When you run through a stranger’s house, you see beautiful things. So said Bern when he caught his younger brother Nate and me playing ding-dong-ditch. We faced up at his stubble chin and furious eyes and asked him, what should we do instead? Ding-dong-ditch is weak, he said. If you want something real, you should play backdoor dash.
So Nate and I crept onto the clean porches of handsome families across town and jiggled the doorknob. In and out, Nate said in his stepfather’s velvet voice. I’ll take point. Sometimes, we heard the crunchy jawbreaker sound of a lock. Other times, we’d charge through the place screaming our brains out until we made it through the back door.
On the handsome side of town, our sneakers landed on polished floors and the wives’ mouths opened and the husbands stumbled. Fish tanks threw patterns on the walls and bronze sculptures flashed us and celadon vases spilled leaves over dark wood furniture. We saw sofas too nice for sitting and stainless appliances over turquoise tilework and a wife holding her husband’s cock like she was going to sing into it and then we were blasting away, vaulting over white fences.
Other summers, Nate and I had hiked around with gum and BB guns in the backwoods. We’d used flat blades of grass as whistles and spit sunflower shells in gobs under the stone bridge while we raced stick-boats swirling down the creek. But this year, the creek was dry as the bottoms of our feet. The marshes and briers, usually full, withered and cracked away. We found entertainment elsewhere; in kissing, unsexual practice kissing with salty august mouths, and undertaking Bern’s dangerous dares, which felt much more sexual to me. I had thoughts about Bern often, though he was much older and couldn’t be bothered to remember my name.
“Hey, girl, pretend to limp across the fast intersection by the highway ramp,” Bern suggested while I considered seriously gripping his ass or sucking his neck. “See who runs out of patience first.”
Maybe I would.
“Tickle the bus driver when we hit the green light. Get his armpits!”
My hands fluttered, ready for action.
“Take some Charleston Chews from the little box under the register for me.”
We’ll take ‘em for all they’ve got, said Nate, his stepfather’s stepson, pretending to spit tobacco.
The handsome part of town had cop cars roving for us after just one week. Nate had learned to call them pigs from his stepfather and we kissed unsexually in the bushes to hide for five minutes before we could bolt home. To skirt the police long-term, we switched to our own neighborhood. Here one could find bowed roofs and lopsided porches, limp flags crying for wind and grass striped with dog poo. We scoped out our first house in the yard behind an old car cooked white as bone. The owner had piled interesting scraps on the patio and behind the dark windows, ceramic ovens and tires and glass beakers.
These people live too close, Nate whispered, knotty hair crawling in the wind. They could recognize me, tell my stepdad. In the end we chickened out and kissed in the fossilized backseat instead. His left hand clutched at my chest. When I smacked him how Mom taught me (nail blades out) his eyes watered. “Bern said I should try it,” he said. He never did again. Later, he found me waving at gnats under the scorched cottonwood and presented his usual Halloween costume as an apology, a scream mask with a plastic heart that pumped blood through the interstitial space between the mask’s skin and creamy bone. I’d always admired his store-bought costume and its stale plastic stink and knew at once no neighbor could I.D. us beneath it.
So yes, I forgave him, mostly out of pity because he also showed me fresh stepfather stripes down his back pink as a sunset. Quit bringing up your old daddy, he doesn’t live here no more, he muttered again and again as if rehearsing. With only one mask, we took turns, and Nate chose that same hoarder house with the saggy eaves and snake-sized shits studding the yard. I waited behind the wasted car watching him charge into shadow, sky flaring yellow through wildfire clouds from out west.
The shot sounded only like a sharp breath. Later, I dwelt on that noise often, like when I caught Bern’s raging stare in school or when I visited the hospital with a button of hand sanitizer pressed into my palm. Dystonic movement everywhere, but mostly winking, winking, winking. The nurse told me the right side of the brain controls the left side of the body. That shot had gasped like so many smooth ins and outs as he laid in a bed from trick or treat to happy new year. Maybe, I thought, when he woke he would tell me about the beautiful things he’d seen inside, nostalgic junk and peeling couches and exotic animals, in a voice that had finally become his own.
James Cato lives in Pennsylvania behind a forest. Look for him in SmokeLong Quarterly, Atticus Review, Flash Frog, and Daily Science Fiction, among others. He tweets humbly @the_sour_potato and his work lives on jamescatoauthor.com/fiction.