Clay County, Illinois
April 4, 2017
My whistling dies on my tongue the second a familiar scream rips through the trees. It comes again before I’ve extricated myself from the briars of the Ghost Woods’ treeline, and dropping my school library copy of Of Mice and Men and a ziplock baggie of foraged morels, I book it across my family’s property.
Rounding our saltbox home and the barn we don’t have the equipment to rip down, I follow the hoarse shouts of god fucking damn it, boy, to find, behind our barn, my little brother Socks hunched over, hands clapped at his temples, cheeks redder than his wool hat. Snot slicks his chin. At his feet is our mom’s Remington 870, which never leaves her side; once, she set it off in her sleep—blew a crater through her headboard and wall. Two feet to the left, I’d wished when it happened. Just two feet to the fucking left.
Our mom is whaling on Socks. She punches him so hard upside the head that Socks hits the ground and comes up with a mouthful of leaf mush. There’s a wet patch down the right side of his jeans where he’s pissed himself.
“Stop!” I holler at Mom.
As Socks gets back to his feet, I weasel between him and her, take on the brunt of our mom’s wild stare. I’ve always thought our mother looks cobbled together from leftover parts—ears jutting out from her greasy hair, only an inch between her mouth and the bottom of her chin, a fat belly sticking past her duck canvas jacket and hanging down her thighs.
Too much of her made it into us.
“Socks ain’t done nothing to you,” I keep on, then wave a hand at my brother’s Power Ranger action figure discarded in the leaves. “Let him go back to playing.”
“You babying him is exactly why he can’t pull a trigger,” Mom says, breath pungent with peppered beef jerky and Jim Beam. “Thought I raised a boy, but it looks like I got two little girls. Ain’t that right, Socks?”
Socks clings to the back of my jean jacket, rattling out a mucusy cough that ends in a sob, and over Mom’s shoulder, I see what’s unfolded in the time I spent dicking around the Ghost Woods. By its back legs, there’s a cottontail strung up against a stack of crates covered over with a blue tarpaulin. We spray-painted a bull’s-eye and a set of tits on the tarp years ago; both, now, are riddled with bullet holes.
The rabbit’s feet beat rapidly against the plastic, still, then beat again. It isn’t the first time our mom’s hoisted up an animal for us. Fox. Raccoon. Rabbit. Once, it was our hunting dog, Bud, hung from his lame front paw. We hopped off the school bus to it. Bud, yowling, tugging, wagging his tail at us with big eyes, excited, ignorant. We couldn’t stand it—sat inside, ticking up the volume of the TV notch by notch to drown out the gunshot we knew was coming.
I didn’t sleep that night. Let Socks curl up in my bed. In the morning, our mom dragged a strip of bacon through leftover syrup on her plate with a cranky, You gotta cut ’em loose when they’re lame, or they drag you down. It’s a fiction she tells herself, that she’s never lost a thing she didn’t mean to. Ask her, she told our deadbeat dopehead dad to hit the door. Ask anyone else, she had fuck-all to do with it.
Mom crouches to address Socks, who’s still hiding behind me: “Look at me. In the eyes. Listen: one of these days, your sister’s gonna get tired of picking your face outta the dirt. Gonna expect you to grow some balls, ’cause you’re the man of the house.” Our mom guides me out of the way, snags Socks by the back of his jean jacket, and hauls him forward. Crams the shotgun in his hands. “You shoot that rabbit and stop crying, or I swear, I’ll give you something to cry about. You gotta man up.”
Socks trembles. He’s a mess—soaked with piss, snot bubbling down his lips. When he fumbles the shotgun, he gets a hard clap over the ear for it and hiccups a sob. When Mom raises her hand again, I bulldoze her. She lands on her ass in the leaves.
“You touch him again, so help me, Mom.”
“So help you?” She laughs.
