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Johnny G knew his little half-brother was dead. He didn’t know how or when it happened, or why he didn’t see when it did, but in his heart of hearts he knew it was so. Little Mike was dead. And he knew they’d blame him, no matter what he said.
He played it back in his head. Mama said, “Johnny G?! Come in here hon’ …” She was standing on the stoop of the tattered aqua and white trailer. Why she waits until I’m playing mumble-de-peg before she asks me to do something, I’ll never know, he thought.
“What? I’m playing mumble-de-peg!”
“I don’t care if you’re doing whatever-it-is with Jesus his self, I need you up here to take Little Mike out for a while. Mama needs her nap!” Like she always did.
He sat on his haunches on the edge of Greenaway Pond under a drooping stand of old pecans watching the Fire Department skiff glide along the still green surface. The men slow and somber as pall-bearers. Red-faced and sweating, tall Joe McIntyre oared the skiff along while the blond Innity brothers worked either side with grappling poles and hooks. They seemed in no hurry. Johnny G could tell they assumed the little boy dead.
He played back more. Mama said “Get up here, Johnny!” He pulled his knife out of the ground and wiped the blade on the leg of his jeans, folded it into the smooth-worn handle and dropped it in his pocket. He loved that knife.
“All right. I’m comin’. Will you make us some purple Koolaid when we come back?”
“Don’t I always, hon’?”
Little Mike was standing behind her in the grease smelling darkness of the trailer. Bacon. Seemed like that was all Daddy Mac, Little Mike’s father, liked to eat was bacon laid on top of Chef Boy-R-Dee spaghetti. He took Little Mike’s hand, which, as always, was sticky. He thought about his own Daddy, crushed dead under the old Ford when the cinder blocks it rested on collapsed. Five years ago, when he was six. Johnny G shook himself, put his hand in his pocket and fingered Daddy’s old Buck knife.
“C’mon, Mikey, let’s go hunt in the woods.” He led his little half-brother down the steps, listening for the clink of glass and ice inside, Mama making her drink.
The memory cleared. The firemen glided up and down the Pond for two more hours, before finally shrugging and putting in on the muddy bank near where he sat. He was sure Little Mike lay in the murk at the bottom of Greenaway Pond, nibbled on by the giant catfish said to lurk there. Janey, his Mama, walked up and down the muddy banks, her face blotches of purple and red, the constant flow of tears stanched by a terry dishrag she held wrapped around the fingers of her left hand.
The men from the boat were joined by the men who were searching the woods.
Joe McIntyre came over and knelt on one knee in front of him, sweating heavily, his hair oily and wet, his T-shirt soaked through. He spoke, trying to be nice and patient, but Johnny could tell he was pissed.
“Son, maybe you should run it through one more time for us. Tell us again how you lost your little brother?”
“And don’t lie, neither, Johnny!!” Mama shrieked, her eyes wide and wild. “It’s bad enough what it is, but a lie on top of it and you’ll go straight to Hell”
Johnny felt a monster trying to come through his chest, and his breath came in sobs, and then tears and his tongue thickened and locked in his throat. He was dizzy. The world spun and whirled; he was surrounded by a mob of sweating, angry giants glaring at him in the waning light of a summer afternoon.
“I … I don’t know! We was just walking along, and I found some deer tracks and I said ‘C’mon Mikey, let’s follow this old deer and see what we can find’ and I went along and it went near the water and then away from it … back up into the woods again, but I could hear him back there all along, I thought I could anyways … and … and”
His ears rang. There was a weird silence. They were all staring at him, their dead eyes doing nothing but disbelieve and accuse. The monster started heaving in his chest again, but he fought it down.
“… the deer trail just run out, and I looked around and said ‘Mikey!’ like that, ‘Mikey, Little Mike! Let’s go on back, c’mon’ and I started to look for him and I noticed that somewhere’s near the water his footprints behind mine ended, and I thought he was out there, in the water, but I didn’t see him and I know ‘bout the gator someone saw and I didn’t wanna go out there and I got scared and I run back and got Mama and she went over to use Shawna Wilson’s phone and she called y’all!”
Mama let out a shriek and collapsed. She was attended by all the women in Scooter’s Trailer Village who happened to be home that day. She wore a flowery house dress from Salvation Army, and a pair of worn bedroom slippers with pink fleece over the toes that had gone all grimy and gray. When they carried her back to the trailer, all he saw of her were her feet emerging from the crowd. It was those slippers that embarrassed him the most.
* * *
A day, two days, five days went by. Heavy rain fell on most of them, and Greenaway Pond rose, and the creek rushed. They hoped that maybe the rains would ‘float the body.’ The firemen came with the skiff and went up and down the Pond with their hooks. They found tires, a grocery basket, an old baseball glove; a piece of plough they said looked like it came from the frontier days, but no Little Mike.
