Kristen Arnett is a fiction and essay writer who has held fellowships at Tin House and Lambda Literary Foundation. She was an honorable mention for Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers as well as a finalist for the 2014 William Richey short fiction contest at Yemassee Journal. Her work has either appeared or is upcoming in North American Review, The Rumpus, The Toast, and Burrow Press Review. She is currently finishing up her first short fiction collection.
Beginning the ritual is simple enough: you build the circle starting with your knees. Two kids on a fuzzed brown carpet, thick with dog dander and lint, the occasional skin flake winking up at us like pale snow. We sit cartilage to cartilage – the knee bone connected to the knee bone.
“Move closer,” I say. “You’re ruining it.”
It’s Saturday and there’s nothing to do. We’ve been listless all afternoon, flopped around the house, our bodies propped up on furniture like mannequins. There’ve been times when we’d sit by the jalousie windows with our faces pressed to the mesh screen; maybe stick our tongues out to taste the rusted metal while we watch cars slip past on the front drag. Not today. Heat has traveled through the concrete walls of the house and sunk deep into our limbs, leaving them limp and heavy. I’m sweating through my shorts.
Now we sit on the floor. My brother and I lean forward until the tips of our noses nearly kiss – until his milky cereal breath fogs my glasses. Only we can perform this trick: we can make our eyes shiver. If we stare hard enough at each other’s faces, our eyeballs vibrate in their sockets. The meeting of our eyes is solemn, lids crinkled until the corners curl downward like fermatas, the promise of a slow song sung in the corneas.
Our pupils constrict in tandem. As we look at each other he catalogues the similarities:
“Yellow stripes in yours and mine,” offers Michael. “Like tigers.”
His are cratered, pocked like the surface of a freshly plowed field.
“Dirt brown,” I say, pulling at the skin beneath the socket. “Shit brown.”
My brother doesn’t speak to adults or to other children – only to me and sometimes my parents, but always to animals. They love him in the way that he loves them, which is to say that they love him fiercely and unconditionally. Michael knows the secret ways of their bodies. He can predict the subtle swish of a tail and the downward brush of a pointed ear, understands how to touch and be touched by them. The bunnies in the glass pen at the pet store will run from my fumbling hands, but they immediately calm to Michael.
“You’re not doing it right,” I say. He’s picking at a dry place on his elbow. “Pay attention.”
When our eyes shiver, we are on the verge of telepathy. I’ve read about this in books checked out from the public library. To perform telepathy, one must utilize remote mental powers locked deep in the brain. I root to reach his mind, but it’s always just at the cusp of something and never actually inside. All the physical detritus of the body blocks the mind from reaching full capacity, blocks it from perfect union with each other. This is the explanation my mother gives when I say I can’t hear God’s voice: my human body blinds me. Makes me weak.
“Brett stinks,” Michael says. “Bad.”
Our family dog is allergic to everything – her food, fleas, even the baby oak trees that sprout like grass in the backyard. She lies coiled beside our pressed knees, asleep; her ribs expand outward in wet gurgles, but her nose is dry. It scratches like burlap when you touch it.
“Dry nose means sickness.” Michael speaks sharply, to make sure I’m listening.
“I thought a runny nose meant a cold?”
“No, that’s just for people.”
“That’s stupid, it should be the other way around.”
We repeat our eye vibrations in spates of three, taking small pauses to sit back and dig our fingers into the carpet. We pick strings and lint, raking our fingers through the nap like beachcombers. Michael ruffles up Brett’s fur, and when he weaves his hands through the fuzz his fingers come back full of crunchy hair.
“The hair is light, falling out.” He points out a tender pink spot near the base of her tail. “Here, she’s been gnawing.”
I nod and watch him carefully probe the wound. The dog’s tail thumps three times on the ground as he scrounges out an itchy patch.
“It’ll heal up.” He pats her rump and she curls into herself again.
