By J. Arthur Scott
Henry lay on his back with his eyes shut tight against the sun. His little brother, Lee, had socked him in the belly, and he was catching his wind as the grass walked up his arms and legs like insects. A neighbor was mowing her lawn a few houses down the way, and the noise separated into a whine and a rumble that chased each other over the fences and flowerbeds of the neighborhood. Henry tried sitting up and winced. Lee would have to pay for this.
“Hank,” Lee called.
Henry shook his head and stood up. A skateboard crashed down on the blacktop on the far side of the house. He considered ignoring his brother, but curiosity compelled him around front.
Lee lay on his stomach near his skateboard. At first Henry thought Lee had fallen, but then Lee turned up to Henry on one elbow and said, “These wasps are so big.”
Henry thought of the grass on his arms and shivered in the heat.
“They must live here,” Lee said. “They’re leaving me alone, but they just killed a caterpillar I think.”
“You shouldn’t mess with them,” Henry said. He stood over Lee with his arms crossed.
“Why? They’re cool,” Lee said. “Sorry for punching you so hard.”
“Not as sorry as you’re gonna be.”
“You sound like Dad.” Lee stood up. “Wanna go for a bike ride?”
Henry thought it over for a moment. “Fine,” he said, “but I have to grab mine out of the shed and tell Jen we’re going.”
Henry thought of ways to get back at Lee as he headed inside. He wished his father hadn’t taken away his rubber band gun. Henry knew where it was hidden—on top of the wardrobe in the master bedroom upstairs—but his father had stashed Henry’s rubber bands someplace else. If Henry hadn’t used up the last of his water balloons in a battle with the neighbor kids, he could have stowed one to throw at Lee on their ride and maybe even made him crash. But at least this way Henry wouldn’t have to fill a balloon; they always slipped off the faucet and soaked him. He had never been able to hit Lee dead-on. Not even once. The balloons small enough to throw never broke open, and the balloons big enough to explode always wobbled and bent in the air, glancing off Lee’s shoulder or ankle as he zigzagged away.
The screen door wheezed and clapped behind Henry as he entered the dark interior of the house. The windows were open, but Henry couldn’t feel any air moving between them. Jen was watching “Beverly Hills, 90210” in the basement family room where it was usually a few degrees cooler than the rest of the house. Instead of breaking the glow of the television to tell her their plans, Henry grabbed a string cheese from the kitchen and passed straight through the house to the rear patio doors.
The shed sat in the sun behind the garage, and Henry knew it was going to be hot like a car with its windows up before he even unlatched the door. He nearly choked on the odor of gasoline and crushed grass from the underbelly of the mower as he stepped inside to retrieve his bike from a tangle of yard tools. Then something stung him in the lower back. Henry jerked in pain, arching his body and swatting at the billow of his shirt. Another one found the top of his sock and got him on the calf. For a moment, Henry thought that Lee had sicced the wasps on him. Then he fell out of the shed in a clattering heap of bicycle, shovels, and rakes.
Again Henry found himself in the grass. His back and leg throbbed. He stood up stiffly, then lifted his bicycle and walked it around the house. Lee’s skateboard was beached on the grass between the sidewalk and the street, but Lee was gone. The stings were incessant, and his temper and frustration were finally too much. He started crying, wiping away the tears with the back of his hand. He thought about going to Jen, but if Lee found out, he would never stop teasing Henry. If their father were home, he would say, “Buck up.”
The seat on Henry’s bicycle was still bolted too high from the last time he had adjusted it, so he had to angle the frame to the ground to mount it and push off. Most grown-ups were still at work, and few cars passed Henry as he pedaled down the street. He cut behind the Vanden Boschs’ house through an empty lot filled with long dirt piles covered in crab grass that were shaped like the burial mounds Henry had learned about in school. On the next street over he jumped his bike off a few driveway corners and thought about revenge.
He could put pebbles in Lee’s shoes every morning, but Lee would catch on and just shake them out. He could rub Lee’s toothbrush on the toilet seat but that made Henry gag just thinking about it. What if Lee got sick for real? He could call Lee’s classmate, Cassie, and tell her that Lee kept a shoebox full of things he stole from her in his closet. That one would take, as their father said, “some nuts.” He could splash glitter in Lee’s drawers, but that was just asking to get grounded. Plus, he would need to find glitter. Maybe he could move Lee’s things a little bit each day—so little that Lee would think he was going crazy—or maybe only Henry cared about that sort of thing. Lee hated snakes, but Henry hated snakes too. No dice.
As the west end park came into view, Henry sensed his brother’s absence without having to look for him. He circled the entire block of the park to be sure and then stopped at the corner nearest home, leaning the bike so he could stand with one foot. The sight of the public restroom under the shelter at the center of the park made Henry recoil. His aunt had told a story at dinner once about a boy being stabbed forty times in a campground toilet. She saw it on the news. In Henry’s mind, it happened on the floor of one of the stalls, next to a puddle of pee.
