YARN is psyched to kick of National Short Story Month with its first official story of the 2015 Season!
By Brandon Patterson
Dave lives in a place separated from other homes—real homes—by private land and simple miles of endless trees. His apartment is one of five brick boxes lining a strip of crumbled pavement, their backs to the mountain. His mother works morning and night, sprawls on a twin bed in the afternoon, is nearly as distant to him as his jailed father. The neighbors move in and out, like a living tide. He spends his empty days skulking along roads that bubble in the summer and crack in the winter, looking up from his feet to note the blur of passing cars. Months ago he befriended an elderly widower who regaled him with army stories from his days in West Germany; Dave last saw him stiff and sweat-slicked beneath a lethargic ceiling fan, looking almost comical in death because he wore only boxers and a pair of thin socks that came up to his Crisco-colored shins.
In a few years he will meet Maria, a Mexican girl, and fall in love for the first time; they will kiss and hold hands, whisper dirty words to each other. They will also meet in the woods, where their movement rustles leaves and stirs the black carpenter ants crawling beneath them. In the middle of a summer night, her family will pack and leave in their wood-paneled station wagon; Dave won’t know anything until he checks their rental the following day, moving between the brick cube’s two doors, knocking and calling names, peeping into dark windows that surrender bare floor, naked wall, dusty air.
Now Dave, just finishing middle school, has Justin, a leering boy from deeper south, a boy who plays guitar, knows about different guns, even drinks his father’s booze. Justin lives across the street in another block home owned by a different landlord. He is stocky, with thin lips and a swagger he accentuates by keeping his freckled thumbs looped through the belt holes of his knee-worn pants. He cusses, calls his father a “tough sumbitch,” which Dave knows all about—his own father is a “tough sumbitch,” as are a few of his mother’s boyfriends.
In the afternoons, they steal past old fences and onto land where “NO TRESPASSING” signs are nailed to the trees. Evenings are spent at Justin’s house and picking guitar and listening to his metal collection, maybe following that up by watching Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, good ones like Commando and Predator, or they go to Dave’s and fire-up his old PlayStation and crowd around the pixilated fisticuffs and car chases they enact on a tiny Korean television. Occasionally, Justin will roll up his shirt or a pant leg and display his newest bruise or cigarette burn. He is proud of the marks. At times, Dave finds himself wishing his father were still around, if only so he could have something to match Justin’s wounds.
Trouble finds them in the last weeks of school, as they walk home along a deer path that leads past their tenements. The sun pierces the canopy of old trees and dapples the trail with blotches of sunlight. They pass Ralph Watters, a hulking boy in a blue Terrell Owens jersey, who huddles with friends on the side of the trail, passing and lighting cigarettes.
Dave and Justin look away from the cluster of smokers. It isn’t enough and Ralph calls them out. “Lookie here, it’s the white trash squad,” he snorts. “Y’all getting ready to root around in some trash cans looking for dinner?”
“Shut up, you dumbass,” Justin says.
“Better a dumbass than a drunk’s dumb shit-drip of a son.”
Justin steps in closer, his eyes even with the peeling silver numbers on Ralph’s jersey, but doesn’t say anything.
Ralph grins and puffs Marlboro smoke into Justin’s eyes. “Uh oh, trailer park here’s gonna do something. Better watch out, his dad’ll get liquored up and try and beat on me. Like a red-headed stepchild.”
Justin screams and charges. Dave stands in the middle of the trail, the blur of action registering only after Justin is on his back, nose and lip bleeding. The neck of his shirt is stretched and flopping low on his chest. He tries getting back up to charge the grinning bully again, though Dave grabs him by the arm and drags him further down the trail.
Justin stops when they can no longer hear the older boys laughing. He falls to the side of the trail, lands hard on his knees. He punches a tree until his knuckles redden. Above them, a squirrel shakes the branches, runs atop the gray arms, pauses and squawks, the noise like a cat getting strangled.
“Fucking squirrel,” Justin says as he looks up. He finds stones on the ground, flings them at the squirrel until one nicks its hindquarters and the rodent scurries along to neighboring trunks and boughs.
