CHAPTER ONE: VERY EARLY SATURDAY MORNING

AFINEcover

A FINE YOUNG MAN

TEN-YEAR-OLD ROY BROWN sits in his chair at the kitchen table alone. Yesterday his brother, Billy, was killed on Pine Landing Road.

Everything’s dark. The outside pole light is on. Big Red hasn’t crowed.

Roy is barefoot. Wrapped in a quilt over long johns. Striped flannel pajamas under his brother’s old bathrobe. Rubs his feet together. Wiggles his toes. Tries crossing the one that went to market over the one that stayed home.

They immediately snap apart.

Shakes his head back and forth. I should’ve worn socks.

Usually his dad lights the gas heater before leaving for the barn making the kitchen as cozy as the inside of his bed, but he isn’t sure if his dad is up. Striking matches is another too young thing to do. They were still talking around the table when I fell asleep last night. Maybe he doesn’t have to milk this morning?

Roy yawns. Rubs his eyes. Listens to his stomach growl and rumble. This morning pea soup would seem like water. Puts his knees up, feet in the seat of his chair. Pulls the quilt closer. Grandma Laura and her sisters pieced the different colored stripes, prints, and solids together when his mama was a little girl. “No pattern, just patchwork. Leftover scraps. A stained glass rainbow.”

Sighs deep and drawn-out. Sounding as empty and as hollow as he feels inside. Wishing the day is over or hadn’t even begun. Later today Billy’s body is coming home. Sunday is the funeral in the Methodist Church, then burial in the cemetery opposite the ‘Welcome to Hartsville’ sign. It will be the first grave of somebody I really used to know.

Billy was sixteen, in the ninth grade. The swellest brother ever. Tall, slender, strong with black hair and dark eyes. Always tan. What Roy wanted to look like instead of freckles, big ears, rabbit’s teeth, green eyes and reddish-brown curls. Always pale.

His brother was number 33, the best basketball player in Hartsville, Wilson County, Alabama. Could have been better than Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, and Jerry West all rolled into one.

Billy was the son every mama wanted. Would make any dad proud. Loved by the girls and envied by the guys. But not hated because he was so nice. It wasn’t phony either like some guys pretending to be big shots!

Roy was going to grow up to be like him, all of the fourth grade boys were, but guessed he couldn’t now. Heroes like big brothers weren’t supposed to be dead.

The yellow Dodge pickup truck missed the curve on the north side of Big Bend Bridge. Smashed into a pine tree. Shattered the windshield. Mr. Cooper who pulled the body out before the gas tank exploded said, “Billy was killed instantly.”

After Ralph’s dad left, Mr. Foster and Fred rushed up the front steps. Roy watched from the living room window and then from the shadows of the dining room when told to leave. Knew something else was wrong.

They stood before Roy’s parents. Followed them to the sofa.

It seemed like hours before either Foster said anything. Both with red faces and redder ears, staring around like they were somewhere never seen before.

Mr. Foster held his hat before his belly. His chubby fingers inching around the brim like Mr. Cooper’s skinny ones had earlier. Bowed his head. Looked like a kid on display for company.

Fred kept wiggling and squirming. Rubbing his neck. Scratching a knee, twisting and untwisting his arms. Running his fingers through his wire kinks.

His mama and dad sat together waiting.

Then like lightning Fred’s face fell. Tears poured. Flung his hands over his eyes sobbing, shoulders shaking violently back and forth.

Roy was embarrassed and sad like seeing a friend acting a fool in public. Fred was Billy’s age. Fred and Billy were best pals. Roy called Fred, “Dodo Bird”. Said mean things about his basketball playing. Was crazy jealous thinking his brother liked Fred more. Knew that was stupid and silly, but did. Even though his mama said, “Blood is thicker than water.”

Finally between sniffles and swallows, Fred stared at the floor and mumbled in a weak voice like choking. “Billy and me left practice. Drove over to Elsewood because I got kicked off the team.” Here his voice stopped like Billy slamming on brakes in the middle of the road that morning. Then burst out all at once in a squeaky cartoon voice. “Got somebody to buy us beer.”

Fred lifted his head. Face swollen larger. Eyes bloodshot more. Fingers spread like branches before him. “I’m sorry!”

The grown-ups didn’t seem to hear him or Roy falling against the swinging door. Again he felt like Wilbur Moore had punched him in the stomach. Busted his lip. Blackened his eye. Tore his clothes. The pain was worse than falling on the pitchfork points up, eating candy with every tooth rotten.

His mama screamed. Jerked away from his dad. Leaped forward like the Indians on TV. “You killed Billy!” she hollered pounding Fred’s chest. “You killed my boy!”