Daddy Mac called Tony at Tony’s Welding and told him about the situation. He wasn’t going to be able to weld safely for a while. From that point on, he sat out front of the trailer in his folding chair with a bottle of Jack Black and watched, motionless, his eyes glassy and moist.
People from town came to Scooter’s Trailer Village. Women with blonde hair pulled back into smooth buns at the napes of their necks, wearing khaki pants and loafers and driving SUV’s arrived while talking on cell phones. From the rears of the SUV, they withdrew folding tables and metal pans holding trays of fried chicken, tamales, enchiladas, lasagna, rice, potato salads, iceberg salad, soft white rolls and huge dispensers of iced tea and water. Lines formed in front of these tables, intended primarily for the search workers, but the Scooter’s residents pretended to not notice, and got free meals for five days. The women took pains to appear friendly and caring, with painted on smiles and a kind of forced joking demeanor, but Johnny G could tell they didn’t mean it and would soon never be seen again.
After five days, Joe McIntyre and Brother Stimson came out to the trailer and sat down with Mama and Daddy Mac at the card table by the rope swing out back. Mac tried to act like they were just a couple of guys who’d come out to visit, and sat down with two extra glasses and his bottle at the table. He poured them each a shot, which they all solemnly saluted to each other before tossing the drinks down with quick tilts of their heads. Mac slapped his glass down on the table and looked over to where Johnny sat on the stoop, his face flushed and red with the five day drunk, eyes wild and wide with pure hate. Johnny G shrunk inside himself and wished he were already dead in order to save Daddy Mac the trouble and himself the pain.
“Janey, Mac, the bad news is there is no news,” said Joe McIntyre in a soft voice. He leaned back in his chair, wiped sweat and slapped a mosquito. “We don’t know what happened to that boy. We cannot find a single trace of him nowhere. It is like he was abducted up into a space ship or something. He is just plain gone, and there ain’t nothin’ we can do except feel terrible for your loss.”
Brother Stimson had a voice like a funeral director, low and even, with an intentional tone of condolence and sympathy that set Johnny’s teeth on edge. “On behalf of the congregation and my own family, I’d like to extend our sympathy and sorrow for your loss. Janey, Mac, its time to schedule a funeral service. The little boy is gone.”
Even in the dusk, Johnny G could see his Mama’s face contort and go white. She folded her arms on the table, placed her forehead on top of them, and her shoulders heaved as if she vomited. Mac stood in a sudden, violent motion, whirled and rocketed his shot glass straight at Johnny’s head. He ducked in time, but the glass shattered against the trailer and he felt the spray of tiny shards across his cheek and ear, and then the slow wetness of blood starting down the side of his face.
Without thinking he stood straight up and first walked, then ran, into the darkening woods, home to Little Mike’s ghost and whatever took him away from them.
“Johnny! Johnny G! Get back here!” Mac’s words faded as the woods closed around him.
* * *
That first night, he wandered the forest surrounding Greenaway Pond. He made his way along the ancient paths cut by game and hunters and children exploring, moving from stark moonlight to muddy shadow. Anger at Daddy Mac overcame his fear of the night woods. Every few steps he stopped, thinking he heard footsteps behind him, or over to one side of the trail, and when he did, of course he thought it was Little Mike. At one point, he dropped down into the hollow at the base of a giant old live oak and huddled there for a while, listening to the goings-on in the dark.
An owl hooted, and varmints made their way softly through the brush. A little light wind brushed the treetops and made them moan like the lost soul he knew was out there somewhere in the night. “Mikey? Mikey, if you’re out there, son, you better get your little butt back up here with your big brother,‘cause you got his ass in one hell of a lot of deep trouble!”
Nothing. Nothing at all.
He woke with the sun sending rods of gold through the black tree limbs against the pink dawn sky. There was a thrashing all around, and he sat up with a start. Voices.
“Johnny! Johnny G!! If you can hear us, you better get your self back home—your Mama is lookin’ for you …!”
He dove under a possum haw and piled dead fall on top of himself. He wasn’t going to let them find him, and he wasn’t going home. He waited, and the band of searchers passed. He spent the day going from one hiding place to the next, carefully staying away from the search bands. In the afternoon, he drifted up toward the strip of MacDonalds and KFCs and gas stations near the highway, and he scavenged enough hamburger, French fries and chicken to hold him over well until the next day. After that, he stopped into the Exxon and went to the bathroom and washed his face and hands, then went into the mini-grocery and snagged some Backwoods Off.