They reach Justin’s house, sit on the back stoop a few moments before going in, Justin shaking as he sits, his face flushed dark red. “I’m gonna get him,” he says, a finger tracing the limp neck of his shirt.
Dave nods, not sure how to go about it, but determined to exact some revenge. Even if they have to get it by breaking code and ratting on the older thug.
They swing open the screen door and stomp through the kitchen, their shoes squeaking. The butter cream-colored refrigerator isn’t working, the rattling and groaning they associate with it silent, so they pass on their usual cola; they would drink water, but the landlord has just bleached the well, something he does irregularly, and without telling anyone. The last time it killed Dave’s goldfish. He found the fish floating on its side, bright and glinting, eyes the color of chalky water.
Justin’s mother looks up when they pass through the living room. She says nothing, though, as she watches her soaps, hands folded over her bloated belly, her only movement the shifting of one hand to grab a dewy drinking glass or to wipe away some sweat with a washcloth. Dave doesn’t return her glance, instead watches the mottled carpet. He thought she was pretty the first time he saw her. She was in the house’s front yard, wearing a tube-top and jean shorts with ragged edges, drawing a picture of a tree on a dinner tray-sized sketch pad. The apartment is filled with rough pencil sketches of the trees, the house, and other objects: neighbors’ houses; close studies of veiny tree leaves; birds resting on sills and twigs; and a series of the neighborhood’s stray dogs playing, fighting, and sleeping. The pregnancy, though, has stopped the drawing as effectively as it has halted Dave’s crush. Now she is simply inert and large, confined to couch and bed, almost like the grandparents of Dave’s memories, when he visited them during their occasional hospital stays.
As they pass by the parents’ room, Butkus stirs from his spot at the foot of their bed and follows the boys into Justin’s room. Dave obliges the dog, rubs the graying muzzle and pats the soft stomach as the mutt rolls slowly onto his back. His mottled tail wags dumbly, thumps against the floor like a heartbeat. Butkus had followed Justin home, back when Justin lived in a different area. Dave is glad they brought the dog with them to the rental homes. He’s always wanted a dog—a sleek, powerful one, like a Doberman—though his mother’s refusal to ever allow another mouth into the house means he settles for pseudo-ownership of Butkus.
“That’s a good boy, yeah, that’s a good boy,” Dave says as he scratches. Butkus wriggles and whimpers before a twitching paw kicks him into an upright stance and he clatters off with untrimmed claws into a shadier part of the house. Dave nudges the bedroom door shut with the worn toe of his Reebok. “So what’re you doing about it?” he asks.
“Whatever I do, it’s gotta be good, you know?”
Justin pulls his red Stratocaster off its stand and picks at its lifeless strings; without his dad’s amp, they ping like rubber bands. Dave recognizes the opening chords of “Crazy Train.”
“I bet you could distract him and I could kick him in the nuts or something like that,” Dave offers.
“Nah, something worse than that.”
“Well, there’s this one time my dad told me about. This guy was at a bar running his mouth at him and they got into a fight. They both got kicked out of the bar, which ain’t no big deal, really. But when my dad’s walking back to his truck and the guy came up behind him and hit him in the head with something, knocked him clean out.”
“Wow,” Dave finds himself unconsciously exclaiming. The violence of Justin’s life has always fascinated him, right down to how Justin plays the guitar. He calls the instrument an “ax,” and can wield it like a mad Viking in between riffs.
“So my dad wakes up in the damn hospital, and he figures that he’s gonna get him back, but with something worse than a beating, you know? So my dad goes to this other bar the guy hangs out at and he finds his truck, an’ when nobody’s looking, he smashes this other guy’s Ford in with a splitting maul—you know what that is, right?—so he just completely tears this other guy’s truck up, I mean really bad. And since no one was there, he didn’t get caught or nothing. It was sweet. Said it was the most fun he’d had in a long time, just beating the hell outta that truck.”
Dave agrees with him and laughs, says, “So what’re we gonna find like that of Ralph’s?”
Justin’s grin fades and leaves no trace of the shine it held earlier. “Well, I got an idea, but I can’t let you in on it. I don’t want you getting in trouble over it, okay?”
“Oh, c’mon, J, you can tell.”
“Serious man, I can’t. Don’t worry, the whole school’ll know.”
