Sugar

Fiction by Marvin Shackelford

Mama loved that tree, but Dad wanted it gone. Afternoons when thunderheads rolled in from the north he’d stand on the porch and pray, or I thought he was praying, for a storm to come in hard and drop a bolt of lightning right on its top, splinter it straight into the dirt. Part of the maple would probably snap off and land on his big blue ’75 Bonneville parked in the yard. He’d have taken that trade. Me and my brother had cracked the car’s windshield the summer before anyway, throwing a baseball around, and every dark storm split before it reached our farm, spreading arms and passing east and west of our place, the whole end of the county. The tree still stood there, and Dad’s straight, stiff spine loomed through the window.

“Still no rain,” Mama said. She watched him through the screen a moment before rolling to bury her face in the couch. “He’s gonna drive himself crazy.”

“Us, too,” Kevin said, watching the ceiling fan spin. “Maybe he ain’t right.”

Mama grunted, let him know he wasn’t okay to talk that way, and he glanced over to catch my eye. I stood and eased out the storm door, quiet as I could. Kevin came behind and gave me a little shove in the back. Dad looked around as we stumbled past.

“Hey,” we said.

“Did it again.” He watched us over his droopy, graying mustache and spit a trail of tobacco juice over the porch rail. He pressed his palms together, pushed them forward and then split them apart to illustrate the storm. “Like it hits a wedge right in front of us and splits.”

“Yeah,” Kevin said, and I added, “Sorry.”

“I don’t know what, boys.” Dad turned back to the sky. The sun shone through the gash in the sky, lit the air a bright filmy blue between black strips. “May never rain on us again.”

Kevin elbowed by me, rushing by our father and down the steps and into the yard.

“You can feel it,” Dad said. He waved a hand like he was swatting something away from his sweaty forehead. “Electric. Like the air’s burning. But it ain’t gonna rain.”

“Yeah it will.” I moved to his side, looked from his blank face to the empty sky above us. I tried to feel the air like he was, but my body got nothing from it. “Has to.”

“Yeah, Zach. Sooner or later.”

He smoothed his moustache, eyes heavenward. The rain had missed us like that all summer. I waited to be sure he wouldn’t say anything else and then hopped off the porch. I walked away from the Pontiac and its cratered windshield, crushed in the pattern of an ocean fed by small slivers of river. Kevin had the football in the far corner of the yard, down toward the barn and big concrete silo that towered overhead. He was throwing it straight up, trying to catch it behind his back. It wasn’t working. I asked if he wanted to play. He shrugged, flipped the ball another time or two. Then he nodded.

“Run.”

I took off, kicking up dust, and he tossed the ball up once more. That time Kevin cupped his hands at the small of his back and actually caught it. He rolled his shoulder, stretching, and watched me open space for a pass. I looked back every few steps, waiting for the throw, and as I neared Dad’s car he finally reared back and threw. The ball arced high and full of spin, and I knew I couldn’t reach the spot to catch it. I ran head-down past the Bonneville and beneath the maple tree, before catching my feet together and diving to the ground. I skidded across the bare dirt and raised-up roots, and the ball thudded into the tree. I listened to it rattle through the leaves and bounced to the ground nearly in reach of me.

“Good God, Zach,” Dad said. He wasn’t happy. Kevin was laughing, trotting my direction. “That tree. Swear to God.”

“Leave it alone,” Mama called from inside.

“Good for nothing.” Dad spit off the porch and pointed my direction. “Get in that tree and you’re taking a damn bath. Hear me?”

I heard him. He slapped through the screen door and got to arguing with Mom. I rolled to my back and stared up into the maple. It was perfect for climbing once you got onto the lowest limb, just over my head. The limbs spread like perfect fingers wide enough to straddle and sit on without falling out. But the bark was covered top to bottom in sticky sap. Mama wanted to make syrup out of it, somehow. She’d bought a book telling how to stake a hole in the wood and drain the sugary flow, but she hadn’t done it yet. Dad said that was a northern thing and wouldn’t work anyway, there had to be something wrong with it, maples weren’t supposed to bleed all the time like that. But there ours was, forever oozing from cracks along its trunk.

