Brothers

-1-

Caleb takes aim at the cans on the log. Instead of Budwiser faces, he sees black hair and thick arms and laughter. He sees porcelain the way it looks when your face is two inches off the water and going down. He sees the coach telling him 'well, maybe if you didn't make such a target of yourself...' Breathing out, he pulls the trigger.

Six neat little holes. Four in the cans. Two in the log. It's not bad, on average, but you shouldn't shoot when you're angry. Malcolm taught him that. He knows better.

Switching the safety back on, Caleb walks across the little clearing and sets the cans back up. Several of them are dented and punctured from taking multiple hits, but he doesn't feel like going out to where the football team sometimes drinks to gather new ones. He just wants to shoot, and maybe in the shooting his problems will crawl away.

-2-

They find the milksnake behind their house, him and Malcolm, and they decide to take it in as a pet. At first Ma says no, but while Mal's nine, Caleb's only three, and repeat runs of "but we caught a thnake, Ma!" are enough to convince her to give the wriggly little bastard a chance. They put it in an old fish tank in the basement, and Malcolm fishes up some crickets for it to eat.

The snake is still there when Pa gets home. He's been away for half the week. A big delivery off in some faraway land like Arkansas or Texas. Ma welcomes him back with some badly grilled hamburgers, and he talks about how he shouldn't have to expect that the food be better on the road. No one tells him about the snake.

That night, Mal goes to bed early, but Caleb can't get to sleep at all. It's the snake's fault. He wants to know what it's like. What it does when there's nobody around to bother it. How it thinks. Where it goes. He pretends to go to sleep long enough for the noises in the house to settle down, and then he takes a blanket and a flashlight and goes down to the basement.

The snake is still there, resting behind the glass like a frozen dragon. Every minute or so, its tongue flickers out, the only sign that it's moving. There are no crickets left in the tank. It's then, without fully understanding it, that Caleb realizes that they can't keep the snake. There's nowhere in the tank in the basement for it to do proper snake-like things, like sun itself on rocks or sneak down burrows after mice. So he reaches down into the enclosure and picks the snake up.

It's cool in his arms. At first it wriggles a little bit, but he holds it just in back of the neck like Malcolm showed him so that it can't bite. After a little while, its struggling dies down and it goes even quieter than before.

Carrying the snake in both hands, Caleb makes his way to the back porch. To his surprise, the screen door is open and the porch-light is on, and his Pa's out in the night air smoking a cigarette.

Caleb doesn't get to see his father much. When he is around and decides to spend time with the kids, most of it is with Malcolm, who's old enough to go fishing or shooting without much trouble. Caleb hangs back by the door, snake forgotten in his hands, and watches the cherry-end of the cigarette rise and fall as his father takes another drag.

There's a bottle of Jim Beam on the porch. Caleb notices this. It had been partly obscured by his Pa's shoulder, but when he raises the bottle to take a sip, Caleb recognizes the ribbon on the label. Its contents are about a quarter gone.

"Son?" Caleb's Pa doesn't turn around. He just stares off into the flat distance, all covered over in darkness. When Caleb doesn't respond, he lets out a long breath and stubs out the cigarette on the porch. "I know you're too young to understand me, but remember it for when you're older. Don't ever let a woman push you around."

Caleb sets the snake down, and it races away into the night.

-3-

"No, look. You're doing it all wrong." Malcolm corrects his grip on the gun. "Right hand here. Left hand here. Fingers outside the trigger-guard unless you intend to make it dangerous, and don't make it dangerous unless you intend to shoot."

Caleb shifts in his awkward stance. He doesn't like the ear-protectors. He doesn't like the discipline. He doesn't like the way the handgun kicks and booms like the voice of God every time it releases a bullet, but he does like spending time with his brother. At ten, there isn't much else a sixteen-year-old Mal wants to do with him besides teach him how to shoot with one of Pa's replicas.

"There. That's a lot better."

His posture is horrible; stiff-armed and rigid, always trying to push the recoil away from his body instead of letting it in. Somehow, Malcolm doesn't see this, though, and he tells him that it's okay to shoot.

Caleb squeezes one eye closed, aims in the general whereabouts of the cans, and pulls the trigger. The handgun booms four more times. When he finally opens his eyes again, he's surprised to see two of them missing from the log.

It turns out one of them only fell over, owing to some imbalance in its internal gravity, but the other one has been clearly hit. The aluminum in one corner is all ripped and dented in such a way as to match the contours of a bullet. Malcolm smiles and says "good job. Now let me have a go."

Lining up his shots, Malcolm places a bullet clean through the center of every can.

-4-

"For as the good books says, 'thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise. Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust.'" The pews are cramped and noisy, drowned in all the fluttery, rustly sounds that people make when they're trying to stay quiet, but no quieter than their neighbors. The afternoon sun is scorching, and it beats down on the church roof like the judgment of martyrs. 'This is all you have to endure,' it says. 'I was torn apart by lions.' In the brief beat between each of the preacher's words, a hundred hymnals flap, trying to push around the still air.

