Indian summer and it never gets this hot in autumn. It’s a rare humid-heat that forces everyone to grab tubes, seek out the nearest river to laze on. You think: this is it. Get your gun. Trot to the vantage point; wait.
There is a hellafied itch on the topside edge of your ear and you want to scratch but for the concentration you have to bear, the stock of the .22 flat against your ribs, the sights trained on the free floating hand of your older brother, Anthony, adrift with his girl, Lavelle, on an inflatable alligator some twenty yards away in the wash of the Elkhorn. Lavelle with her meth-yellow fingernails rakes his back. She’s unafraid of the constellation of blackheads that cluster around his KC Royals logo on his left shoulder blade, the one done by a friend with India ink and a needle and looking more like the logo for RC Cola. KC is the bigger brother to the farm team Omaha Royals, but Anthony could never find it in him to root for the little one, local or not. The itch on your ear stems from the sound of a skeet like it’s gone inside and you imagine the long lancer of its nose or suck pushing down into your skin like the image Anthony put forth of him skewering Lavelle when they’re “in the throes,” as Mama used to say. Still, you maintain. Take a deep breath. Two. Three. Squeeze and hear the report crack and an as near scream as Anthony holds his hand high, blood all on it, and Lavelle lets go with a shrill one that echoes as they sink, the nose of the alligator up in the air and withering.
You are a plastic bag in the wind; you are carried on the currents. You tear so fast toward home that when you get there your legs, free to flay in shorts, are crosshatched in cuts and dense with dirt. Cockleburs hang like thorny poms from your socks. You didn’t see half the stuff you moved past, stiff-arming flyaway branches and high stepping through tufts of rye grass. The spot you chose as your vantage point is a twenty-minute walk from your home, but Anthony has a fast Jap car with one of those coffee can mufflers and you’ve only got the knock-kneed legs God gave. Also, Mama at this hour (any hour, really) is Keno watching, eyes steady on the numbers, and Papa is on the line at ConAgra. At home, you unload the .22 and dump the leftover ammo into a plastic baggie that you bury at the bottom of your hamper. The rifle is left upright at the back of the pantry.
There is no lock on your door, so you shoulder a dresser and lift a small plywood table to bar the way. You want for no chance in. You grab anything within arm’s distance and pitch it to the pile: soiled clothes, textbooks, mutant doll mash-ups, a half-smashed globe. You rest with your back up against the barricade and pull your knees in, wrap your arms around them crushing them close to your little no breasts. Thick as he is, Anthony will figure it out. Finger the culprit. He will try to shoulder his way in, screaming obscenities between each slamming of his body into the door, the door coming away from the jamb in bursts and allowing you a peek at his lips, spit dripping, his rant the rant of a madman. And then, sudden as the violence is that Anthony brought with him, a calm comes as quick.
Like that, the house is quiet as nothing. The dust bunnies you ruffled up from the moving of stuff sit thick and easy in the barer spots on your floor. The light is the red-orange of a flashlight held inside a mouth. You sneeze. You can only hear the blood pulsing in your ears; it drowns out all other sounds. You watch the half-crushed globe spill off from a pile of clothes and before the globe touches down you feel the crash of the door jerk you back and the world gets blurred and turned as you hear the snap of cheap wood split and see Anthony coming at you; coming through the door as if it was made of air, as if it never existed.
Anthony stands over you, his breath heavy, his whole body heaving. He is like an animal. The last time you ever got this close to something that wanted to kill you, you were five and a pit gone loose in the neighborhood came running at you from thirty yards away, the rough muscle moving smoothly, its jaws open and wanting for a taste of you. This feels just short of that.
His damaged hand is done up in a makeshift bandage—duct tape and towels. Bad done to his good hand. The one he used to throw tight spirals as the backup quarterback on the JV squad until he got kicked off because the third-stringer ratted him out for smoking weed; the one that, once he did get kicked off the team, he crafted the nails of on his thumb and pointer finger to be able to pinch roaches perfectly without burning himself pulling on the last dregs; the one that he’d grab you with and force you to sit on his lap, sometimes when he’d just be in his whisper-thin briefs; the one that, once that wasn’t enough, he forced inside of you. His other hand, his off hand, he uses to hit you.
When Mama sees the blood on the carpet, flecked against the walls, she’ll call out your names. Anthony. Jean. She’ll scream them. She won’t know what to think at first, seeing the door broken open, your body in a heap on your bedroom floor. Toys and globes and books a mess. Dried runnels of blood down your face. She’ll scream for Anthony again, but he’ll be long gone, having driven off with Lavelle, the last sound you heard from him the big coffee can scraping against the high slope of the driveway. Mama will be crying, thinking God knows what happened, and as she holds you to her, she’ll frantically dial Papa. Call him three times. Leave two voice messages. Bruises already blooming on your arms, shoulders, and face. She’ll say “baby, baby, baby,” like there’s a newborn in the room. She’ll pull you closer to her, and as she does, you try to get a word out, but your throat is choked from the past half hour of body-wracking sobs, and you screaming “stop, stop, stop,” as Anthony rained his fist down on you. Your eyelids are near swollen closed and purple. Your nose is probably broken across the bridge and you’re missing two teeth. Not adjacent. A front tooth and a lower molar. “What are you saying?” Mama will ask. You’ll spit blood onto her as you try to speak. Blood in your mouth; blood on her cheek. “Done,” you’ll say. “Done, done.”
Gene Kwak is from Omaha, Nebraska.