And bugs, he went crazy over the bugs. Every bug under God’s sun, he said, was on that tree. It was sort of true. At night clouds of tiny gnats and flies swarmed it, and crawling insects I couldn’t name were always feeling the bark for its sweetness. Right then the tree looked clean and empty, insects hidden from the missed storm. Like the weather even fooled them. I lay there until Kevin leaned over me and said get up. He reached out and jerked me to my feet.

“You threw it too hard,” I told him.

“I didn’t think you’d forget how to run.” He picked the football up again. “Come on.”

We spent a while lobbing the ball back and forth while Mama and Dad argued. With no one there to see it Kevin made his passes where I could catch them.

“Mom and Dad are going out,” he said after a bit. “Somewhere with Phil and Lacy. Penny’s coming over too.”

“Okay,” I said.

“You’d better act right.”

Kevin threw the football really hard then, and it popped through my arms and off my chest. Stung. I tried to send it back just as hard, but he caught my throw easily. He was headed to high school that fall, and Dad kept talking about him playing quarterback. Varsity and glory. Kevin shrugged it off, but we’d been out in the yard more and more, flinging the ball back and forth, practicing. He had it on his brain.

“I’m serious.” He stared me down. “No screwing around.”

“I said okay.”

He watched me a minute longer to see it soaked in, then tossed the ball back without more words. Kevin directed me with a finger to run routes through the yard. He hit me in stride time after time, though I didn’t catch them all. After a while our parents quieted down, and Kevin threw me one last pass. He turned to the house, not waiting to see it land in my hands. He went in and I tried to replicate his behind-the-back catch. The ball went up, but I couldn’t come close to snagging it. I gave up after a couple.

The air had lost that charge Dad talked about—feeling it gone was how I first recognized what he’d been saying. That sharpness. The world smelled different. The black clouds had passed to dull-blue sky. Humid and emptied. I sat on the porch steps and tried counting cows in the field out front until I thought I’d go crazy. But a plume of dust finally broke over the hill on our dead-end dirt road and came at our house like a savior. I jumped up and watched the wave roll closer, unable to make the vehicle for its cloud. It rippled down the hill and slowed at our driveway, and Uncle Phil’s squat ton truck appeared.

Phil wasn’t really related to us, but him and Dad had been friends since high school. So they got us to calling him and Lacy aunt and uncle and their daughter did the same with our parents. Lately Kevin had been getting weird and started using just their names, but I didn’t care. Their bulky Chevy rattled over the gravel between our fencerows. The cows turned their heads up, still chewing what sparse brown grass they’d found. Uncle Phil turned the truck off and coasted into the grass of the yard before stopping. The dust he’d flung up hung a minute without wind to clear it. I ran out and hollered to him when he swung his door open.

“Hey there, boy,” he shouted. He swiveled out and scooped me into a hug. “Damn, I think you got bigger. What’re you eating?”

“Nothing.” I laughed and pulled loose of him. “Where are y’all going tonight?”

“I don’t rightly know,” he said. “Reckon we’ll find something.”

He pushed the bill of his green cap back to scratch his forehead. His eyes wandered over the cows and the barn and our vinyl-sided house. He’d quit smiling. Aunt Lucy crawled out the passenger side and Penny behind her. The older woman patted me on the head on her way by, and Penny didn’t even see me. She passed with a paper sack full of something in her arms. She held it loose, swaying as she walked. She was Kevin’s age, with long dark hair that gave her face a glow. We used to play together, she liked to run with us and set up our blocks and watch cartoons, but I’d been growing invisible.  She and Kevin stayed close, and I felt sure she was headed in to look for him.

“Honey, where we going?” Uncle Phil snapped out of his survey and laid a hand on my head. “Huntsville?”

“That catfish place,” Aunt Lacy called back before walking inside.

“Catfish,” he repeated, rocking onto his heels and scratching at his face again. “You wanna come with us?”

I just shrugged, and he swirled my hair around.

“It’s good eating,” he said. “But staying home’s good, too.”