Maybe Lee was in that shelter. Maybe he had come and gone again. Maybe he was at home asking Jen to change the channel on the television. Maybe he was heading to the park to find Henry at that very moment. There were too many possibilities. A sense of panic pinched Henry’s stomach just as a siren erupted across the sky, coming from everywhere and nowhere and making him jump and land painfully on the crossbar of his bike. It was too late for the noon whistle, and there were no green clouds like there had been when the tornado destroyed the canning factory near town. Why was the siren going off? Where was Lee?
The noise wound down in a wheeling rasp so slowly that Henry thought he heard it even after it was gone. Or maybe that was the buzz of the cicadas seesawing in the air. He realized he had been standing still for a long time and pedaled away from the park, hurrying back toward home. By the time he reached the empty lot his legs were burning. In the corner of his eye, Henry saw Mr. Vanden Bosch through his screen door and the silhouette of something dark and slender in his hands. Henry thought of the staffs the men threw down to become cobras in the movie about Moses. The day was somehow emptier now. No more sounds of mowers or birds. No traffic. But something. He listened below the hum of his tires, below the tinkling of wind chimes, as the hush became the heartbeat of a helicopter.
Henry banged through the front door of his house while one wheel of his bicycle still spun on its side in the yard. Jen was speaking on the telephone downstairs in the family room. Henry went to the kitchen and snuck the phone off its cradle.
“…for Chrissakes, Jen, go make sure and then lock up. They say three are loose.”
“Ok, Mr. Harver.”
“And make sure the gun cabinet is locked.”
“Ok, I’m gonna let you go. I’ll try to leave early.”
“Ok. Bye, Mr. Harver.”
Henry hung up with blood gulping in his ears. He knew he was in trouble. Lee wasn’t home and Henry had lost him. He headed for the front door.
“Where’ve you been?” Jen asked as she met him in the hallway.
“Lee’s still outside.”
“Well go get him and bring him in.”
As they faced each other, Henry looked at Jennifer’s chest. Its heave excited and embarrassed him, so he lowered his eyes to the hallway runner and couldn’t help noticing how shiny her legs were.
“They’re saying on the radio some inmates escaped from the Bricks. We’re supposed to stay inside.”
Henry knew about the Bricks. It was an old prison in the middle of town. His father said it was a max. A max was no super max, but it was plenty bad. Worse than a medium. The wall clock ticked and Henry felt Jen watching him.
“Hank, go get Lee. I’ll check the doors and windows.”
“I don’t know where he is,” Henry said.
“What do you mean?”
“He left on his bike without me.”
“Did he go to the park?”
“No, I checked. Maybe he’s circling the block or,” Henry paused, “maybe he went to the Pits.”
“Let’s go,” Jen said. She pushed past him out the front door.
Henry followed her outside and picked up his bike. The sky churned with helicopter chatter. He counted four of them. The closest one had the logo of one of the local news stations on its side.
“You check the Pits on your bike,” Jen said. “I’ll walk around the block. If you find him, come home and wait for me. Lock the doors and don’t open them for anyone else.”
Henry headed in the opposite direction of the park, pedaling as hard as he could. He hadn’t noticed the neighborhood opening that day but now he watched it close around him. Every house was shut tightly; every drape was drawn. He had never seen a real inmate before, but now they had him surrounded. The hedges and trees swelled to hide them. One of the neighborhood dogs streaked toward Henry across a yard but veered off and disappeared down the block. Henry worried that something had spooked it. He pedaled with his eyes fixed straight ahead so he wouldn’t see the shadows moving. The street was empty so he rode right down the middle, keeping wide of parked cars where someone could be hiding.
Lee would be at the Pits. Henry should have thought of it sooner. A few blocks from their house, the street dead-ended at a shallow stream. Beyond the stream were woods until the golf course, woods and fields. A ways in, past the stream, two houses had been started but never finished. Holes for basements were dug but not filled and they still lay open. A dry crick snaked past them, and together the dips and hills formed the Pits. Grown ups didn’t know about the Pits. Henry and his friends knew them only by the names they heard older kids use: Ass Hill and Shit Hill, and steepest was Fuck Hill. Sometimes when Henry and Lee told Jen they were circling the park they were actually building a jump in the Pits, but high schoolers did other things back there, so Jen would get angry if she found out Henry and Lee had gone by themselves.
Henry knew he might not find his brother if he went into the woods. It would be too easy to miss him on a different trail. When he reached the end of the street, he laid his bike down in the grass and sat on the curb to wait. Why hadn’t Lee told Henry where he was going? Why did he always make things so hard for everyone? Henry had just wanted to go to the park. Instead he was going to get in trouble with their dad, and it wasn’t even his fault.