When we both lean in again, I count the map of freckles across the bridge of his nose. There’s a beauty mark directly over the curve of his upper lip that my mother says looks just like Cindy Crawford. This time when our eyes shake, I feel the lightning flare of a headache behind my right eye.
“Let’s stop,” I say. “I’m thirsty”
We rummage for popsicles in the freezer that are labeled not for their fruity taste but for their colors – Purple, Red, Green. We’re supposed to always ask before we eat, but our mother is napping and she gets mad if you wake her up, so we each grab two so we can eat them outside on the porch slab.
The door swings outward, which is confusing. Our father says it’s because the door was installed improperly. My mother refuses to answer this door during the day when my father’s not home, because she worries it could be someone there to rob us. Rob us of what? My father jokes. Our commemorative Flintstone jelly jars? She’s asked our father to fix it for years now, but I don’t want it changed. I like the outward swing and try to hang from it like a chimp.
The air is thick outside, making it hard work just to breathe. We creep along the edges closest to the house, stick to triangular wedges of small shade to get to the way-back carport. That’s where our dad keeps his fishing boat.
Michael tears open his ice pop with his teeth right away, but I warm mine with my hands until it’s a radioactive liquid.
“This will give me x-ray vision.” I suck drops from the sharp plastic and make a loud slurping noise. “Just like Superman.”
Michael peels cracked paint from the rusty latticework; a teal green my mother picked from the sale rack at the hardware store. We painted the lattices all last summer with our water color brushes and already it’s gone to rust, bubbling up orange from beneath.
I’m on the lookout for dogs. We live in a neighborhood where they run wild, without leashes or collars. I like ours, but I don’t consider her a real dog. Real dogs yip and scratch, but Brett is a cartoon character: barrel-round, a smelly lump that sleeps in bundles of clean clothes, a sly eater of sandwich crusts. Her eyes are sleepy deep-set and she doesn’t make a sound unless our father plays rough with us. Then she’ll growl at the back of her throat, but only for a second before she falls back asleep again.
The smell hits me at once. “Ugh, what is that?”
“Something’s dead,” Michael says.
The air is thick with it, a pungent foulness that slowly seeps up my nostrils and lodges there like fingers.
“Gross.” I can’t move away without burning my feet on the slab. “Where?”
Michael crouches down on his haunches; stocky and dark. My brother is small for his age, but densely compact – muscular in a way that doesn’t show except in the thickness of his arms and the solidness of his calves. He is deeply tanned with black hair and white teeth, and his hands have strong calluses.
“There.” He points beneath my father’s boat, which is suspended upside down from the tow bed.
“It’s too dark to see,” I say. Michael takes my hand and points with my finger this time, grasping my hand and pushing it into the shape of a gun until I’m staring down the barrel, shooting at a small bundled shape.
“What is it, a bird?”
I’ve seen possums before, but only at night – dark, blurred shapes with glowing eyes that stare you down when they’re eating from your garbage can or running from the wheels of your bike.
The boat is something we consider a hideout. We have a treehouse that our father built for us one weekend with his church friends, but we never use it. The men had sawed boards in the yard with their shirts off, drank watery Kool-Aid while we ran around down by the lake. Our father modeled it into a replica of our own small house. There are real working shutters and a rug, there are curtains and a ladder, but he built it so well that the roaches love it the most. We can’t go inside it without being crawled on.
Michael moves forward and I catch at his arm, unnerved by seeing a dead thing any closer.
“Don’t,” I say, but he shakes me off and I crawl in after him. The smell is carroty up close, like vegetables that have sat too long in the crisper and they’ve wilted into each other – lettuce drippings leached into a bag of mealy apples, spinach turned slick and sliming the insides of its plastic wrapping.
Now we make the circle around the dead thing on the floor. There’s a little sun that’s leached through a bolt hole at the top of the boat and it hits Michael’s shoulder, the light breaking and settling down on a pink earthworm tail. Michael’s hand sits next to it and then all of a sudden it sits down on top of it, fingers stroking.
“Possums are nocturnal,” Michael says. “They don’t like the sunlight.”