At lunch, Dave sits at the end of his pariah table. He twirls limp fries and watches the door for Justin. When someone does finally sit down in his friend’s place, it is Tommy Nutter—nerd, hall monitor, and office assistant. The type of boy who talks with teachers in the morning. He wears tube socks pulled up like a church girl’s knee-highs.
“Looks like you’re eating by yourself today,” Tommy says.
“Go to hell.”
“Fine. I was just going to tell you what your psycho friend did today.”
“You don’t know nothing,” Dave answers without believing it.
“So you know he beat up a girl?”
“He wouldn’t do that.”
“I guess Angela Little’s nose got busted by itself, huh?”
“You mean Ralph Watters’ girlfriend?”
“Yup. Might’ve broke her nose. They said there was blood everywhere and she was just crying and he kept hitting her. It happened in the bathroom. I bet you he did it while she was pissing. Anyways, he’s been expelled for the rest of the year.”
Dave takes the bus home to avoid Ralph. He runs from the stop to Justin’s house as fast as he can, leaps the stoop, and pounds the rattling screen door. From the living room he hears the floor creak. When he sees Justin’s mom, he has a hard time keeping himself from staring at her stomach; it protrudes from beneath her tiny shirt and the knotted navel bulges out, like the seed cone on a daisy.
“Can I come in and see Justin?” he asks, his eyes dropping to the crescent of skin between her shirt and pants.
“No, you can’t. He’s grounded.”
“Oh, okay. What for?”
She grunts. “Got in trouble at school. Now go on.”
She trudges away and when Dave is sure she isn’t looking he runs around to Justin’s open window. He is already waiting by it.
“Hey,” Dave whispers, “I heard you beat up Angela. Did you?”
“Yeah, I did. Only way I figured I could do it.”
“Did you do it while she was pissing?” he asks. .
“Nah, I waited for her to come out.”
“Damn, that’s still a pretty serious thing to do.”
Justin’s freckled fingers lace and relace themselves. “I know. Starting to wish I didn’t do it, though.”
“Yeah, Ralph’s gonna be looking for you.”
“It ain’t that. Momma says Dad’ll really whup me when he gets back home tonight. I mean real bad, because I got expelled from school.”
Dave is unnerved by the fear in his friend’s face. It makes him shift his eyes to Justin’s favorite poster, a glossy print of a bikini-clad blonde draped over a Corvette. “That’s bull. He don’t care about school.”
“Not like that. I ain’t gonna be in school, so there won’t be no one to ask questions about me tomorrow.”
It is a work night for Justin’s father; work nights are always followed by trips to the bar.
“Hey, we can run away. I can pack up some stuff and we can just jet.” Dave thinks of things they will need: sleeping bags, backpacks, food, flashlights. Knives so they can protect themselves.
“Nah, we’ll get found. Besides, we ain’t got no money or anything. You better leave now. And don’t tell nobody what happens, okay? You gotta promise.”
“Tell them I got roughed playing football or something. If anybody asks.”
It’s a lie they have used before.
Dave sits next to his bedroom window, face pressed to the dusty glass as if looking into the back of a dark aquarium. Headlights stab their way through the night, trace a torch-path back to a battered pick-up truck. It rumbles into Justin’s yard and disgorges a bearded man who staggers into the house.
Dave jerks open the window, jumps through it and runs across the street, keeping away from the lone streetlamp. He stumbles in a pothole, picks himself up without noticing the tear in his jeans, darts to the side of Justin’s house and pushes close to the wall. The brick rasps his skin and blood thumps in his ears. Something snaps and Dave freezes. Another snap and he realizes it’s Butkus biting at streaking fireflies.
When his breathing calms and his heart quits threatening to punch a hole through his thin ribcage, he hears the noises of Justin’s house: the whirring box fan above him, Justin’s clothes rustling as he paces the room, the nasal whine of Justin’s mother, the gruff voice of his father, not the words, but angry mumbling.
The father’s words grow louder, workboots pound against the hollow floorboards— they thunder like marching soldiers. The door to Justin’s room squeals open and hits the wall, the crash of brass door handle against cheap veneer announcing the man and his profane roar. Something falls, and through the yelling and screaming Dave imagines he can smell liquor on the father’s breath.