I stayed on his heels. He stopped on the porch long enough to look over our fields again, then stepped into the living room. Dad met him at the door to shake hands, large up-and-down pumps of their fists. They grinned over something and sank onto opposite ends of the couch. I took a chair and listened for what I could learn from their talk. Mostly it was cows and hay crops and corn and what to do about water. For all their questions they were short on answers. I heard Mama and Aunt Lacy talking their different conversation at the table and saw Kevin walk out of the kitchen and down the hall a couple times. He’d changed clothes, left his t-shirt for a polo. His hair looked freshly slicked and his face damp.

“Rained a little,” Uncle Phil was saying. “Before we left. Didn’t dry the dust.”

“That’s better than nothing. It did that thing with splitting around us again.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Gets right north of us and bam,” Dad said with a quick clap of his hands, “right off to the side it goes.”

“Shit,” the other man breathed. “That don’t even make sense.”

“Unless God’s upset with us, I don’t know.”

“You killed anybody?”

“Huh.” Dad rolled his head back, like he was thinking. “Just a couple deserved it.”

They laughed. I laughed with them, but it scared me to think about him killing someone, maybe taking his rifle from the closet, leaving the house and coming back red-handed. Dad asked Uncle Phil for a cigarette. They levered up and went to the porch, smoked and spoke in low voices. I saw I wasn’t invited and sat still. I tried to make out the conversation in the kitchen, but their words, didn’t quite reach me either. It was hard to tell if Mama was happy or upset. Her high-pitched tones sounded desperate whichever way she went.

Dad and Uncle Phil got real quiet and leaned in close. My father’s thumb flashed out toward the inside of the house a couple times. He didn’t look happy but wasn’t particularly angry, either—just really wanted his friend to understand whatever he was telling him. It was important. I thought about a way to get closer and hear, but Mama and Aunt Lacy strutted into the room, kind of giggling. The men heard them and stepped back through the door.

“Y’all ready?” Mom asked, and Dad shrugged. She hollered for Kevin and Penny and when they appeared told us all together that they were leaving.

“Zach, Penny’s baking a cake,” Aunt Lacy said. “Or do you want to come with us?”

I started to say yes, but Dad and Uncle Phil answered no for me, almost at once.

“No,” Dad said again. “Let him stay.”

“He’d be bored with us,” my uncle said, winking at me.

Mama shrugged, and we all headed outside. Mama stopped long enough to tell Penny where her measuring cups and mixes were and to tell me pretty much what Kevin had earlier about behaving while they were gone. She said she knew I would—I was her big boy. I squirmed out of a kiss goodbye, and our parents climbed into Dad’s Bonneville. Uncle Phil sat in the passenger’s seat, his face half hidden and broken by the smashed part of the windshield. Dad backed out, and Penny and me waved them on. Kevin tossed his hand up just before they got turned around, and then they were kicking dust up to the end of the drive. We watched them veer into the road and strike across the dry hill. Kevin and Penny stood silent at the porch rail, eyes locked on the spot where the car disappeared. I watched them until he finally broke the silence.

“What do you wanna do?” he said. Penny shrugged.

“Let’s play football,” I said.

“Not you.”

“Yeah, play football.” Penny looked up at my brother, a smile on her face. I was surprised to hear her agree with me.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Smells like cow shit out here,” he said, turning up his nose. He was right, but I thought he’d have been used to it.

“Come on.” Penny giggled. She grabbed hold of his arm with both hands and bounced up and down a little. “I wanna see you throw. Show me your stuff.”

Kevin shrugged. He wrapped an arm around Penny and spun by her, skipped over the steps and landed in the grass. He pulled the green polo over his head and tossed it back at her. His chest was thin and white like mine but broader, thickening. Penny laughed and folded her prize. I figured I should take my shirt off, too, so I did and hung it over the porch rail. Kevin picked the ball up and threw it to me as I stepped off the porch. We went through the same thing we’d done earlier, pretty much. Kevin pointed me different directions, and we fired the ball back and forth. This time most his throws were easy for me to catch though. They looked even easier for him. Penny sat on the top step, arms wrapped under her legs, and watched.

“Good catch, Squirt,” she’d say every so often, keeping her eyes on Kevin.