His dad jumped up and grabbed her around the waist. Held her like Roy did Sam. Swung her around, her feet leaving the floor. Then they were face-to-face. His mama’s sobs buried into his dad’s chest.

Roy grabbed the doorsill pulling up.

His dad, closer than a guard in basketball, jerked his finger in Fred’s face. “You should’ve been in that pickup too!”

Fred ran out into the night screaming and hollering for God to strike him dead.

Roy hated Fred more than the Devil. No matter what Martha or the Bible says.

Tugs the quilt around him closer. Puts his feet into Martha’s chair. His dad always sits facing the back door, his mama on his left, then in order of birth Shirley, Billy, Martha, him. It’s an unspoken rule as established as the sun rising and falling, as set as the stockings hung on the mantel Christmas Eve. Even when one of them is sick or eating somewhere else, the others stay in their place. The chair at the table is as personal as the clothes they wear. Aunt Gladys still sets Uncle George’s plate and he’s been dead ten years. The end chair will always be empty.

Smiles. Feels a bit better, a little steady. Glad some things never change. Home will always be safe and warm.

The kitchen is dark except for the fluorescent light over the middle sink above the sink. His mama always leaves it on. Gives the refrigerator, the range, and the round water heater in the corner a bluish glow. His dad built the counter for the sink three summers ago. Drawers for silverware, dishcloths, odds and ends under. Doors for pots and pans below. A wire rack for wet dishes above. Martha moves it to the left when she washes.

Stair-stepped jars hold flour, sugar, coffee, grease, and tea bags. Next a rolling pin, hand mixer, chopping block, the cookie jar full of chocolate chips his mama made yesterday before leaving for town. Then the toaster he and Billy bought last Christmas from Mr. Thompson’s store under a cover Shirley made. His share was two dollars. Earned by picking up pecans.

Blue Willow cups hang above the plates and saucers in the floor-to-ceiling cupboard. Cans and dry goods are stacked under. The table, oval like the striped rug under, sits in the center of the room. A bowl of camellias on a spider web doily is in the middle on top. Sugar bowl, salt and pepper shakers close by. Tiebacks above the sink match the curtains on the back door and the cushions on the chairs. The telephone hangs behind his dad’s chair.

Scattered along the walls are baskets, hot pads, and Shirley’s loop potholders. An iron frying pan, a spoon-fork-ladle-strainer, the spice rack Billy built in 4-H. A calendar showing snow never seen on the ground before, Martha’s cross-stitched sampler asking God to bless this home. A board with dangling keys, some to unknown locks, an extra set for the pickup. His mama’s apron hangs from the last hook.

There are three doors going out of and into the kitchen: swinging to the dining room, half glass outside, solid to the hallway opposite his parents’ bedroom. Going up is the bath, Shirley and Martha’s, his and Billy’s bedrooms.

Last night their house was full of lights and sounds. The telephone rang as soon as somebody hung up. The yard packed with cars and pickup trucks. Folks crowded their home. Friends with parents from school, both sets of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. He was the youngest grandchild on each side. Eddie, the oldest Smith, and Walt, the oldest Brown, were both eighteen but a month apart.

Roy wandered around like lost. Wore his best shoes, which pinched and squeaked. Sunday pants and white shirt both stiff from starch. His dad’s old blue tie Shirley chopped off. Nodding. Smiling. Afraid he would cry. Wanting to be alone.

Women flocked around his mama swallowed up in the living room sofa. Eyes wet and puffy. Faces long and sad. Smelling like the drugstore’s fragrances aisle. Grabbed him blubbering and hugging. Nearly drowned and smothered.

Men huddled on the front porch talking in hushed tones smoking musky cigarettes and sweet cigars. Shook his hand like a grownup. Slapped his shoulder. Said he must be strong for his father and his mother.

Of course Fred didn’t come back. He’s probably run to the next county by now.

Chester greeted everybody at the front steps with “Howdy-do”. His stare blank and somewhere else like always. Mrs. Wilson whispered that Brenda Sue was “Shaken”.

The cheerleaders boohooed real tears.

The guys on the team stood like shadows in the background.

Roy wanted to run away. Knew Saturday night would be more horrible and frightening with Billy’s body there.

“The good always die young.”

“An awful terrible shock.”

“Such a fine young man.”

“I heard he’d been out drinking with that Foster boy.”

Mr. Bryant cancelled tomorrow night’s basketball game. “To have it now wouldn’t be right.”

Albert, the first time ever without a smile, said, “Billy never came back for the tire.”

Roy wasn’t sure how to feel. Even in the kitchen with Ralph Cooper eating fried chicken.

“Want to come to my house and spend the night?” Ralph finished his second drumstick and reached for the third. As usual, his best pal was eating more in order to grow. All of the kids in the fourth grade called Ralph “Squirt” except him.

