Monday Myth & Mayhem: The Back Yard, Part Three

Posted on April 5, 2010

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In which we we meet the two older brothers.

Junior would be thirteen in two weeks. He was the oldest now, since Katie died. He and Porter, who was eleven, slept in the attic and forbade anyone else to enter there. That made them kings, because Jubal slept on Junior’s old, creaky bed in the converted den. Lola had to sleep with the memory of Katie in the second bedroom, something nobody wanted.

When Junior and Porter played, they did so in the front yard. They rode their bikes up and down the driveway; they sat on the back of Daddy’s car and yelled at the cars driving past. They would follow anybody walking along the sidewalk to the edge of the neighbor’s yard. They enjoyed this game best when the two girls who lived a block down were passing. Those girls were about Porter’s age, and they feared the boys.

Junior was big for his age. Porter was, too, but Junior was the biggest. He always won at wrestling matches, and he never got in trouble for being too rough, even when he gave Jubal a bloody nose and almost broke his arm. Daddy just told Jubal to be more of a man, and told Junior not to play with Jubal like that any more. Now Junior just wrestled with Porter, and he was a better match for him and a better sport about it, too.

Lola was afraid of Junior. She stayed out of his way most of the time, and that was just fine. There was something about her blond curls and her wide brown eyes that irritated him. She looked and even acted like Katie, and thought she was better than he was somehow. That was enough to get on his nerves even if she never said anything to him. Sometimes he had dreams about wrestling with her, and in the dreams, he always snapped her like a brittle stick. He never told anybody, not even Porter, about those dreams.

Today he was sitting on the back of Daddy’s old Impala, throwing pebbles at the cars passing by. The sun was in the west, glaring right in his face, getting ready to set. It was hot summertime, and he was sweating. Summer school was over, and there was another month before regular school would start. This was his favorite time of year.

Porter came back from peeing in the bushes in the back yard, and jumped up on the trunk of the Impala with him. He was sweating, too.

“Mama’s late again,” Porter said.

“I guess,” Junior said, and hit an old Volkswagen with a palm-sized rock. It connected with a hollow bang and left a dent. His aim was getting better. His luck, too; the Volkswagen didn’t even slow down.

“Good one!” Porter yelled, laughing. He picked up a smaller rock and threw it at a big black Mercedes, which was in the wrong part of town and probably lost, and missed.

“I win,” Junior said, grinning. Porter shrugged and leaned back on his elbows.

“I seen a cat in the back yard just now,” he said. “It was just sitting there by the old vegetable patch like it belonged there. It watched me pee. I even ran up to it waving my arms and hollering, but it didn’t move. Ain’t that strange, for a cat?”

“I hate cats,” Junior said. He smiled slowly, turning to look at Porter. “I think the Lord just gave us a way to have some fun before the sun goes down. Come on.”

They slid off the car; Porter followed him into the back yard. They could see the cat, a big grey tabby, still sitting by the failed plot. It ignored them, washing its front paw. Junior picked up a rusty hoe, and Porter picked up the aged rake. They walked around the elm and straight through the soft middle of the yard towards the cat.

“You go down behind him, and I’ll sneak around the cedar in front. If he goes toward you, try to hit him, or herd him to me,” Junior ordered, and Porter veered off to the left.

They had played other, secret games like this before, once with a squirrel, and once with a nest of baby robins they found in one of the bushes. There had been a stray dog, too, a month after Katie died, which they had buried here in the vegetable patch. The next day, Jubal had gotten a beating from Daddy for the overturned earth, and Junior and Porter still laughed about that to this day. Nobody ever found out about these little games.

The cat looked up as Junior approached, his green eyes full of contempt. I know you, those eyes said; I know what you have done. That just made Junior mad, and he balanced the hoe on his shoulder for heft.

“You got him?” Porter’s voice was thin and eager.

“Quiet, don’t spook him.” His own voice had a hiss like a snake, soft and deadly, only too late a warning. The cat’s ear flicked back and forth, judging the distance between voices, but otherwise, he was perfectly still. Junior took another step toward him.

The cat growled deep in his throat, and his fur started to lift along his spine. Junior shifted the hoe a little, getting ready to strike, but at the movement, the cat leapt sideways into the bushes, startling Junior so that he dropped the hoe.

“Get him!” he screamed, and he and Porter went after him, crashing into the hedge a second after the cat cleared the fence into the next yard.

The bushes bit and scratched them just like a cat would. Though the hedge was not thick, they had trouble getting free of it. The bushes snagged their clothes, pulled at their arms and legs, slapped at their faces. Finally they stumbled clear, and both found themselves bleeding in places.

“Damn,” Junior spat, wiping blood from a cut over his eye.

“Shit,” Porter echoed. “What’s this black stuff all over me, Junior?”

Junior looked up at his brother, and saw something sticky and black as tar clinging to his body.

“I don’t know,” he said. He reached out to see what the substance felt like, and saw the same black sheen on his own hand.

“Junior, it’s all over you, too,” Porter whined, rubbing his hands on his jeans.

“I can see that.” He tried to wipe it off his hands, but it only smeared like dirty car oil.

The harder they tried to wipe it away, the more it smeared, until the sticky film covered them. It got into their eyes and mouths, into their ears and noses. Panicked, they fell onto the grass, shouting for help, but the black muffled their voices.

Junior, unable to breathe now, saw stars explode behind his eyes. All he could think was, the cat won. The goddamned cat beat me. He gave up, lay still, and waited for death.

Then, just like that, he could breathe again. He opened his eyes and saw Porter lying next to him, gasping for air. He raised himself on one elbow, and saw the black sliding down his legs, away from him and Porter. He watched as it receded beneath the hedge and disappeared.

He got up and pulled Porter to his feet. They were relatively clean again, just bleeding from their scratches and covered in grass stains. He looked at Porter, and Porter looked at him.

“What was it, Junior?”

“Don’t know. Tree resin. Mosquito farts or something.” Porter giggled, looking nervously at the hedge, now full of shadows.

“Come on,” Junior went on. “We’ll go clean up our scratches. Mama’s late again, so we need to feed the little ones.”

“Daddy’s going to kill us when he sees what a mess we are.” They walked up the yard to the house.

“Don’t you worry, little brother. He’ll be so glad to get something hot to eat he won’t notice us.”

Junior closed the gate behind them, sparing another glance at the hedge, hoping he would run into that cat some other day. Then he and Porter went inside to get supper ready.

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