He pointed me further back and stretched the whole length of the yard between us, him by the far fence and me beside the big maple tree. Still he dropped the football right into my hands. When I threw it back I had to run forward just to come close to reaching him. His arm was amazing, Penny must have been impressed, I thought, and I was doing my best. The sun crept close to setting, the tree and house beginning to stretch shadows over us, and she finally gave up watching us and stood up, smoothing out her blue dress.

“I have to start the cake,” she told Kevin. He gave her a flick of his wrist and backed up tight to the fence, then threw the ball once more. It rose high, like his throw into the tree earlier, and this time I just watched as it disappeared into the leaves. It thumped and thudded through the branches but didn’t exit. I stood waiting and got nothing.

“Kevin,” I yelled.

“What?” He jogged up the porch steps, took his shirt back and laid it over his shoulder.

“Think the ball’s stuck,” Penny told him.

“Oh. We’ll get it later.”

I started to tell him to come on, but Kevin wasn’t listening. He followed Penny inside, slammed the door, and I stood looking between the empty porch and the tree. It was getting dark pretty quick. The football rested halfway up, cradled against the trunk by a spreading branch. It almost looked like the tree had cupped two of its many hands together to catch it since I couldn’t. I stared up a minute, trying to figure it out. We had a long-handled rake in the shed, but it was too high for that. It hung above me like a taunt, a dare.

A whirring crackled to life in the kitchen, electric buzz slipping out the open window. Penny was working on her cake. I listened to the drone a moment before spinning forward to kick the trunk of the sticky tree with the bottom of my foot. The leaves rustled, but it may have just been wind. All I got out of it was a sudden ache in my knee. Penny’s giggly voice filtered from the house, cut through the scrape of the mixer. I paced, hands on hips, until it finally struck me. I scoured around the porch for my baseball, found it stuck in one of Mama’s stringy, brownish rosebushes. I squared myself beneath the tree and took aim. I tossed the baseball up a few times, softly at first and then harder, but I couldn’t hit the football to shake it loose. The smaller ball bounced into the branches, skittered around and just fell back out at my feet.

“Man. Stupid.”

I didn’t know what else to call it. I rolled the baseball over my fingers and felt gluey sap rub off, hold to me. Penny finally stopped the mixer, and the world went silent. And dark. The sun had completely disappeared, leaving an orange glow over the hillsides to the west. The air fell sweet and sugary into my mouth. I couldn’t tell if it was from maple sap or the cake baking. I looked to the kitchen window, felt a hole in my stomach. I heard Kevin’s voice, real low, and Penny laughing again, and hoped the cake was almost done. I walked inside. Kevin could knock the football right out. I circled the corner into the kitchen, stopped when I saw them. They both had batter smeared across their smiling faces. She leaned into his bare chest and pressed her lips against his chin, like she’d lick him clean.

“Hey,” I told them. They pulled apart and turned, leaning back against the counter. “I want some.”

“Go outside,” Kevin said.

“Yeah.” Penny wiped at her cheek with the side of her hand. “It’s not done yet, Squirt.”

“Oh.” I watched them a moment, then held out the baseball. “Well come get the ball down, Kevin.”

“I’ll get it tomorrow.” He waved me away with a finger and settled back into Penny.

“Come get it now,” I said, crossing my arms.

“Hey,” he said, eying me up and down. “You said you’d act right.”

“Yeah, well, come on.”

We stared at each other. I was tired of waiting. It was too dark to do anything anyway, but all he had to do was throw one ball, jar the other loose. I tossed it to him easy, and he snagged it out of the air. Kevin huffed and stepped away from Penny, grabbed me by the arm and dragged me through the living room and out the front door. He stopped at the porch rail, leaned back, and chucked the baseball into the dark, like an outfielder throwing to home plate. It disappeared silently, and we were still standing there with the tree and nothing changed.

“Couldn’t get it,” he said. He lifted my shirt off the rail and tossed it at me before opening the door. “Listen. You said you’d stay out of the way.”

“I know, but—”

“Nuh-uh. Just behave yourself.” Kevin reached around the doorjamb and flicked a switch. “There’s the light. Stay out here and let me and Penny talk.”

“Fine,” I said, and he repeated, “Fine.”