“Yeah. You act tough, but you ain’t gone after me since I turned thirteen and figured out how to hit back. You go after Socks ’cause he’s small, and you’re fucking pathetic. Just a weak drunk who ruins everything in her life and blames it on everybody el—”
The fist I get to the teeth knocks every thought out of my head. Next thing I know, the ground’s wet against my cheek and my eyes are level with Mom’s steel-toed boots. My mouth floods with blood, and the aftertaste of chewing tobacco and a kick to the ribs rocket air out of my throat. I curl into a shell as my mom’s drunken fists come down on me, catching my ear, the ball of my shoulder, my temple. I can feel every ring she’s wearing. Can hear them clack together.
“Am I weak now?” my mom yells. “Huh? Am I fucking weak now?”
Memories of past beatings resurface, overlap with this one. It’s like popped stitches, an old wound retorn into the bright pain of something new. Each blow to the head shakes something loose in me, has my jaw clenching, nose drawing up. When everything stops and my right ear rings steadily from the beating, I cough, then struggle onto my hands and knees. Socks doesn’t help me, just stands there, crying, loud and obnoxious, pissing Mom off, pissing me off. Blood drips into my eye.
“Chickenshit,” Mom spits at me, then turns, staggers toward our house, but my skull is full of hornets, my veins full of brimstone, and so I lever myself to my feet and rip the shotgun from Socks. Lifting it high to my shoulder, I rack the gun once, blow my mother’s head away, pump it a second time, splatter the cottontail across the tarpaulin.
Whirling on Socks, whose mouth is hanging open like its hinge is broken, I jam the shotgun against his chest. He falls.
“Next time,” I say, “just shoot the goddamn rabbit.”
I throw up in the dirt. My mom’s head is ragged meat, split open like a tulip, everything peeled-back wet flaps and blood and bone and dripping mush. The back of her throat is visible, a watering hole of blood.
Socks is crying.
“Why did you do that? Why did you do that? You’re so stupid.” He’s clutching the shotgun, which is a foot shorter than him and won’t come anywhere near our mom. Or maybe it’s that he won’t come anywhere near me.
“Shut up,” I say.
I ruffle my hands through my hair. Squeeze handfuls of it until it hurts.
I can’t call the cops. This wasn’t an accident or self-defense, and if I end up in the back of a squad car, where does that leave Socks? In foster care? In the hands of our mom’s family? Last month, Uncle Ken punched his girlfriend square in the face for sleeping around for rent money, and Aunt Wendy got raided by the police for pot. I can’t leave Socks with either of them. I can’t leave Socks, period.
I bounce up and spit out the chunks of vomit hanging around my teeth. We’ll have to do with Mom what Mom did with Bud: an unmarked grave in the Ghost Woods.
“Be my lookout for a sec. Like when we steal from the gas station,” I order Socks. “If somebody comes—I don’t know—shoot ’em.”
I stomp over to him, grab the shotgun by its barrel, and jerk it away, then drill the stock into his shoulder until he takes it back properly.
“You reload this while I’m gone, and you shoot anyone who comes behind this barn. I don’t care if it’s a cop. I don’t care if it’s a neighbor. You do it.”
Socks scowls at me but keeps the gun aloft once I let go.
On the west side of our house are cellar doors with a cheap combination lock: 10-18-83. Our mom’s birthday. My heart knells when I dial it in, when I think about Mom, how she woke up this morning and drank a cup of coffee—how she was a person and, with the pull of one trigger, I took her birthday, her face, her voice, exposed the hands which raised me for the simple meat they always were.
I pull the clunky chain free, flop open the cellar doors, and descend into darkness and heavy damp. Against a wall of the dirt cellar, next to a tower of five-gallon buckets and a fat bedroom vanity, are two shovels, one tall and in good shape, the other with half a handle and a shaft that’s duct-taped to its blade. I retrieve both and make quick work of jogging up the stairs.