He covers the whole tail with the expanse of his palm.
“See how small? This was a baby; they’re marsupials.”
“Like a platypus?”
I’m obsessed with platypus, they are the perfect mixture between a duck and a puppy. I have a few wildlife cards that I ordered free through the mail. I memorized the facts off the back of them and sometimes I’ll quote them aloud. Michael gets annoyed because I start acting like I know more than him about something, which I don’t. I just like platypus.
“Possum carry their young in a pouch, like a little knapsack.”
“Platypus do that, plus they lactate.”
“Shut up about the platypus.”
I can’t see his hands, but I can hear him shifting in the shadows of the boat. I know that he’s touching the possum and I want to touch it too, maybe, but animals only like it when Michael touches them.
Aside from the dead animal stink, the shell of the boat smells like lures and rotting cloth. When my father takes the boat out Michael goes with him, but once they get home I like to dig in his fishing box and touch all of the foreign objects.
“That is a Rapala Rattlin,” my father will say. “And this is a Spro Bucktail.”
Held up to the light they shine like ghost fish. Much cooler than the needles and thread casings my mother keeps in her wicker sewing box. Even the plush tomato that holds her pearl-topped pins pales to the fishing box’s treasures.
“See the hook here?” My father will point, tracing the curves of each double blade with the edge of a finger, his touch gentle. “Razor sharp.”
My favorites are the cheap bags of rubbery worms. They’re stuffed with glitter or pearlescent, slick and greasy with lubrication. When you hold the plastic bag up to your face, those beautiful worms smell like cherry chapstick.
“What if the possum had rabies?” I say. “I bet that’s why it died.”
A raccoon in our neighborhood had rabies a few months earlier. It staggered around drunkenly, and we’d laughed until it finally fell over, foaming at the mouth and gyrating. Animal control had carted it away in metal crate.
“Don’t be an idiot, a cat probably killed it.”
He lays hands on it, as if he might force life back into its body. The possum’s tail snakes back and forth against the concrete. It hisses as it twitches through the dead leaves.
“He’s dancing,” Michael says. “Look at him.”
It’s gross, but I laugh. The sound bounces off the fiberglass sides of the boat and bangs hollowly at my ears.
As we sit, the smell becomes a thick, tangible worry. The odor will permeate my clothes; I know when we go back in the house our mother will make us bathe in the awful oatmeal and tomato mixture – the one she used when we were sprayed by the skunk at my uncle’s farm.
“It’s too hot under here,” I say. “Let’s go back in the house.”
“Large canines.” He’s too busy investigating the mouth to listen to me. “Heavy jaw.”
How long does it take a dead thing to pick up carrion? Maybe a week, but it could be as quick as a day. Heat replicates the worst kinds of bacterial growth, like mold spreading on damp bread. I touch the popsicle to my lip and imagine a maggot has crawled inside. I throw it and scrabble out from beneath on hands and knees.
The barely visible crescent of lake that stands at the end of our property shines like a neat row of sequins. I focus on the strip where sky meets water and my breathing slows. The lake is not really a lake, but a glorified retention pond. You can’t swim in it, but faded out aluminum beer cans do, along with the amoebic wildlife that terrifies my mother.
“Are you coming or what?”
“Gimme a minute.”
I can hear our mother moving around in her bedroom, which means she’s about to take another nap. My parent’s bedroom overlooks the carport where the boat is stored. The curtain twitches, but then it closes again and I hear the small TV set that’s lodged by their bed switch on. The muted sounds of an afternoon talk show creep out through the cracks in the jalousies.
I’m trying to figure out which show she’s watching, wondering if that means I can go swipe some leftover valentine’s candy from the kitchen once she passes out again. Our mother has a thyroid condition, which means she sleeps like a hibernating bear. The naps leave her groggy and easily agitated when she wakes up. She usually yells at us; blanket twisted around her torso, her dark hair embroidering the side of her cheek where her face meets the pillow.
“Get out. Now.” I kick the boat jack and the whole thing shifts slightly to the right.