Dave feigns sickness in the morning; his mother doesn’t question him. He stays in his room and watches Justin’s house from his window. It is a long wait and his mind wanders. At one point he looks at the paintings scotch-taped along the walls of his room. The small sheets of rough paper are paint-by-numbers art, the patterns filled in by Dave shortly after he watched Justin’s mother sketching in the front yard.
She said she had been an art student at a community college, a statement that sparked Dave’s imagination. He imagined getting a degree and then drawing and painting for a living. Then he found out he couldn’t draw as well as she could, so he bought a paint-by-numbers kit at Wal-Mart. He spent an entire weekend filling in the woodland scenes with a nylon brush and thick acrylic paints that came in little plastic vials, following the blue lines and numbers as closely as he could. He botched the paintings, though, layered on the paint too thick as he tried to compensate for mistakes, and gave up on art as a profession.
Around noon Justin’s father steps into the sun and sits on the stoop. He’s tall and tanned, wearing nothing but stained overalls and a black Harley Davidson cap that sprouts rusty hair from its edges. He carries a cigarette in his mouth, a brown bottle in his hand that he drinks from. Butkus follows him and sits beside his owner. Dave summons up his courage and leaves the house.
He walks across the street, as normal in appearance as he can manage, approaches the man as he smokes. “Excuse me, sir,” he says, “but can I see Justin for a minute?” Seconds pass as Dave waits for a response, not knowing what to expect because he only knows the man from his deeds.
He looks up and speaks, his crooked teeth almost hidden by his beard. “Ain’t you supposed to be in school?”
“My momma said I should stay home today. She thinks I’m sick or something.”
“Oh. Well first off, you don’t have to call me ‘sir.’ Bob’ll do just fine. Far as Justin goes, he’s sick, too. Don’t matter for him none, since he got kicked out of school. He’s grounded for that, so I don’t think you’ll be seeing him for a while.”
“I see. Well, thanks.”
Bob waves him off and Dave forces himself to walk back to his house. Hours pass—maybe days or weeks—before Bob fires up his noisy pickup and leaves. When the truck disappears around a bend in the road, Dave is already at Justin’s window. His friend sits on the floor, wearing only shorts. Even through the still fan, Dave can see that his body is covered in welts and bruises.
“Dave?” he asks meekly.
“Yeah, it’s me.”
“I knew he’d hit me, but I didn’t think he’d take a stick to me. It hurt real bad.”
Dave doesn’t know what to say; anger and fear stir in his mind, not sentences. “I’ll bet,” he says when he realizes he isn’t speaking. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
“Yeah, hang on a sec.” Justin pushes himself up from the floor like an old man and pulls a shirt from the pile of clothes in the corner of his room. He dresses and climbs through his open window. It’s a short drop to the ground, though he still falls. He rocks and squints his eyes for a few minutes. Dave doesn’t help him stand because he doesn’t know of a safe place to touch.
“Do you got any antifreeze at your place?” he asks after pulling himself up.
“Don’t think so.”
Justin nods and walks to the outer basement door. Together, they edge down the stairs, push open the door as gently as they can. They pick through the old buckets and the dusty tools, though they can’t find any.
“Oh well,” Justin says as he grabs a shovel and a length of frayed rope, “this’ll do.” Despite the bruises and puffed skin, he looks detached, like his feelings were beat out of him.
They walk back up, to Butkus’s pen, where he sleeps in the shade of their house. His ears perk at their approach, the tail wags. Justin opens the screeching gate and both boys stop, knowing for sure his mother heard. Nothing happens so Justin ties the rope around the dog’s collar and leads him from the house to the trees. Bees loop about the honeysuckle that separates yard from woods and Butkus follows them with his wet nose.
“What’re you doing?” Dave asks when they are shielded from the house by the cover of deep foliage.
“I’m gonna kill his dog,” Justin answers plainly.
Dave feels sick to his stomach. “Wait, you can’t do that. He didn’t do nothing to you. Besides, he’s your dog too, right?” He notices Butkus watching and has to look away.
“I got to.”
