It wasn’t long ago the boys used to creep through town night and day looking for god knows what. When they brought trouble back I gave them more to swallow.
Back then, they used to fall to the floor crying, drooling, curled up. It always seemed they wouldn't amount to much, so they gave me no choice but to raise them rough.
I watched them get tossed from a truck.
I watched them fall from a top branch.
I watched them near-drown in a mud pool.
I kicked them in the ditch.
I touched their shaking bodies.
I ran my hands through their hair.
I said do you like the taste of dirt.
I filled my own mouth up.
They couldn't tell the difference between strays. Even lit one neighbor’s cat aflame. They burned the back wall of the chicken coop. With animals they had no touch.
Dumb kid stuff some say, but with everything else unfolding, I didn't need much.
When they came home with arms broke, or skin ripped open, I said I told you so. I let them feel it. I said you’re lucky he’s not here anymore. Then I’d point.
I’d stay looking at them. I’d watch their faces change.
He sat in a chair staring at stains in the wall. I can’t remember the days he wasn't fixed in a trance, looking off toward anywhere but here.
His eyes never seemed to lock with mine. Body fat and bloated, mind melted to mush. I used to get sad about it but I know I did my part. After awhile I let him be.
He turned pale as a clean sheet.
He even slept with eyes wide open. Looked as if touched by his own ghost. And a god-awful stench rose from his skin. I got used to it, but stopped letting the boys come up from the basement, at least not for long.
The day had seemed normal.
His appetite was still down, and only getting worse as the days progressed, so I shoved as much food into his mouth as I could fit. He had turned slightly whiter, but other than that nothing unusual was out of place. After we ate I lit the candles to cleanse the room. The room smelled the same. I opened the window and smoked. I stared at the same constellations. The sky was clear and bright. I drifted into a tranquil state, fought the weight of my lids. I nearly dozed off till I dropped hot ash on my thigh. I went to grab ahold his hand out of habit but couldn't find it. I turned my whole body around to look. His chair was empty. No lines in the cushions, bumps or outlines that showed a trace of recent inhabitance. I thought he’d at least leave a dent.
I don’t remember much of what happened after. I know I checked in on the boys, then everything blurs. They were in their cage. They were shivering a little, rocking slowly back and forth, quiet as can be. I noticed the cage needed cleaning. Their limbs interlocked. Bodies pressed close. I did not want to disturb them, did not want to wreck their sleep to tell them their dad had disappeared.
I went back up to look, but my last vision is of the boys, the next is a blank.
When I awoke my head hurt, ears were filled with blood, everything was out of place. Some of the lightbulbs did not work. Some had shattered. The fan in the kitchen was unresponsive. The smoke detector, with its piercing, incessant pulse would not turn off until I ripped it from the wall, stomped it to bits. My notepaper, where I keep the lists and chart for the boys, turned from yellow to a pale blue. My handwriting was not my handwriting. The mop was not in the kitchen anymore. It was in the closet. My ears would not stop bleeding. They scabbed over quick, hardening in a matter of seconds before flowing down my neck in lumps.
I made a list of places to look:
closet in bedroom
cabinet below bathroom sink
cabinet below kitchen sink
closet in hallway off kitchen
below stairwell in basement
under wheelbarrow in back shed
tree in backyard
tree in neighbor’s front yard
all trees in other neighbor’s front and back yards
both neighbor’s houses
both neighbor’s basements
both neighbor’s bathrooms
both neighbor’s trucks
ditch at dead end of street
river beyond ditch
trees along river
big rock on other side of river
field on other side of big rock
road on route to town
bar in town
bathroom in bar
bartender’s house in next town
basement in bartender’s house
gas station beyond bartender’s house
gas station bathroom
gas station back shed
woods behind gas station
graveyard beyond woods
river beyond graveyard
rocks along river
bottom of river
water in river
back to ditch
Sometimes it’s the noise from his mouth. Sometimes the noise is from his throat. The noise low or the noise high. The low noise comes from his throat and the high noise comes from his mouth. Sometimes the noises switch. Or maybe it’s the mouth and throat that do the switching. It sounds like a noise stuck somewhere in between. This is the least favorite noise of all. Everyone agrees. Then everyone tells me do your job. Voices seep through the dirt. There is nothing else to say. I take nothing and I go. The steps creak. The air reeks and I swallow too much. The noise increases. I cannot tell if it is getting louder or picking up speed. I light a match to see. Pitch black. The match drops and burns out landing in dirt. It takes three matches to find the lantern. When I find the lantern I light it. Light fills the corner of the basement. I place the lantern on the stone where the wall goes in. All up and down the wall juts in and out. It seems both solid yet about to collapse. Dust floats slow motion through the lantern light. Dirt drops through in the cracks. I place my hands palm-up on the cage. His face and neck redden. He digs into dirt with his feet. There is more spit than is usual swinging from his chin. It is thick like tar. The chain is too tight. He cannot quite reach. He keeps reaching. This is when I reach into the cage. He opens up a toothless mouth. His breath not hot or cold. I do not move my hand. He hacks and slips on leaks. The chain tightens. He climbs back slowly to his feet. The chain rings. I wait for him to come closer. He always comes closer. I say my brother’s name.