He slipped in and let the door close. I watched him out of sight with movements much too large, like he was trying to grow with each step. Something was up. I knew it but couldn’t really put my fingers on it. All I knew was I was angry with Kevin and the football was coming down one way or another. Penny’s laughter swirled around me once more, like it would drag me inside after them. But that’d be just what he wanted, to have me walk back in to be thrown back out, so I jumped off the porch, over the steps and into the grass, and stomped to the tree. It glowered in the darkness, and a slur of words drifted from the house. The bare noise seemed to crawl into the night, up my legs and across my bare back to settle between my shoulders. I dropped it and leapt, felt the cling of sap between my palms and bark as I caught hold of the bottommost branch.

That one was the hardest. I hung a moment and then began to swing, rocking my weight toward the tree and then away, then throwing forward again. On the third or fourth go my foot caught on the trunk and I pulled, got my legs up. A little shimmying put me atop the branch, straddled and sitting with feet dangling. I was in the tree. I caught my breath and then started up. The branches were easy to reach once in, and I shifted through, feeling for their grip in the dark. I grasped one arm of bark after the next and finally reached the football. I settled a limb down from it and lifted it free, let it stick to my fingers. Sap coated my hands, arms and legs, my bare chest. It already crusted my jeans, barely visible in the light from the house, but I had the ball.

I dropped it out and started down, pleased with myself, and then I saw Kevin and Penny in the kitchen window. He leaned into her, pressed her hips into the counter, and they kissed. Lips glued together. She held the mixer. I started to yell at them, ask when it was going to be ready, but Kevin’s hands caught my attention. He was pulling at her dress. I saw a flash of white, Penny’s underwear, and I perched silently on a branch and watched as my brother licked her lips and picked at her. It was weird to see the two of them act like that. She turned, poured the batter into a long pan. Kevin let her out of reach long enough for her to drop the oven door and slide the cake inside, and then he was back on her, mumbling words I couldn’t make out.

Penny squirmed, kissing him. Kevin lifted her onto the counter, and she giggled and nearly slipped right back off. She rocked on the edge a moment, knees apart and at an angle I couldn’t see her underwear anymore, but my brother’s hand pushed between her thighs, under the hem of her dress. She grabbed his wrist, shaking her head, and scooted back from him. Kevin said something real quiet, his lips working fast. He kept the one hand under her dress and tilted her chin with the other. He kissed her. They stared each other down until at last Penny nodded, and his hand started wobbling, pressed out of sight.

Her face twisted up. She grunted some, kissed my brother, finally buried her face in his neck. He pressed his head to hers and kept his hand going, working at something I couldn’t make out. She ran her mouth along his neck, told him not to stop, and I realized she liked it, that this was something Kevin understood. Something else he was good at and I still hadn’t figured out. I wiped the sweat from my face with a sticky hand, tasted the bitter, sugary curl of the maple sap. It wasn’t very good, but I sucked at a little gob of the stuff while I stared through the window. They kept at it, pressed together I don’t know how long. Penny finally straightened her back and pushed on Kevin’s shoulders like she wanted him to stop, and he leaned away for a second before moving back to kiss her mouth. His hand reappeared and wrapped around her waist. She laid her head on his shoulder for a moment before sliding her feet to the floor.

My brother disappeared from sight and Penny moved to the sink, turning the water on and leaning against the counter a moment before washing her hands. I thought I should probably get down but waited, silent, not wanting her to see me. She finally moved to pull her cake from the oven,  and the screen door banged open and shut. Kevin trotted out. He had his shirt on again. He hollered my name a few times, staring out into the darkness. I kept as still as I could, didn’t want to answer, suddenly felt sure I shouldn’t. He stepped off the porch and crossed the yard, disappeared into the drive. I watched until he reappeared, the baseball he’d launched earlier somehow returned to his grip. He walked beneath the tree, staring up, I realized, for the football. He turned a circle and then kicked the ball with his foot, and he stopped to look at it. I shifted, the branches around me crackled, and he looked back up. I froze, but he spotted me anyway.

“Zach?” he said. I didn’t answer. He called my name again, and then something slammed into my leg. I let out a yelp before I could cover my mouth. “What the hell are you doing?”