Then he thought of how he could get back at Lee. Henry jumped up and dragged his bike behind a nearby bush, hunching down so he was hidden from view. He would scare his brother. It would serve Lee right, acting all tough. Time for Lee to buck up for a change. Henry waited and practiced what he would holler. He spoke under his breath and tried to make his voice as deep as he could, crouched down behind the bush. How did an inmate sound? He felt a familiar pressure on his bladder. This always happened during the hiding part of hide-and-seek. He checked the yard behind him every few breaths. He looked up to find the helicopters circling overhead. The clip of the blades sounded like people counting really quickly under their breath, and Henry counted with them.
The discomfort in his bladder worsened. It was the corkscrew on his Swiss army knife curling into his belly. Henry kneeled down and unzipped his fly. He knew the inmates would sneak up on a person. They were close. What if one was in the bush and grabbed at his thing? No time. The fear was a cold jolt and then there was release, and Henry exhaled and trembled and screwed his eyes tight to shut out all the sneaking.
Henry jumped at his brother’s voice and pulled at his pants as he blushed down to his neck. A warm stream of urine ran down his leg, wetting his sock. Lee came out of a different part of the woods than Henry had expected. He crossed the stream on some rocks, guiding his bike up to its spokes in the water. Mud fell off the tires in globs. As Lee approached, Henry waited for his brother’s laughter, but Lee didn’t seem to notice the dark patch on Henry’s shorts. Lee’s shirt was torn in tails. His eyes were red like he had been crying and the hair at his temples was slick with sweat.
“I ripped my shirt, Hank. Dad’s gonna be so mad.”
“Don’t worry about that. We need to get home.”
Lee didn’t protest, and the two set out together on their bikes, the noise of the helicopters forcing them to shout to be heard.
“What happened? I heard the noon whistle.”
“Some guys broke out of the Bricks.”
“Why were they in there?”
“Murder probably.” Henry turned to see his brother’s eyes widen and felt a thrill, but just as the desire to get even crept back into his mind, it was gone again. Henry called out, “When we get home, give me your shirt. Go inside and tell Jen I’m putting the bikes away. I’ll hide it.”
“What if Dad finds it?”
The two sped down the street and skidded to a stop on their front lawn. Lee tossed his ripped shirt to Henry, and they scrambled to find the key under the mat and open the door. Lee dove into the house and Henry closed the door and hurried to lock it. He put the key in his pocket so an inmate wouldn’t find it. Then he spun around, checking for shadows behind bushes and under cars. He picked up the bikes by their handlebars, but he couldn’t keep their tires straight, so he dragged them in a jumble through the side door to the garage. When he managed to fit them through, he slammed the door closed and turned the lock. Inmates were probably standing outside, trying the knob and creeping around the house to find another way in.
Henry left the bikes in a heap and ran to the trashcans in the back corner. Only one felt full as he rocked it, so he pulled off the cover and pried at the knot on the bag inside. When it came loose, the bag unleashed a rotten stink. Henry breathed through his mouth in gulps. He balled up Lee’s shirt in his hands and squeezed it into a dense pit between his palms. Revenge spoke to him one last time, and he considered leaving the shirt on his father’s workbench. But the thought passed in the stillness of the garage, and he pushed the shirt down into the trash as deep as he could reach. Sauce smeared across his knuckles as he pulled his hand out of the bag, and he gagged and wiped the mess on a dirty paper towel. As he was retying the bag, the door to the house opened and Henry jumped in fright.
Lee stood in the doorway bare-chested. “Hank, Jen’s not here.”
“She must still be looking for us,” Henry said. He slammed the lid onto the can and hurried into the house. Lee stepped aside as Henry closed the door behind them and locked it.
“We should check the doors and windows,” Henry said.
Lee shook his head. His eyes were wider than Henry had ever seen them.
“Ok, fine. Go down to the family room and wait for me.”
Lee hesitated for a moment and then ran downstairs. Henry didn’t wait to think. If he waited he would get too scared. He raced around the house, checking every door and window, never slowing, never getting too near to any beds where someone could be waiting for his ankles. He didn’t look in closets or check the crawl space above his father’s bedroom. If something were waiting in those places, it would just have to keep waiting.
When he finally leapt down onto the family room carpet, Henry saw that Lee was sitting on the couch with his arms around his legs. Somewhere in the distance Henry could hear sirens. They sounded far off, but in which direction he couldn’t tell. He hoped Jen would get back soon. Lee didn’t say anything; he just stared straight ahead. Henry followed his gaze to the television and they both realized in the same instant that it was theirs for the taking. The boys operated in tandem, wordlessly pulling the Sega Genesis from the stand, unspooling controllers, and switching to channel three before hitting power on the console. They settled onto the carpet together. Henry could feel the warmth of his brother’s leg against his own. Then they were playing video games and their world was very close around them in the quiet house.
Copyright 2020 Scott