Recircling the house, I find Socks dragging the barrel of our Remington through leaves, drawing shapes in the dirt. He isn’t watching the perimeter and doesn’t have a finger anywhere near the trigger: both his hands are gripping the stock of the shotgun.
He jumps when I yell, “Could you take this seriously for five minutes, Socks? I gave you one job.”
He scrunches his face. “I don’t wanna be here!”
“So you want me to go to jail? Is that it?”
“I don’t care!”
“You should! I did this for you, you shithead!”
If Socks had sucked up his tears for two seconds and obeyed Mom, we wouldn’t be here, but he’s always screwing around, whining and yelling and sticking crayons in house vents and throwing pop-its at windows and burning our food and jumping out of trees and breaking himself and everything else, and always, I’m forced to fix his fucking messes. Thanks to his latest tantrum, our mom is sprawled out with a head like ground hamburger, and my life is one nosy neighbor from being over, and Socks still has the audacity to goof off. Is it too much to ask he cares what anything ever costs me?
I move both shovels to a single hand to wrap my other around the Remington, over the bolt. I jerk the gun, but Socks doesn’t let go.
“Give it to me. Now.”
I wrench the gun and almost smack myself in the mouth when my brother’s fingers lose their hold.
“Don’t be a selfish asshole!” I snap, kicking leaves at my brother’s shins and tucking the gun under my arm.
“I hate you!”
I knock him down to the ground.
“Same! See if I ever do anything for you ever again!”
We lug our mom’s body into the Ghost Woods, Socks carrying her feet and tripping on underbrush in the mounting twilight; every twelve steps, he drops his half of the load to complain.
“Quit it!” I say, pulling Mom higher by her armpits. Her head, pressed against my stomach, soaks my shirt. Makes the fabric stick to my belly, makes my belly sickeningly warm. It’s something I never wanted to know: the temperature of the inside of my mom’s skull. “We gotta get her under before the flies come.”
“I wanna go home,” Socks whines.
The longer we walk, the harder our mom is to haul. My muscles burn, and hands slip, and Socks keeps letting go. Every time he does, it takes more effort for us to hoist the dead weight of Mom back up. By the end of it, we’re damn near dragging her through the underbrush, and I’m spitting every curse that comes to my mouth, half of them at my brother.
We stop at an elm tree with a patch of red-leafed poison ivy vining its trunk. Under our feet, the bedding of leaves is thick, but I toe into it and into the dirt beneath with my boot, finding it soft as I shake out the ache in my arms. I sprinted our shovels and shotgun out here before our hike—told Socks to stay put with Mom. Now, taking the better of the two shovels, I toss the other at Socks, then, with force, dig. Dirt gives way, but the work has me sweating in no time, has my guts spasming like I’m cold. I wipe perspiration off my forehead with my jean jacket sleeve and watch, across from me, Socks wielding the other shovel. His scoops are small and lazy, knocking more dirt into the grave we’re making than lifting it out, so I pitch a shovelful of dirt at his chest.
“Stop fucking around.”
We heave dirt until the grave is four feet deep and the sun is sloping through the grey-bark trees, the color of iodine. The forest smells like wet earth and blood, mycelium, and meat, as my brother and I struggle to roll Mom into her grave. Her body lands on its shoulder. I step down into the grave to try to shift her onto her back, gripping everything I can: the waist of her jeans, her shirt, her canvas jacket lapels. The teeth of zippers bite into my palms as I jerk against her weight, but when the ache in my forearms travels down to the bone, I have to give up.
I throw dirt over her ruined face first, once I’m topside. For every five shovelfuls I toss, Socks tosses one. It has me grinding my teeth, clutching the shaft of my shovel so tight I’m afraid I might swing it. When Socks pitches his next shovelful, the wall of the grave under his feet collapses, and he falls in. His shovel spears into the grave with a dull slice, and he winds up kneeling on Mom’s chest.
I jail an outright scream, lock my throat around the barbaric sound. Once it’s tamed, I order, “Get up, goddamn it. Now.”