“Nothing,” I told him. Something rustled the leaves and struck my leg again. He’d hit me with the baseball. My eyes watered, and I pinched them shut.

“Get down. Dad’s gonna kill—” he said, breaking off. I saw his shadow below me step toward the kitchen window. He stared at it a moment, Penny standing in the square of light with a can of icing and a knife in hand. He turned back to me. “Were you watching us?”

I thought about his hand a moment, flickering between Penny’s legs, and didn’t answer. The kissing I understood, but I was still a few years away then from learning how desperate a boy gets to touch a girl, how we line up and how we try so hard to fit together. I didn’t know what I’d seen and didn’t want to admit anything. My leg exploded again, the baseball landing like a giant hornet just below my knee.

“Kevin, stop,” I hollered.

I felt my voice crack. Then I was crying. The ball came up again, catching me in the hip. Below the knee again the next time. Kevin’s aim was good, it was always good. Penny appeared on the porch, stumbled into the yard. I wailed and held tight in the tree, the sap like glue maybe the only thing keeping me from falling out. She grabbed hold of Kevin’s arm, and he shoved her off, turning to throw the ball again and finally missing, a mercy too late to soothe me.

“He was watching,” he hissed, whipping around to face her.

“What?”

“Watching us,” he said. “In there.”

She stood still a moment and Kevin picked the ball up again. He hit me in the knee with it. But I was back in control and just held on.

“It’s okay,” Penny said. She sounded about to cry, too. “It’s okay.”

“No, it ain’t.” He threw and missed again. “Little pervert.”

“Come down, Squirt. It’s okay. Kevin was just—”

“Shut up,” he told her.

“He was just making me feel good,” she yelled.

“Shut up,” Kevin screamed, and he threw again, nearly missed me and the tree and all. The ball rattled the edge of the canopy, and he whirled and grabbed hold of her. “Don’t say nothing. Don’t you dare.”

He kept shaking, and I heard a sob break out of Penny. I gritted my teeth and shut off my crying. I felt dizzy, sick to my stomach, but I knew right then she was lying. He wasn’t making her feel good. Kevin finally let loose of her arms, quit jerking her around. They stared at each other, and I stayed glued to the tree until light cut through the yard, and I twisted to see Dad’s Pontiac headed up the drive. They were back from dinner. Penny and Kevin saw it too, and she ran inside. The Bonneville rolled to a stop in front of the porch, Kevin standing to the side, and the adults, my mom and dad and aunt and uncle, piled out laughing and happy and still full of the night. I started out of the tree, a new kind of sick settling in my stomach. My father caught the shaky rustle of my movements and watched.

“What’s going on?” he asked Kevin

“Little shit’s in the tree.”

“Watch your mouth,” Mama said. She started to add something else but went silent as Dad crossed the grass, heavy, face dark between me and the porch light. He met me at the bottom limb, the one I’d started up with, and grabbed hold of my arm. I half jumped and he half yanked me from the tree, swatting my backside as I landed. His hand made me jerk, slamming into skin and muscle where Kevin had battered me with the baseball, and I yelped.

“Get your ass in the house,” he screamed right on top of me. “Get in the tub and wash that shit off and get in the bed. I’ve told you time and goddang time to stay away from that tree.”

“Oh, Honey,” Mama said. I thought she was talking to me, coming to my defense, and I started to explain about the football, about Kevin, but Dad roared on. He launched into a tirade about the tree, bad as he’d ever done before, and swore that was the end of it.

“It’s coming down in the morning. Hell or high water,” he told her.

I climbed the porch, my parents setting to it while Uncle Phil laughed. Aunt Lacy sort of stood to the side, arms crossed. I passed Kevin, flushed and silent as I went through the door. He eyeballed me like he wasn’t finished but couldn’t make his move yet. Penny stood in the kitchen smearing black icing over the top of her cake. I limped by, and she watched me with a red, sniffly face. She looked guilty and sorry, like I felt, but she didn’t say anything. We were too far apart to talk about it. Her hand kept flicking the knife back and forth, spreading chocolate without watching, until I disappeared down the hall.