Around five, he went back down into the woods and made his way to a broad bend in the creek where there was a low, sweeping bank of limestone fragments. On the far side of the creek, the black earth rose sharply and was eroded by the flow of high water. On the outermost curve of the high side of the bend, a tall pecan sent its roots to dangle in the open air where the ground had washed away. Caught up in its roots, he saw something yellow, something familiar he couldn’t place. He waded through the shallow stream and half-way across, the smell of something dead hit him, but he didn’t connect it with the thing caught in the roots.
“Some ole skunk I guess,” he said out loud.
He pushed on across, unable to look up at his destination while feeling for foot holds in the rocky streambed. Just as he got to the place where the bank hung over the water, and the roots dangled in a thick net, he managed to look up and locate what he’d crossed the water to see. It was Little Mike, strangely shriveled and small, stinking to high heaven, with flies thick on his eyes and mouth, still as a river stone.
Johnny G shouted and fell on his behind in the water, then rose up running down the shallows. Twenty steps and he gasped and fell again. He wondered how Little Mike got tangled up in those roots, then remembered the heavy rains that came late the night he disappeared, and the way the Pond rose and the Creek too. He pictured Little Mike swept off his feet, tumbling down the creek. He saw the little face come up gasping for air, looking for help that wasn’t there, a little boy going to face his creator all alone in the woods.
He turned around and went back, holding his nose. Like an old doll found in some part of the playground no one goes to anymore. It was, but it wasn’t Mikey. Kind of like paper mache, the flesh sagging over the rickety bones. His fear subsided and was replaced by curiosity. He reached up to one of Mikey’s pockets, to see if he still had the dollar that Mama always made him carry so that if she ever ran out of money, she would at least know where a dollar was. Sure enough, it was there, and he eased it out of the pocket without touching any of Mikey’s cold, dry skin.
Johnny spoke to the little corpse. “You know, Mikey, its not like I don’t care for you or nothin’. I don’t really, and never have. But, it’s not like I DO care for you either. It just don’t make me feel real sad seeing you dead.”
Flies were going in and out of Mikey’s nose and across his eyes. It made his own nose itch, and he sneezed suddenly. Mikey was so very still. Johnny felt something rise up and tear through him, coming out as tears. He cried to the point of blindness, choking and gasping for breath that he tore from the air like rags. He bent and placed his hands on his knees, on the edge of collapse when whatever it was cleared away. He stood straight, and sensed himself as clear and empty as he had been a few moments ago
“You belonged to Mama, and Daddy Mac. That’s the way I saw it. And the day Shawna Wilson come over and helped Mama have you was the worst day of my life. You was just a little pet to me, somethin’ I had to take care of, and now I don’t no more, and that’s all right with me.” He thought for a moment, and went on
“I’m sorry you fell in the creek and got washed away and drowned and ever’thing, don’t get me wrong. But it ain’t no skin off my back ‘cept it looks like they’re gonna blame my ass for it now
A line of black ants had formed on Mikey’s abdomen, moving up under a wrinkle in the yellow shirt to a destination unknown. His whole body had been taken over by bugs flying, crawling, inching in and out of everything. Such a patient, welcoming host
Johnny G walked away knowing he’d accomplished two things. One, he’d looked at a dead body, and realized it wasn’t so scary after all, and two, he wouldn’t have to baby-sit anymore. He meandered on down the creek bed for a while, eluding the searchers he now heard in the forest, calling out his name, “John-NEE, Johnny G! Can you hear us, son? Your Mama wants you real bad!!”
* * *
The search parties gave up mid-afternoon. It didn’t seem like they were looking too hard anyway, and by three o’clock, the woods were clear. He wandered on, feeling more and more at home, wondering if maybe, somehow, he could just live in the woods. He could scavenge the MacDonalds’ and KFC for food, and get supplies from the mini-grocer in the Exxon. Maybe steal one of those blue plastic tarps to make a tent with. His mind was alive with the sense of a fresh start, plans blooming like fern along the path he walked
He walked on like that, his mind ripe with exotic possibility. He stopped paying attention to where he was and was startled to hear voices. He snapped to, crouching down in the brush, senses alive. Moving forward, he found a vantage point from which he could look down and find the source. It was two women, two voices, both of which he recognized
“Them little boys are both gone, sure enough!” said Shawna Wilson in the tone of voice that indicated she knew she shouldn’t be saying such things. “I feel so bad for her!! I can just feel it, no one’s gonna find those two. They’re flat gone to God”
Amber McAskill spoke her mind. “I think the older one done the little one in and run off, is what I think. And that’s what my Pete thinks too. He says that everyone down at the shop is sayin’ that and if somethin’ happens to that older boy, it’ll be because he had it comin’ to him.”
