in yer shed last night.”
He drank from the can and then offered it back to Henry who took a drink himself.
“Ain no problem. Butcha cain do it no more. M’pa knowed you’s out there an he gonna gitcha he catch ya out there.”
“Think he’ll really look?”
“He’s a mean ol sumbitch. He’ll look. He’ll wanna catch ya out there.”
“Well,” Ricky said and looked down into the pitch earth, “Guess I ain’t gonna sleep out there no more.”
“Ain y’gon outta New York no how?”
“You’s jus lyin bout that, wasn ya.”
“Hmm... I ain’t goin t’New York,” Ricky said after a minute of contemplation. “I just didn’t want you t’think I’s a bum.”
“So whatcha gonna do?” Henry finally asked.
“I don’t really know. Just as long as I’m outta Florida, I don’t really care.”
“What’s wrong with Flarda?”
“They’s tryin t’lock me up.”
Ricky shuffled into the dirt for a more comfortable seat and drew up his knees like Henry had. He sipped from the can.
“Yr lyin,” Henry said with a smile.
“Hell no I ain’t,” Ricky protested. “They already got my brother. Gottim at the bus station in St. Augustine, but I got away. We’s runnin together.”
“What the hell ya’ll do?”
“We didn’t do nothin.”
“Y’hadda do somethin.”
“No I didn’t,” Ricky blurted out and looked genuinely hurt. “They’s cops, man. Y’ain’t gotta do nothing for’em t’come after ya.”
“Oh,” Henry said sheepishly.
“They’s tryin t’put my brother and me in a home.”
Ricky told him the story of his mother and Karl and how she wasn’t right after that night. He told him how they put her in a hospital and made him and Douglas wards of the state.
“We wasn’t gonna git put in no foster home,” he continued. “So we just ran, but they got Douglas in the bus station.”
The sun was bleeding through the trees in white bulbs and it’s heat settled on the boys like a slow flame. It was nearing noon, or maybe a little past, and the hottest part of the day was yet to descend upon them.
“Whatchu buryin out here,” Ricky finally said pushing the toe of his white tennis shoe against the freshly turned earth.
Henry recoiled a little.
“Jus somethin I found,” he answered.
“Whatchu so upset for if it was just somthin y’found?”
Ricky felt a twinge of fear for asking when he saw Henry’s forehead wrinkle up, but he decided to let the question stand.
6 years ago