"Mal?"

"Yeah?"

Ma doesn't seem to hear them. Her eyes are fixed in rapturous silence on the pew.

"If Jesus Christ loves each and every one of us, and wants us to dwell in paradise eternal, why is there a hell?"

Malcolm thinks about this for a moment. "'cause paradise wouldn't be too peaceful if we all got to go."

-5-

He has about a half second's warning before they slam him into the wall. He knows what this is for. It's for violating a long and honored code of rules, the first of which is never to tell.

It's not his fault. Not entirely. He just thought that maybe if he told that prissy new "teen guidance director" what was really going on, he could shock her into letting the matter drop. Instead there were phone calls, and threats, and someone keyed his brother's car.

And now there was this.

His vision goes foggy for a second as he comes off the bricks, but he's already trying to bring his hands up. Someone kicks him in the stomach. He swings wildly. Misses. And then he's back into the wall again.

He wants to call out, but who would he yell for? Malcolm's long gone, having finished ninth grade six years ago. There's teachers, sure, but shouting for one of them will only postpone the beating for a later date, at double the intensity.

He struggles, bites, but it doesn't do much good against the sort of moral instruction that's unfolding now. No one likes a snitch.

In between kicks, to ward off the pain, he counts out the bullets in his box at home.

-6-

Caleb's playing in the dirt when they take it from him. A big pair of hands swoops out of nowhere, and suddenly the truck's not his anymore. He looks up, confused, to see a big pair of feet stomping away. No apologies. No explanation. No nothing.

When he finds them, the other kids are standing in a tight circle off in a corner of the playground. One of them is holding Caleb's truck, poking at something hidden in the grass with the flat of its plastic plow. The rest of them are watching with a kind of morbid fascination, the way you do when someone else is burning ants with a magnifying glass and you don't think they're likely to get caught.

"Give me back my truck."

The circle opens a little bit, and a few of the kids turn. "What truck?"

"The one in your hands. That's my truck."

"I don't see a truck." Someone snickers.

"But it's right there."

"No, it ain't. Get lost, kid."

Caleb isn't sure how to deal with the situation. He knows the truck is his, and he can see it plain as day. It has little scuff marks along the back from where he ran it into some rocks, 'cause Pa said sometimes grown men don't use their rear-view mirrors like they should, and there's a little CW written in unwashable marker behind one of the wheels.

The other kids seem to have lost interest in him, going back to whatever it is that they're doing with the grass. "What're y'all doin' over here, anyway?" He edges forward, getting a clearer look into the center of the circle. The milksnake, half-stunned, tries to writhe away. One of the older kids, popped pimples marking his forehead, nudges it with the truck.

"It ain't done nothin' to you, has it?"

Pockmarks gives him a level look. "It's a snake." He shrugs as if to say 'what more do you want?'

Caleb takes a deep breath and balls up his fists. "My Ma says it's a sin to torment any of the good lord's creatures." He tries to draw himself up as tall as he can, but the other kids still have a good foot on him. He knows he can fight. His brother showed him how to hit hard and where, should he ever get jumped by a hanging bag in a gymnasium. He's ready for this.

The other kids just ignore him. "Snakes' a creature of Satan. Don' you know anything? We're just doin' the Lord a service." Deep in the scraggly grass, the milksnake makes to bolt and Pockmarks slaps it with the plow. "Why don't you go on an' buzz off. Ain't there slow-kid classes you can go to at the school or somethin'?"

Caleb stumbles away. The dismissal burns behind his eyes and runs down his cheeks. He finds Malcolm over by the street, bouncing a tennis ball off of the sidewalk. The story comes out in stutters and starts, and by the time he's halfway through, Malcolm's already marching off to the little hill behind the swing where the other kids are still with the snake.

Caleb watches from a distance. Mal's not much taller than the other kids, and there's a lot more of them, so he doesn't bother with asking. He just reaches out, grabs Pockmarks by the back of his shirt, and yanks him over onto the ground. Before the rest of them can react, he's kneeling on the other kid's chest, slamming his head into the grass, and calling him words Caleb's only ever heard in a whisper, and some he's never heard at all.

Pockmarks lets go of the truck. It goes rolling off into the grass. Malcolm grabs it and stands back up. "You want a toy, go take it outta your mama's collection. Stealing from six-year-olds is beneath even you, Walt."

One of the other boys helps Pockmarks to his feet. Caleb holds his breath. Any second now, they're all gonna pounce. Six on one, they could cream Mal. But for some reason they don't. Pockmarks spits off to the side and gives Mal the dirtiest look Caleb's ever seen, but then he brushes off his shirt and one by one the other boys walk away.

It seems like it's only a moment before the truck is set back in Caleb's hands. He wipes his eyes on his sleeve and stares up at his brother like he's a hero. Like he's superman descended from on high.

"Don't look at me like that, Cay. I only did it 'cause you're family. A man can't let anyone else push around his family. Not even if they're big."

Elsewhere, unnoticed, a milksnake slithers off into the grass.