I stripped in the bathroom, used the mirror to inspect my coating of gunky maple sap and round welts already turning blue and yellow on me from the waist down. I crawled into the tub and scrubbed my skin hard with a cloth, splashing the water around and trying to get off what I could. I found tiny bugs pressed to my flesh by the sap, and I scrubbed harder. It took me a while, scouring until the water went cold and I had to run the hot again, but I eventually came clear and red enough to say I was clean. I climbed out and tiptoed from the bathroom, slipped into our room and climbed into bed. They were laughing down the hall. Dad must have calmed, Mama forgotten about the tree, but I wouldn’t risk going to them looking for peace.

I listened to their muffled cake-eating and lay on the bed. The chatter ran late. I followed its ebb and flow, imagined them circling the living room. Probably talking about the weather still, maybe asking Kevin about football. Stretching out their fun. But Uncle Phil’s truck finally roared to life, loud and promising the end of the day was near. I rolled to face the wall, hunkered down and pretending to be asleep. I moved lightly, easing my weight around my sore leg. The door opened once and streamed light over the back of my head, the plain plaster of the walls, and then shut again. Either Dad or Mom checking to see if I was awake. A few minutes later the door opened and shut again, quickly this time, and I heard my brother’s breathing. Kevin’s steps passed his bed, stopped behind me, and he shoved me in the arm. He leaned down and squeezed my shoulder until I tried to shake him off, then asked what I saw.

“Were you watching me and Penny?” he said, lips nearly rubbing my ear in the dark.

“No,” I said, remembering the blank white of her underwear and wanting to ask just what he’d done to her. But my leg throbbed, and his breath kept me silent. “Nuh-uh.”

“Did you?” He shook me a little.

“No,” I repeated, loud. He stood still a moment and then eased away, crawled into his own bed.

“Dad’s cutting the tree down in the morning,” he said.

“He won’t.”

“He will this time.” Kevin rustled his sheets. “You should’ve behaved.”

“I just wanted to get the ball down,” I told the dark space between us.

He didn’t answer. Not long after I heard him start to snore a little, the house silent around us otherwise, and I lay still sleepless. My leg ached, and I thought about the way Kevin threw a ball, the way he moved things, the way he touched Penny. Made her feel good, she said, and I remembered the lie, her face red in the kitchen, her shaky hands icing the cake. And the way he’d pelted me with the baseball up in the tree, over and over. It’d be a long time before I quit thinking about that.

I slipped out of bed, nearly falling as I tried to ease weight onto my sore, unsupportive leg. I crossed the warm hardwood to Kevin’s bed, where he lay on his stomach, nearly facedown in the pillow. His back rose, expanded a little with every breath, and I crept close to rest my hand on the back of his shaggy head, seeing if he’d wake. He didn’t. He kept breathing, kept sleeping. I raised my hand, tight muscles and clenched my fingers into a fist that hovered in the dark, so much shakier than I wanted to be. My knuckles looked down at the back of my brother’s head. So did I. I didn’t move and thought about it—just punching and punching his skull until he was bruised as I was.

I stood beside Kevin’s bed until my hand fell, and when it did my fingers went loose at my side. I couldn’t hit him, wasn’t enough like him to lash out and make him pay. He lay motionless, free of the anger and whatever else had consumed him earlier. I shuffled back to my bed and buried deep into the sheets, hot as it was. I turned to the wall again and stayed awake into the early morning, worrying what would happen with the maple tree, what my mother would say. How I couldn’t do the things my brother could. I drifted off sometime, stomach in a knot and kind of hungry, never expecting it would rain the next morning, the clouds holding together to dump inches of water over us, our farm, while Dad stood stiff on the front porch with a cup of coffee and watching the drops bead and collect on his car, roll off the leaves to form sticky puddles beneath the trees.

<strong>Marvin Shackelford</strong>
Marvin Shackelford

is the author of a collection of poems, Endless Building, and a couple volumes of stories and flash forthcoming from Alternating Current and Red Bird Chapbooks. His work has appeared in The Kenyon Review, West Branch, Permafrost, Wigleaf and elsewhere. He resides, quietly, in Southern Middle Tennessee.

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