“No,” he answered. Elbows on table, chin in left hand. Twirling his fork in his mashed potatoes and gravy. Manners that will send me to my room forever. But his mama walked by and didn’t say anything. I don’t think she saw me.

“We could stay up late and look through Sallie’s new American Girl.” Ralph wiped a crumb from his mouth with the back of his hand.

Roy dropped his fork. Frowned. “No, looking at bra ads is dumb.” Swallowed milk. Looked both ways. Leaned over and whispered in his secret agent’s voice, “Billy’s got some pictures of almost naked women in the bottom of his closet in a cigar box of love letters from Brenda Sue. One sort of shows tittie.” He found them last week when the house was empty after trying on Billy’s athletic supporter. Which kept sliding off.

Ralph’s green eyes stretched coin wide. “Wow, can I see them?”

“Yeah.” Picked up his fork and began twirling. Excited with the rush of adventure. Then remembered what was happening and stopped. Was ashamed for forgetting. “No.”

“Please?” Ralph dropped his drumstick, dragged out the word like a plea. “I’ll give you a nickel.”

“Well…” Winced like getting a splinter. He was saving for a three-blade pocketknife. Felt sorry because Ralph was short and only had an older sister bossier than Shirley. Roy shut his eyes and bit his bottom lip. “A quarter.”

“Okay.”

The coin quickly exchanged hands under the table and disappeared inside his pocket. “But not now, later.”

Ralph hung his head. Picked up the drumstick. “Oh yeah, I understand.” It was that pitiful voice used when a best pal’s brother was dead.

Roy smiled not knowing what else to do, tears bubbling up in his eyes. The quarter felt heavier than any stone. Burnt like a hot coal in his pocket. Maybe I shouldn’t see them again? Billy did say I was too young. Maybe I ought to give them back to Dodo Bird?

Roy’s mama sent him to bed after Ralph left around ten.

He undressed. Crawled into bed without even brushing his teeth. Twisted one way then the other. Sat up. Stretched out. Repeated. Listened to the alarm clock by Billy’s bed tick away seconds, minutes, hours. Afraid to close his eyes thinking that maybe they wouldn’t open. That’s silly like wondering if I should ask God to bless Billy.

Waited. Roy slept closest to the door making trips to the bathroom quicker. Billy’s bed was empty on the other side. Thought about crawling beneath its covers, but wasn’t sure how to explain the messed-up bed in the morning. Sighed. Stared at everything but nothing.

Bookshelves, built into the wall opposite the door, held encyclopedias, rocks, arrowheads found at Fort Sims. His bank shaped like a globe and Billy’s jar of pennies. Hardback and paperback books, Billy was halfway through The Hardy Boys. Plastic trophies and ribbons, the red ones were from Future Farmers or 4-H. Models Billy built–a World War II Flying Tiger, the Merrimack, a Model A Ford.

Opposite the windows was a floor-to-ceiling wardrobe with a closet on each side and drawers in the middle under a cubbyhole. Shirley said it was a hatbox. Billy had the top four and he the bottom. Three large doors across the top were where his mama switched the family’s winter and summer clothes.

They painted the bedroom last summer. Sky blue trimmed in white. Of course Billy did most of the work. Slapping the brush back and forth got boring after awhile. Plus Roy kept dribbling paint on the floor.

A picture of four curly puppies in a basket hung above his bed. A black and a white horse running side-by-side were over Billy’s. A paint-by-numbers picture of a ten-point buck drinking water Martha did one year for Billy’s birthday hung by the door. Roy often imagined that the spike they found would have looked like one day.

Stayed in bed for what seemed like hours. Maybe drifted off twice. Finally got up and went into the bathroom. Seemed strange empty. Slapped some of his dad’s Old Spice on his cheeks without knowing why.

Wandered into the kitchen. Sort of wanted to talk but wasn’t sure what to say. Wasn’t sure if anyone would listen anyway.

Martha seemed more distant than Chester. Shirley’s flitting would make a bumblebee ashamed. His parents moved like zombies in a scary movie. The folks who came just wanted to say how they felt, where they were, what they were doing when it happened. “Wreck” had became a dirty word like “dead”. Billy was in a horrible accident and passed away.

Mrs. Stewart, his Sunday school teacher, said, “What happened is God’s Will. There are things we don’t understand.” Mrs. Parker, whose husband was killed coming off Little Bend Bridge years ago, just wept and hugged.

