Vic Sizemore's short stories are published or forthcoming in StoryQuarterly, Southern Humanities Review, Connecticut Review, Portland Review, Blue Mesa Review, Sou’wester, Silk Road Review, Atticus Review, PANK Magazine Fiction Fix, Vol.1 Brooklyn, Conclave, and elsewhere. Excerpts from his novel, The Calling, are published in Connecticut Review, Portland Review, Prick of the Spindle, Burrow Press Review, and elsewhere. His fiction has won the New Millennium Writings Award for Fiction, and been nominated for Best American Nonrequired Reading and a Pushcart Prize.
Mom called two days ago and told me about my little brother Cameron in Afghanistan. I don’t think her news has sunk in. I don’t feel anything at all.
Two years ago, Cameron impulsively joined the Army just out of college.
“Why would you pull a stupid stunt like that?” I asked him. We were drinking beers down at Logan’s where he knew the bartenders and we got every third beer free.
“Serve my country,” he said. He shrugged and took a drink of his Coors Light.
He meant it too—our family has always been simple, patriotic people—but he also had a fresh degree in business, student loans coming due, and no options better than waiting tables at Chi Chi’s on River Street. He ended up in Afghanistan, riding around in a hummer with a gun—a 50 caliber, or a 20 millimeter judging from the pictures—swiveling on top. If he’d gone to Iraq, he’d have come home before this, but he was sent to Afghanistan. The explosion hit him somewhere between Marjeh and Lashkar Gah, in the Nad Ali district.
Strange, but when I heard about it, the first thing that came to my mind, comes now and squats and refuses to move until I give it due attention. An incident I haven’t thought of for years now—a joke my friend Kirk and I played on Cameron when he was thirteen and we were both fifteen.
It was right after Halloween. Our house was at the foot of a mountain everybody called Reynold’s Mountain, for the old man who owned a few hundred acres on it. One summer Kirk, Cameron and I built our version of a cabin a mile up a hunting trail. We carried dad’s ax and three saws out every day, packed food and jugs of water like we were off to work a day job. We cut down a locust tree twelve inches in diameter, trimmed it for the center pole. We wedged it in the crotch of two trees. We cut down thirty smaller trees, their odor bitter in our noses and throats. We trimmed them and leaned them against the locust pole to form an A-Frame. We tied limbs horizontally across those with heavy twine.
At one point, I upset a pile of rocks and a writhing nest of copperheads beside my leg almost made me piss myself. Another time we got into a nest of yellow jackets and all three of us got stung to hell, running through the woods cursing and yanking off our clothes. The danger and pain made it more appealing: this wasn’t child’s play, it was the real deal; we were woodsmen, and danger was everywhere.
Mom drove us to Home Depot, and with our allowances, we bought a wide roll of heavy opaque plastic. We lugged it out the path and spread it over the wooden skeleton. The open triangle in back we covered with more plastic, and the front we covered with an old tent, cut and nailed to the wood so the zippered door served as our entrance.
It was as hot and steamy as a greenhouse, but we loved that cabin. It was so big that we hung hammocks, which we made with the black and white tennis nets we stole from the junior high courts. There was only room for two, so Kirk and I took the hammocks and Cameron, because he was the youngest, slept on the dirt floor. He occasionally asked for a turn in a hammock, which we always refused.
We spent most of that summer building the cabin and improving the surrounding area. We brought up the old paint-spattered boom box from dad’s basement workshop. Only the radio worked on it, but the batteries lasted longer that way. We cranked FM 105 and classic rock echoed out into the woods. We dug a fire pit out front, and lined it with rocks from the creek. From his house on the other side of the river, Kirk brought a grill grate and an old metal percolator coffee pot, which we used to boil creek water. We made tea. We cooked hot dogs. Once we got drunk up there, on beer that we’d begged an old man from our neighborhood, Mr. Hawkins, to buy for us at the Super Value.
We gave him the money and he brought the beer to us on the riverbank where we loaded it into our packs. He squinted at us with his milky old eyes and said, “Don’t you boys want to come over to my place? My wife’s at work.” He said, “I have real booze there. I have cigarettes you can smoke.”
We told him no thanks and got out of there. He was a known creeper. We found other ways to get our beer after that. A couple years later, he stopped my little sister Hannah in the road in front of his house and point-blank offered her money to come inside his house with him. Mom called the police on him, but he was old and could barely move. Still, a dark and disgusting evil lurked five houses down from ours. The world was full of so many kinds of danger, mom warned us. It was everywhere.
We camped in our cabin, wandered the mountainside with flashlights, our hearts beating wildly with the knowledge that creatures were just outside our lights’ glow, watching us. We cranked the radio loud, and never went out of hearing, used the music to guide us back in to the cabin. It felt like we were real pioneers, real mountain men. “You ever see that movie Into the Wild?” Kirk asked us. We weren’t allowed to see it yet. “We should go to Alaska, and do like that guy,” he said. “Except do it right and not eat poison plants.” Cameron and I agreed it would be a great adventure living in the wild. We believed we already were.
In September, with school and soccer practice and other activities, we stopped going up to the cabin much. We still talked about it. It had been our adventure all summer. One Saturday when we had an early home game, we went up in the afternoon. We each got big dips of Copenhagen for the hike. Not smart: all three of us ended up on our hands and knees barfing.
The next time we planned to go up was the first weekend of November. It was getting cold and deer hunters were sitting in tree stands all over the mountains. We wanted to get out there and make sure nobody had messed with the cabin. Then the bear gave me the idea for the trick.