She starts on roof. Climbs ladder. On roof cannot see far. Roof is flat. Land is flat. She sees trees, dirt, rock, river, neighbor houses, trucks, doghouse, chicken coop, back shed, ditch, dead end. She does not see anything beyond river, road, field, town, bar, gas station, houses on other streets, woods in other towns, graveyards, people. Nothing much on roof. Sticks, leaves, squirrel. Gun. She picks up stick. Pokes squirrel with it. Stiff. She covers squirrel with leaves. Lifts stick above shoulder. Aims stick at squirrel. She drives stick down through squirrel. Moves stick and squirrel to gutter. Covers squirrel with leaves. She leaves the stick sticking out. Picks up gun. Walks to edge of roof. Looks ahead at river. She tosses gun to dirt. Closes eyes. She breathes in. Eyes open. Breathes out. Jumps off roof.
Nothing in the bedroom. I looked in corners, closet, below bed, mattress, beneath sheets, pillows, even ran my hands along the ceiling to feel around. I can’t remember the last time we shared a bed. The room is eight by ten. I spent the night to make sure he wasn’t there. Didn't hear a thing but the boys in the basement. They sounded fine. Sooner or later I figured they’d feel the lack. No boy deserves that. I waited for the sun before setting out. Every ounce of me said he wasn’t in the house but I knew he wasn’t far either. He couldn't be. I gave the kitchen a thorough search. Cabinets, sink, bathroom. Everything empty. When I went down to the basement the boys had gone silent sleeping. I couldn't even hear breathing. I checked the chains to make sure they were tight. I dragged them to a fresh spot in the dirt. I told them be good, I’ll be back soon. I glanced under the stairwell. I reached down to grab the lantern. I looked back at those boys.
Silence. I crawl against the cold wet wall to unfold. There are sharp points of stone, bits of gravel, moist dirt sticking to skin. Brother sleeps. Something scrapes against my throat. I stick a finger in but it’s too deep. I hack out this black fluid that smacks on my stomach. I do not recall when the light began blinking. I do remember the back of an old woman walking up the steps. I am not leaning into the wall, I am on my back. The floor is tightly-packed with dirt and broken glass. Footsteps creak on floorboards sinking. Voices mutter to each other from which direction it’s unclear. Dust and dirt spill down my face. I can’t shake the taste from my mouth.
In the back yard nothing but grass that is dead. In the back shed nothing but birds that are dead too. Beneath the wheelbarrow more dead birds. In the truck nothing but dead matches. Truck bed nothing dead. In the doghouse there is dog shit. In the chicken coop a dog that is dead. In the backyard tree nothing but dead leaves. Neighbor’s front yard a dead tree. Other neighbor’s back yard a dead neighbor. Other neighbor’s front yard a dead neighbor’s dead daughter. In the other neighbor’s house nothing but dead space. In the dead neighbor’s house it is dead quiet. In the other neighbor’s basement dead rats. In the dead neighbor’s basement deadbolts. The other neighbor’s bathroom floods. In the dead neighbor’s bathroom there is mud. In both neighbor’s driveways dead trucks. In both trucks dead weight. On way to ditch nothing but dirt.
I jumped off the roof and landed on grass. I wiped the blood off my elbow and shook the impact from my bones. I grabbed the gun with my hand. I looked both ways down the dirt road. Nothing much for miles but I saw in the distance my destination through the leaves and branches and bark to the river carved by the shapes of the trees. I thought of things I’d found in the past. I kept my eyes peeled and walked. The poor dead neighbor’s dead daughter lay soaking in the heat. She was dried up and distending, didn't hardly move when I gave a kick to the ribs. She never spoke much. I got to the ditch and slid my body down it. I picked up a rock. I threw the rock at the river. The rock ricocheted off a tree and did not hit the water. It bounced off another rock and made a cracking sound then landed back on the ground. I walked toward it crunching through dead leaves and eyed the stillness of the river.
I wake to the sound of scraping. It does not take long for the scraping to stop. The silence does not last long either. It’s replaced with a low hum. It’s hard to tell, I soon realize, if the hum has always been there, or if it was at first, to my ears, covered up by earlier sounds of scraping. It seems the low hum could have always been there. The source of the hum is unclear. I cannot tell if the hum comes from the dirt, or somewhere in my bones. I can never quite catch hold. I try with all the strength in my hands to latch on though it avoids my grip. The source must be a body of its own. If brother were here he would help. If only the lights would turn on. I forget about the hum, and I wonder how the scraping stopped.
As soon as I broke through the trees the sky opened up. Clouds swallowed by sun. I watched bodies float along the river. They moved slow but straight, nodded their heads on the way by. I stepped out into the clearing, felt the jagged rocks through my boots. The heat hit my face. I couldn't get too close without sinking into mud. I eyed the big rock on the river’s other side. The field behind glistened in the light. I set down in a dry patch. I could see just enough of the road on the other side to know no cars were in it. I walked along the river before slogging through. Maybe the boat was a sign. I thought of the boys. I thought wouldn’t it be nice to bring them home something good. I’d tiptoe down to the basement so as not to wake them. I’d rest my hand on their shoulders, give them each a gentle shake. I’d whisper in their ears what they’ve been waiting to hear. They’d start to say something and say I know. I’d reach out a hand. One then the other. I’d drag them up the steps. Their bodies would slide along old wood, legs stiff from sleep, and the moment when we bust through the basement door, we’d see a beam of light through the window, settling on the chair, and he’d be there like he never left.