Slowly, Socks gets to his knees, but freezes, then reaches for something. My vision whites out when he reveals a handful of our mother’s severed fingers.
“You—idiot. You dumb as shit fucking idiot! Get up here!”
Socks full-body flinches, eyes ducking. After he gathers his shovel, he crawls out of the grave, but the shovel slips from his shaking hands. The second he’s upright, I palm the nape of his neck, squeezing, and cram his head down toward his knees, holding it there. I’ve never been so angry. My body is taut with it, and Socks clawing at my wrist with his bitten nails makes it worse.
“Stop it!” he says. “Don’t touch me!”
I spike my shovel into the dirt and sling my brother to the ground.
“This is all your goddamn fault!” My pulse pounds in the shell of my right ear, my shoulder, my abused ribs, my temple, like my blood’s bursting from my skin, like my body’s turning itself inside out. I tear at my hair. “You never fucking listen, Socks! You always fuck around and do whatever you want!”
Socks launches a fistful of dirt at me as he stands.
“You’re the one who messed everything up!”
“I stick my neck out for you, every goddamn day, and you— Jesus Christ— You—”
“You’re the one who killed Mom!”
I throw a punch, which slams my little brother in his mouth. He hits the forest floor like a rag doll, and everything goes quiet. Seconds stretch out, and I stare at the blood shiny on his mouth, at his still body, splayed like a snow angel. My stomach shrivels up, and in a panic, I sink to my knees, touch Socks’ tennis shoes, his ankles, his baby-fat cheeks—baby-fat, because Socks is a little boy. The same little boy who clung to my jacket an hour ago, who hides in my bed, who splits snack cakes with me and rides shotgun when I steal the pickup for joyrides, who goes to bed with fresh bruises but still gets up to burn pots of SpongeBob mac-and-cheese on the stove at six a.m., because damned if anything is going to stop his childhood. He’s an eight-year-old, just trying to be an eight-year-old, and I’m a fucking monster.
I jostle Socks, and his eyes fly open right before he screams and tackles me like a linebacker. I tumble into the grave behind me, ass over teakettle, onto Mom’s body, my chin jammed into my chest, cutting off my air, my back folded in half, my knees at my ears. All my weight is on my head.
I get flopped the right way around, only to hear the slow rack of our Remington and locate, above me, Socks with our shotgun sighted at my chest. The stock is tucked under his armpit instead of pressed to his shoulder, but the barrel of the gun holds steady. Neither of us says a word.
The more we stare at each other, the more Socks’ mouth quivers—finally giving out like a tripwire and opening around a cry as he breaks into gasping tears. It’s ugly, blood dribbling down his shirt, snot snaking into his teeth. He coughs around his sobs, but when I reach for him, he flinches away. The shotgun snaps up to my head.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers, and he isn’t apologizing for what he’s doing. He’s apologizing for what he’s about to do, and it sends an ache through me, how much he loves me still with my knuckles cut from his teeth, how deeply he’s afraid of me even as he wants me to hold him. My brother’s finger journeys down to the trigger of the shotgun, and my breath spasms. Frantically, I feel out the wet grit of dirt at the grave’s lip, seek Socks’ tennis shoe, curl my fingertips between its laces and tongue.
“Socks,” I plead, and then there it is, the click of the trigger—such a small sound in the forest, and yet my heart yawns wide open.
Swiftly, the shotgun lowers, and in that span of silent, frozen seconds that follow, my brother and I gape at one another—gape until we’re both weeping and I’m scrambling out of the grave on hands and knees, pulling Socks bodily to me by his elbows and ribcage and the nape of his neck. Socks pulls me right back. I bury my apologies in his wool hat, and his words break against my shoulder in return like wind against a bough, and on the forest floor, we rattle apart, hold tight to nothing but each other as the day gutters around us and worms spring from the rot at our feet and the taste of blood steadily flees our mouths.