A black bear had come down off the mountain the previous week. It was hit and killed by a UPS truck on the interstate access road. We rode our bikes out to see it. It was a small bear, about twice as big as a St. Bernard dog. Its eye socket was crushed in above its long dog snout, and the fur of its neck was slick with blood. There was a sore on the back of its neck, looked like the bear had scratched it raw, and inside that hole, maggots wriggled. A man who had stopped his pickup truck pointed at the sore and said to us, “Ringworms.” Camron whispered to me, “Those aren’t ringworms.” The man said, “Thing’s crawling with fleas and ticks too.” He asked the state trooper to let him take the bear for its hide and the meat, and the trooper wasn’t sure if he was allowed to do that with a bear.
Straight up the mountainside where the bear had come down was our cabin. We knew there were bears up there, but we’d never seen one. Now here was a bear, likely scared out of the woods by hunters.
A few days later, inspired by the dead bear, Kirk and I planned the trick on Cameron.
Cameron had a morning game. The team Kirk and I played on didn’t have a game that day. We were scheduled to play a Christian school, but there was some kind of trouble over there and they called and said they weren’t coming, so we won by forfeit. We arose early and hiked up in wet leaves and fog. We took the black witch’s cape that Kirk’s little sister Carla had worn for Halloween and carried it halfway out the hunting path. We draped it over a rhododendron bush and hiked back the way we’d come. From about a hundred yards down the path the cape over the bush was perfect, looked like nothing but a big black mass. I said, “Think he’ll buy it?” Kirk said, “It scares me, and I know what it is.”
We snapped a couple of saplings across the path to mark the spot.
We could hardly hold in our laughter when we told Cameron after his game that another bear had been spotted up on Reynold’s Mountain. “They think it’s the mother bear of that cub that got killed,” I said. Cameron stared straight ahead. He smelled of sweat and grass. His team had won their game and he’d scored one of the two goals.
Kirk said, “She’s out looking for her cub, and she’s pissed.”
Cameron said, “Should we take the 12 gauge?”
Kirk said, “Buckshot’s not going to stop a bear.”
I said, “Ready to hit the woods?”
Cameron nodded. He wasn’t sure about this.
We talked about the bear all the way up the path until I thought we might have overplayed it, especially when we got to the broken saplings and Kirk pointed at them and said, “Shit, dude. Bears break trees when they’re hunting you.”
Cameron was convinced though. He said, “Let’s go back down.”
That’s when I gasped and pointed at the big black mass up on the hunting path ahead of us.
He looked at the bear, and then he looked at me, his eyes wide with fear. I squinted to hold my laughter in. Kirk took two steps off the path, heading straight down the mountainside. He said, “I’m out of here.” He really sounded scared. Even though I knew it was a joke, I felt a little scared too, as if Cameron’s fear was so intense it was radiating off him and seeping into us.
I expected Cameron to back slowly away, not make any sudden moves, as we knew we should do with a bear, but when Kirk said he was out of there, Cameron decided he was too. He leaped off the path and went bounding like a deer down the mountainside. He crashed through branches and leaves. “Come on, goddamnit,” he shouted.
Kirk and I looked at each other and busted out laughing, which we thought would end the joke. Crashing through the dry leaves, Cameron and didn’t hear us.
“Cameron,” I shouted. “Hey, Cameron.”
He didn’t stop.
Kirk and I went loping down the mountainside after him. I was trying to keep Cameron in sight and didn’t see the barbed wire fence, which somehow he’d gotten over without breaking stride. It caught me across the legs and flipped me onto my face in the leaves and sticks. The rusty barbs tore through my jeans and gouged two holes in my left leg—a deep bleeding one in my thigh and a smaller one just above my ankle.
The joke was over then. I got up slowly and limped off the hill with Kirk walking along beside me and pain shooting through my thigh with every hard step down the hillside. When we got to the edge of the woods we were above someone’s back yard, and beyond the house was the interstate access road where the bear was killed. Cameron was already jogging beside the road toward home.
When we got back to the house and saw how worked up Cameron was, we decided to let it play out a little longer. I talked about my injuries, which mom had to see immediately and then made me go get a tetanus shot.
Kirk and I talked about seeing the bear, that big black shape ahead of us in the woods. Kirk said, “It stood up and turned toward us.”
Cameron added, “It looked right into my eyes.” You could tell by his face that he believed it.
That’s when Kirk and I lost it. We could barely tell him what we’d done through our laughter. “It looked right at me,” Kirk said. We laughed harder. Cameron’s face reddened. He said, “You fucking assholes,” and mom sent him stomping off to his room for cursing.
When the government contacted mom, Cameron was already on his way back to the States. He’s at Walter Reed right now. “Thank God, he’s alive,” Mom keeps saying to people over the phone. “We can deal with anything as long as he’s alive.” I’ve called in to work and we’re driving up tonight. My girlfriend is trying to get off work and come with us. I’m still waiting to hear from her. Hannah is driving up from Clemson to ride over with us. Dad’s flying in and meeting us there.
I keep thinking about that joke. “That bear looked right at me,” I’d say, telling people how scared Cameron was. “I saw his eyes.” It got to where he chuckled about it too. He was a good sport; little brothers don’t have much choice. My heart is knotted up in my chest. I’ll see him tonight. He will be in a bed, without his legs. An IED blasted them off above his knees, and somehow they kept him from bleeding out. His lower legs are gone, ripped from his body, rotting in pieces somewhere, or eaten by dogs.
I don’t know what he’ll want me to say or do. All I keep thinking about are the woods above our house and that black cape spread over a small tree. It was just a stupid joke. I want to say to him, “Remember that joke about the bear? That’s not what I meant.” My brother, my baby brother Cammy, that’s not at all what I meant.