When he climbs out, he blinks a million times to adjust his eyes. There are stains on his hands and something brown on his t-shirt.
“I’m thirsty again, let’s get the hose.” I say this as a way to talk about washing off without saying that it’s washing off. Michel hates anything that has to do with baths.
Our mother will joke that it’s because he’s all boy. That’s not the case; it’s just that he never notices the dirt. My mother knows this about him, so I have to assume that she says things like this as a way to blend with the other mothers at church – women who homeschool their kids and sew their own clothes. Or sometimes I think she overcompensates on the boy talk just to cover the fact that her daughter lacks femininity: a daughter with fingernails just as dirty as her son’s; a girl she claims is searching out ringworm in every puddle of mucky water.
We walk around the side of the house to the shed where the hose lies half-sunk in a mound of dirt and pine needles. I turn it on while Michael walks away to the corner near the front entrance of the shed. He unzips and aims a stream of urine at the metal door.
“You’re disgusting,” I say.
“Yeah, right, like I want to pee on a shed so bad.”
He shakes himself so the last drops splatter.
I am jealous. Once I peed outside just to see if I could, and I ended up wetting my jeans and my underwear. I’d had to hide them at the very bottom of the hamper.
“I’m gonna shower,” I say. “This is boring.”
Unlike my brother, I love taking showers in our tiny bathroom. It’s the only place I can go to be alone. As the only boy, Michael gets his own room – a cave filled with dark oak furniture and even darker shades of plaid. I’m forced to share a room with an infant sister twelve years my junior. It doesn’t matter that I like blue. There’s pink paint everywhere, candy-colored hues in milky pastels. A baby pink quilt with her name embroidered on it takes up an entire wall.
The water runs boiling hot in the shower, the kind of hot that feels icy like sleet when it sprays your bare back. I put on the radio that used to be my father’s when he was a teenager, twisting the dial until the songs slide into each other. The plastic shell is coated and fuzzed over from a lifetime of hairspray applications. It’s about a million years old, but it still works. He reminds us of that every time we complain we don’t have new things, like our friends:
“Old is reliable,” he says. “Old is sturdy.”
I’m already naked when I hear the shouts. I wrap a towel around myself and run down the hallway into the living room where my brother is crouched on the floor between the coffee table and the couch. Our mother leans over him, yanking him up by the neck of his t-shirt, stretching out the back until it’s a camel hump.
“It’s okay, baby, let me see.” Smoothing his back, up and down in long strokes. “That’s a good boy.”
When I crouch down in front of him, his face is pressed flat into the carpet. There is a strange whimpering, and at first I think it’s Michael, but when I twist around I see the dog scrunched up against the wall underneath a plastic play table. Her whole body quakes and jiggles, and her lip is curled up to show all her sharp white teeth, but her tail still wags and thumps the floor.
My towel falls down around my lap as I try to pull my brother up by grabbing at his hair, clutching at the scruff of his neck. His head comes up slowly and his face is a mess; blotchy from crying. The skin under his eye is puffed and scratched. His right cheek is swollen and the center has deep, jagged looking punctures in the soft flesh from where our dog has bitten him.
Michael’s hands go to his belly and I see the dark splotches; the remnants of the possum on his clothes. Along with the stains comes the sense-memory of the odor of death, a scent so powerful it has a flavor on the tongue. Michael once told me that animals don’t have the curiosity of humans, how we’re constantly fascinated by death and the afterlife and all the strings that pin us to the earth. Animals are instinctively fearful of dead things.
That weekend my father took our dog away. Then he hosed off the guts of the dead baby possum, pulled his boat out of the carport and took my brother with him out on the water. It was the middle of summer, clear blue sky mirrored out on the smooth glass surface of the lake. They were dark specks bobbing along as I stood in the carport, standing over the ring left by the possum’s body.
Knees bent, legs spread wide – I stand on the circle and focus on the black specks of their bodies. I try and make my eyeballs shake, all alone, but I just go cross-eyed.