Guernica

When joysticks wear your thumbs raw, you and Adam go and kick in Philip’s bedroom door. He is reading books about vampires or teenagers that transform into animals. Sometimes he is sitting on the floor in the corner, his ear pressed up against a boombox turned all the way down. Cher croons quietly through the plastic speaker, or ABBA: the voices sing only to him. When he sees you he knows what you want and he obliges, unsheathing the aluminum baseball bat he keeps under his bed, clicking off the boombox, gnashing his teeth. Always his face goes red and he chokes down tears. You never know for sure if this is part of the game.

Philip is six and pretty fast for a kid four years younger than you, but the main reason this game is fun is that he really swings. He giggles and shrieks in his little girly voice, but when he brings the bat around, you feel wind on your face. You smell metal, and suddenly you know the threat of pain is real. If he swings too hard he’ll over-rotate, made vulnerable for a split second, and you can usually land a good kick in the balls.

The Parkers have a kitchen island and you and Adam split around it, making Philip choose. He’ll go left after his brother. Adam is bigger and faster than you are, and he is crueler to Philip. Sometimes Adam slaps him hard in the face, open palm and cheek playing sharp and loud like dry twigs breaking. Sometimes Adam gives Philip wedgies of such ferocity that their mother finds blood in the seams of Philip’s underwear. When confronted both boys deny everything, Adam staring straight at his brother, Philip mumbling something about a stomachache, diarrhea.

Off the kitchen is the porch. Go slowly through the screen door, careful not to slam it—the wood around the top hinge is rotted out, easily popped loose, and once Mr. Parker came home early from a job and found it hanging from the doorjamb like a dislocated finger. He sent you home but you were barely out the door when he’d started on Adam.

Go out through the porch. Mosquitoes and stinkbugs so thick on the screens that the sunshine comes in polka-dotted. The backyard is overgrown and weeds reach up into your shorts. Lead Philip to the shed in the back, a rusty tin thing that reeks of gasoline. Kids in the neighborhood say that Mr. Parker buries his money under the shed, that he doesn’t trust banks, that he doesn’t trust his wife, that they see him out there in the middle of the night with a headlamp and a shovel. Don’t ask Adam about it. There are some things you don’t ever ask.

You have to slow down to get into the shed because the door is broken and only one body can fit through the opening at a time. Adam will let you go first—you hear the bat catch his calf, or his side, somewhere half-soft. You hear him grunt, then the kneading dough sound of his knuckles on his brother’s body. He comes in while Philip is down and then Philip gets up.

In the shed there is the broken lawnmower. In the shed there are baseball bats and broomsticks, cans of paint thinner and Mrs. Parker’s stash of cigarettes in the underflap of a hockey bag. At night you and Adam meet in the woods and smoke from a pack that he smuggled out, coughing. One time he dared you and you put one out on your arm and now there’s a shiny pink spot like the eye of that albino snake you saw on a field trip. There are also things that live in the shed. You hear them scuttle in the darkness when you come in. Do not show that you are scared.

The shed is dark except for the triangle of dusty sunlight that reaches through the crooked doorway. You and Adam are huddled in the back, breathing hard. Notice the dark: darker than the empty baseball fields in moonless winter; darker than sleep. Philip stops in the doorway, shoulders heaving, face blotchy. Watch as his pupils stretch, shrink, devouring light—he knows he can’t come in. You have the high ground. After a moment he disappears around the corner and you hear his sneakers scratching over the dead grass.

Your eyes are adjusting. Turn to look at Adam: he is grinning like a sick dog. His teeth are mossy. You know from sleepovers that he doesn’t brush. But he is fearless: he can kick a ball straight over Zach Neumayer’s house, the red circle perfect against the blue sky. He calls the house phones of girls from your class and asks in bad accents if they spit or swallow. You don’t know exactly what this means but you know it’s about sex. Their voices on the other end, embarrassed, angry, demanding to know who the caller is—it thrills you. It lights you up.

Philip has stopped moving outside. There are options: he can collect an armful of rocks and sling them at you from the doorway, flush you out. This is effective but unoriginal. He can sneak back to the house, through the front door, hide somewhere and prepare an ambush.

Or he can stay, right outside the shed, and wait. Just after three the mailman comes. Down the street, your father rises from his desk and heads slowly across the driveway. He notes the clusters of mushrooms poking up through the yellow lawn like a pox. He runs his hand along his jaw, waves to the mailman, walks slower to avoid a conversation. His eyes are bleary from the computer screen, watery and made weak from scrolling the same listings. He reminds your mother at dinner that he will not lower himself. He will not stoop. No one is gonna end up on the street and as long as that’s the case, thank you very much, he can damn well wait: like Philip, dirtying his knees in the mulch next to the shed, cradling a grasshopper with a busted leg; wait, like Adam, his mind ticking noisily beside you like a watch with the face popped off. Wait, like you, in the tin shed of your friend’s backyard, dizzy on gas fumes, thinking maybe you can just stay there in the dark.

Jackson Tobin

Jackson Tobin is a writer from Massachusetts. He is a graduate of the MFA program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the winner of the Knowles Teaching Award for Creative Writing Instruction. His stories have appeared in Tin House, Electric Literature, and Midwestern Gothic. He is at work on his first novel.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *