by Jay Lankau
When Robin was in fifth grade, he was still small for his age. Though most boys he hung out with were still short, he was more so. He couldn’t quite remember that his brother had been the same way, so he listened to his mother when she told him how to get taller. All summer long before he started school that year, he drank Ensure, a chalky drink he was certain was meant for old people like his grandma. It’ll help you grow, his mother said in an exasperated tone one day as she threw an open can of wet food into the yard for the cats to fight over.
Thinking he would quickly become the biggest, strongest kid in the fifth grade, he continued drinking it until Lucas told him they made him drink it as a kid, too. Robin remembered that Lucas hadn’t hit his growth spurt until seventh grade, and it had nothing to do with Ensure. It was around this time that Robin stopped drinking it.
When Lucas and Robin had been at the same school, they spent a lot of time together. They could talk about the same kids, the same teachers, and came home at the same time. But when Lucas moved on to seventh grade , he started doing things on his own. It wasn’t that he didn’t like Robin. He just had started to hate spending so much time at home.
Robin asked why he hated home so much, but Lucas found it hard to talk about. Being home just grated on his nerves, he said. All day the patio door opened and closed every time Mama wanted to smoke a cigarette. She would check Lucas’ pockets sometime to make sure he wasn’t nabbing any of hers. She made it very clear that Lucas had to wait until he turned 14 to smoke. Then when Papa came home, he just sat on the porch and drank Modelos with Uncle Pat. Papa said Modelos were the only beer worth drinking, that anything else “might as well be piss.” Robin didn’t understand these things so Lucas had never tried to explain it.
It was three in the afternoon on Saturday in August when Robin tried to ask him about it. The two of them were sitting in the grass by the edge of the street with bright colored popsicles in plastic wrappers, licking around their fingers to not spill the sticky drops onto the hot asphalt. In the yard, the dog chased the boys’ cousins around while the adults sat around the glass table on the patio smoking Marlboros and making bets on whether or not the mayor’s new wife would be at the Labor Day parade.
“I don’t know what a Labor Day parade looks like,” Robin said, squeezing the plastic pouch and drinking what was left of the syrup from the popsicle. “We never go.”
“Mama can’t be standing around in the heat for that long.”
“Yeah. At least we don’t have school. Does the parade have bands and floats and stuff?”
“I don’t think so. Do you know what Labor Day is for?”
Robin was quiet for a second.
“No, not really.”
“Yeah,” Lucas folded the plastic from the popsicle into little squares and used the edge to dig dirt from underneath his nails. “There’s a lot of things you don’t know.”
In the distance, their uncle laughed so hard at something he started coughing, and one of their cousins screamed as her sister ran towards her with a green anole in her hand. The dog barreled towards them and started licking the syrup on their hands as they yelled at it to get off.
It wasn’t until the next weekend that it got bad again.
Robin always thought that Papa was good at being a dad. He did things dads were supposed to do. He had a job and went to work, sometimes extra if Mama couldn’t get up in the morning. These days, Robin always had to stay home to help her. Just in case. He was only ten but he’d gotten very good at saying the words rheumatoid arthritis.
Papa looked after everybody. He could fix things, like if the washing machine broke or if a fox dug under the fence or if a tire on the truck went flat. What else were dads supposed to do? During the season, Papa would even bring bucks back from hunting and let them all take pictures before it went to be turned into jerky. But he yelled sometimes. A lot of the time. One time he took Lucas’ door off the hinges because he kept slamming it. The hinges broke right off and Lucas never got his door back.
It was one of those days. Robin hadn’t heard what set Papa off, but he heard Lucas slam the screen door to the garage, and hurried after him.
“You’re not coming with me.” Lucas pulled the keys to the four-wheeler out of his pocket. Robin sat on the step and hurried to put his shoes on.
“I ain’t got nothing else to do.”
Lucas stood there for a second with his hands stuffed into his pockets. He let out a sound. “Don’t forget the helmet.”
Robin grabbed his helmet while Lucas grabbed a hold of the BB gun. Lucas put the gun in his lap and pulled out around the fence. It was mostly red clay beyond their yard, with tall grass growing sparsely upon mounds that had been moved aside for neighborhood development. It never did get developed. They rode through the hills until it gave way to the woods.
At the edge of the trees, an old treehouse was perched above the creek.
“Come on,” he said. They moved a big log over from the dirt and crossed the creek.
Lucas threw the BB gun up to the treehouse and began climbing up. Robin followed after him.
“What are we doing out here?”
“Don’t know,” Lucas said, leaning over the wood, looking into the trees through the gun’s sights. Robin sat down, running his fingers over the divots and swirls in the wood.
“Is this where you go?” Robin asked. “I mean, when you leave. After school. You’re never home.”
“Maybe. Does it matter?”
The BB gun popped and Robin got up to look at his brother.
“What did you hit?”
“I don’t know,” Lucas said, looking into the clearing. A little mound parted the grass.
The two boys headed down the makeshift ladder and into the grass, where a squirrel’s body lay in the damp green. Robin stared at it while Lucas looked over, still clutching the BB gun.
The small animal was lying on its side, heaving rapidly. The white stripe down its fur had been masked with the blood from the wound on the side of its chest. The BB hadn’t killed it. The two boys were quiet as they stared at the animal. Robin had stood for pictures with Papa alongside dead deer before, but this wasn’t like that. He knew other boys in his class who went hunting and shot animals, but he and Lucas had never been. Instead, Robin’s heart ached something awful in his chest.
“It’s not dead,” Robin’s voice wavered and he regretted opening his mouth. He looked at Lucas, whose jaw was clenched tight. Robin looked back down at the squirrel. “What do we do with it?”
Lucas was holding the BB gun close like someone might try to take it away from him. “I don’t know.”
“Are we going to tell Papa?”
“No.” Lucas turned and glared at him, but there was more fear in his eyes than anger. “We’re not going to tell Papa. Or Mama.” It was quiet between them again. “Let’s just go.”
Lucas started walking back towards where the four-wheeler was parked in the dirt.
“So we’re just going to leave it?” Robin said. He felt something hard and round in his throat and knew he was trying not to cry.
“We can’t do anything about it. Maybe it’ll get up and leave and be fine, okay.”
The two of them got back onto the four-wheeler and drove home. Papa wasn’t there for dinner. Lucas helped Mama cook and Robin set and cleared the table. They ate quietly together while the cats yowled in the blue shadows of the yard.
In the morning, Mama was too sore to get out of bed for church.
“Where’s Papa?” Robin asked her after he started her bath.
She sat on the edge of her bed and stared down at her hands.
“He’s taking a break right now.”
“I don’t know, Robin.”
Robin pulled his brother back onto the four-wheeler. In their Sunday dress, they drove it over the hills and towards the woods. Their nice shoes stepped along the log carefully, bringing them safely to the other side of the creek before landing in the red clay of the bank. The two of them found their way back to the grassy clearing. A few feet from where it originally landed, the injured squirrel lay crumpled like trash. Lucas leaned over with his hands on his knees and looked closer at it while Robin kept behind him.
“It’s still alive.”
Robin’s eyes stung.
They’d left it there to rot overnight. Not even a bird or fox had come and gotten it. There was something amazing in the fact that it had managed to live. But it was just a squirrel, there was nothing it could do.
By the creek, they looked for a good one. Lucas had trouble carrying it over but at least that meant it would work well.
“Just stand back there, okay?” Lucas gestured with a tilt of his head, the edge of the rock scraping against his tie.
Robin stepped away and chewed on his tongue.
His brother hauled it above his head before smashing the squirrel. It made a horrible crunch. Robin wanted to forget about the sound immediately.
They walked back to the four-wheeler and drove home. Lucas began to wipe his eyes, and Robin cried before hiding it in the sleeve of his jacket. He didn’t know who it was for. They looked at each other before returning inside.
Lucas poured cereal for them. They ate quietly in each other’s presence for a moment. Then, Lucas picked up his bowl of cereal, got up, and walked out of the kitchen with it.
Robin finished his breakfast in quiet, accompanied solely by the sound his spoon made against the bowl.
Image: Photo by Dan Smedley on Unsplash