He had circled all the way back to Scooter’s Trailer Village. He slunk back among the fern and possum haw, keeping low and watching out for poison ivy. He made his way along the low ridge line until he was directly above his own tattered trailer with the rope swing out back, the defunct homemade barbecue grill, and the collection of refrigerators and air conditioners in the yard that Mac always talked about repairing and selling for extra money, but which he was always too drunk to do anything with except take them apart and leave the pieces to rot and rust. Finding a lookout spot from which to keep an eye on things, he settled in for the night.
He broke out greasy paper napkins wrapping two chicken wings, two half eaten legs, and half a bite-marked hamburger, and had his meal. The sun fell into the trees, and hung like a golden egg suspended in chaotic black mesh. The Backwoods Off made him immune to the mosquitoes whining in the dusk. He felt safe and secure in his knowledge of the wilderness, having procured food, and a safe and restful vantage point. He dug in his pocket and brought out his father’s old Buck Knife, then searched around for something to whittle on.
He eventually found a piece of deadfall from the oak canopy, a wood shape with a central trunk, and two legs emerging from the lower end with two arms coming sideways from the upper. Picking it up and holding it to the last light, he started to shave away the bark from the white wood underneath. He continued to work on the piece until it was almost dark, and he felt himself getting sleepy. But he continued working, keeping sleep at bay. The wood was now a shape that almost glowed white in the last moments of dusk. He half-expected it to leap from his hands and go running off into the brush.
As he worked, he came to know he was making a gift for Mama. He decided he didn’t like it being just plain white wood. Rolling up his sleeve, he pressed the blade into the soft flesh of his inner arm until he raised a small puddle of blood. He set the knife down and used his index finger to paint the blood onto the lower limbs of the wood figure for pants, and put more on the knob at the other end for a head with hair.
He held his work out to look at it, and decided he liked it much better this way. “This is for you, Mama, and if I ever were to see you again, I want you to have it so you’ll know how much you mean to me,” he whispered to himself. With that, he heard something in the vicinity of the trailer, the sound of someone trying to be quiet. It was Mac, walking on tip-toe, putting things in the trunk of the old Malibu: a big old Army duffel bag, an ice chest, his rifle and shotgun.
Every few moments, Mac would look up and glance around, moving ever so slow and careful, checking to see if he was noticed. He disappeared around the far corner of the trailer for a few seconds, and reappeared, carrying his tool chest in one hand, and a case of Coors in the crook of the other arm. These he placed on the passenger side of the car, closing the door with a gentle push.
Mac went to the driver’s door, opened it part way, and leaned into the open gap between the car and the door. He looked around one more time, placing one hand on the windshield pillar and the other inside on the wheel. Johnny heard the emergency brake ratchet loose, and Mac shoved the old Chevy down the slope to the little road that circled in from the highway through Scooter’s Trailer Village. When it was about 50 yards out, he saw Mac leap into the car, shut the driver’s door and the taillights came on at the same time yellow pools of light leapt in front of the disappearing car.
“I see you, Mac, you prick and I know what you’re doin’. Let’s just see if you can stay gone.” He crawled back up into his little hideout in the brush, sprayed down one more time with Back Woods Off before he huddled down to sleep the rest of the night.
At dawn, while the sky was still flamingo pink with clouds lacquered in gold, he stole down to the trailer and saw no sign of the Malibu. It was as he thought. Daddy Mac, seeing nothing to hold him any more, had run off. Everything was still quiet, not even Shawna Wilson was up yet, minding everyone’s business. He made his way up the stoop, and stood before the screen door a moment, heart pounding, before letting himself in to the soft familiar darkness. Mama was still in bed, weeping.
Johnny G made his way down the passageway to the rear of the trailer. She yelled out, “Mac! Is it you hon’? You better be comin’ back to me, goddamn you …” Anger pushing through the grief.
He stood in the doorway. “It’s me, Mama, Johnny G,” he said, almost shy. For a moment she stared as if seeing her own death, before her face crumpled and glistened with new tears. “I made you a gift, Mama,” and he thrust out the little whittled homunculus. “I don’t know whatcha call it but when I was makin’ it, I knew it was for you.”
In a shaft of soft dawn light, her eyes pooled with tears. “I see you made that for Mama with your own two hands, Johnny.” She took the wooden piece from him tenderly as if it were a living child of flesh and blood. With great care, she placed it on the pillow next to her, where Mac’s head would have been. Raising the old chenille spread, she said, “Get in this bed, boy, and lie here with your Mama for a while.”
Johnny G kicked off his muddy shoes and curled himself into Mama’s darkness, lying with his back against her. She put her arm across his chest, nuzzling his neck, and he fell towards sleep, more complete and happy than he’d been in quite some time.
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