They lead the dog to the rusted chassis of an old Volkswagen Beetle that had been left in the trees years ago; vines drape across empty spaces that once held doors and hoods, and gritty rust consumes the remaining paint. Justin ties the free end of the rope to the steering wheel, takes a few steps back from the dog and raises the shovel above him, like an ax, except that the flat side is down.
“Hang on, man, there’s got to be a better way.”
“No this is it. You can help, or you can leave. Whatever.”
“Shit, it ain’t like he even cares about it that much, right?” It doesn’t make sense; Bob owns guitars and amps that are worth more to him than the old dog. “You want to get him back, find something that’s valuable, you know?”
“And have him kick my ass again? Look, just shut up and help. Or leave. I can do this myself.” Silence lingers with the scent of the honeysuckle.
“Okay, just hang on a sec.” Dave pulls off his white undershirt and wraps it around the dog’s head. Butkus cocks his head as if he isn’t sure if he should expect punishment or some sort of surprise from the strange ordeal. Dave thinks of apologizing to the dog, of saying something like, “I’m sorry, buddy, but it’s nothing personal,” though Justin brings the shovel down as soon as Dave’s hands are clear.
Beneath the clang of metal against bone the dog lets out a brief sigh. His front legs give way partially and the head droops. The shovel’s spade leaves a dark print on the shirt. Justin swings it again. The front legs collapse completely. The back legs still stand, his haunches in the air. If the bloody wrap of shirt were absent, he would look ready to pounce.
Another swing and Justin stops, though not because Butkus is dead; they both can hear his ragged breathing, a shallow, asthmatic sound. The boys are crying. The shovel drops to the ground and crunches against dead leaves.
“I can’t do it,” Justin says. He falls beside the shovel and puts his face into the dirt. When he looks up, soil and small sticks hang from his face.
Dave forces himself to stop crying. Tiny snorts come out instead of tears. He grabs the shovel and strikes the dog. He swings until the back legs fall and the pathetic breathing stops. The boys cry more before taking turns digging a hole within the Beetle’s chassis, where the front seats used to be. They lift the body up, careful not to peel back the t-shirt; the blood running from it is sign enough of the damage beneath. Butkus is placed in the hole, the dirt thrown back onto him and pressed flat with their shoes. A handful of spread leaves blends the hasty grave into the woods around it. As they walk back, Dave, his bare chest trembling, glances at his hands, reddened as if he has crushed raspberries in his palms.
It is the last time Dave sees Justin; in a few days the family will pack and move away without warning. One of the men who sleeps with his mother will say Bob left because a neighbor threatened to call the police the morning after Justin was beaten.
“Or at least that’s what I’ve heard,” will be the mechanic’s final comment on the matter.
Even as years separate Dave from the burial, he visits the grave. He binds two small sticks into a cross for a marker; the black shoelace knot loosens over time, leaving a single twig marking the grave. He spends slow afternoons by the rusted hulk, talking to Butkus’s ghost, as well as the ghost of his friend. Sometimes he wonders if his inexperienced hand missed a faint throb of life in the dog, and if Butkus could’ve been hidden and nursed back to health. Other times he wonders if Justin still cries over their act, and if Bob even noticed the dog’s absence. Later, he wonders if Justin ever believed that his father would miss the mutt, and if maybe Butkus died for other reasons.
When it eats him up enough, he brings Maria to the grave, tells her of his heavy secret; she forgives him for the deed. Later, he isn’t surprised to realize that it was one of their last moments together, a few minutes in the woods mere days before she leaves him.
Eventually, he also moves away. It’s the week before his father is released from jail. They move to North Carolina, where his mother claims to have family and a promised job. During the long drive he stares from the window, his arms crossed over a cardboard tomato box on his lap.
He thinks of Justin, mixes memories of him with fictions. For hours he imagines himself as an adult in New Orleans, or someplace else Justin was fond of talking about. He passes a guitar shop and by chance looks through the front window, past the Fenders and Gibsons, sees a thick man behind the counter with a familiar shock of reddish hair. Dave enters the little store and is immediately recognized by his friend from years past. They talk about lost time, about missing each other’s lives, about not repeating mistakes; Justin even produces a wallet, flips it open to show pictures of his smiling boys. The fantasy comforts Dave.