Roy pokes out his lips. Glares up. Shakes his fist into the air. Blood rushing. Nails sharper than knives in the palm of his hand. It’s not fair! Billy never hurt no one! Why did You let him die? It was just a stupid mistake. He didn’t mean nothing. Lloyd Moore gets drunk every day! Why don’t You punish him, strike him dead? He ain’t good like Billy. It ain’t fair. You cheated! I hate You forever!

Immediately he is sorry and ashamed. Afraid he will be struck blind or dead. The Reverend Cooke said whales swallow those who curse God. Maybe I’m safe since I’ve never seen one in the river. Shuts his eyes. Clasps his hands. Squeezes his lids, lips, and fingers tight. God, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean it! It was just a slip! I didn’t even mean to think that! Just to be sure he begs some more. Maybe I ought to fall on my knees? No, the floor’s too cold. Mama won’t want me to get sick.

Finally opens an eye, then the other. Pats his chest. Sighs. Still alive!

Sometimes folks from the low-end of the county knocked on their front door. Glassy-eyed and smiling. Dressed like going to church during the middle of the week carrying little magazines and talking about God. His mama won’t let them in. She said they were crazy and if ever stepped through the door wouldn’t leave until you were that way too. She could tell stories heard from Aunt Dorothy about men going mad and women losing their babies because of them. Which Roy of course was too young to hear and sent to his room before learning every disgusting detail to tell Ralph.

Once last fall he heard them at Mr. Thompson’s store preaching to Lloyd Moore. Like always sprawled out on the front bench too drunk to care. Roy thought their words sounded like Reverend Cooke’s every Sunday. Hell-fire and boring. But Mr. Thompson ran out and ordered them never to set foot on his property again or he would call the law.

Roy was sucking on a peppermint stick watching. Not really wondering why since grown-ups were always supposed to be right. Found one of their magazines like a new penny facedown in the dirt. Made sure nobody was watching. Snatched it up, brushed it off, slipped it under his jacket, pedaled as fast as possible home, and ran into the barn. There nestled in the hay up in the loft, excited and scared like swinging from a rope into the creek not sure if an alligator, shark or sea monster was waiting, he discovered Jehovah’s Witness thinking.

The magazine looked like a comic book inside. But wasn’t in color and the words were scary and sad. The first rows of pictures showed a teenage boy named Johnny with his pals doing what Roy thought older guys did alone having fun—smoking, cussing, drinking beer, telling dirty jokes. One boy was even looking at a magazine with naked women inside. On the next page a lightning bolt struck Johnny and he was in a coffin with his mama clinging to it crying. Then he was wearing a white robe, shine marks all around, standing on a cloud before the Pearly Gates, more glitter shining. Saint Peter searched through this thick book with the names of everybody inside who was, is, or would not be going to Heaven. Johnny’s name wasn’t there. So Saint Peter pointing to a stairway going down said, all capital letters underlined twice, “NOW YOU MUST PAY FOR YOUR SINS!” The last block showed Johnny covered with sores, the robe rags, the shine gone, shoveling ashes, the Devil laughing and snapping a whip across his back. The magazine ended showing Jesus hanging from a cross and saying everybody should get down on his or her knees today and beg Him to come into their hearts so their name would be in the Book of Life.

That night, alone in bed, Roy cried trying not to be heard. He didn’t want to die.

“What’s wrong?” Billy whispered through the dim dark.

“Nothing.” Sniffled. Wiped his eyes then his nose with the back of his hand. Wiggled deeper under the covers. “Leave me alone.”

“Are you sick? Want me to get Mom?” His brother’s voice sounded extra gentle, caring, and warm.

“No.” Made the word as firm as possible without shouting. Wished Billy would go back to sleep but didn’t want to be alone.

“Just checking.”

“I’m okay.” The words felt like dirt in his mouth.

Billy’s bed squeaked and moaned. “Must’ve been something outside, Sam maybe.”

“Yeah.” Curled up tighter, heart pounding, knees nearly touching his chest. Billy knows Sam always sleeps under the back steps.

Billy’s bed squeaked again as he rolled over. “Good-night.”

“Yeah.” Bit his lip. Shut his eyes. Again saw Johnny covered with welts and sores burning in Hell for eternity. Shivers squeezed Roy’s spine. He’d done wrong and was paying with his life. If you want to go to Heaven you have to get on your knees and beg Jesus to come into your life, everybody knows that. Opened his eyes. The lump in his throat felt like a thousand rocks one-by-one going down.

“Billy,” he whispered after awhile. “Are you asleep?”

The breathing across the room echoed steady.

Darn! I sure wouldn’t be sawing logs if my brother couldn’t sleep! Waited a few minutes more. Closed his eyes. Hoped. Prayed. Tugged the covers closer. Took several deep breaths. It’s going to be okay. It’s going to be fine.

The thought of Johnny and the magazine under his bed flooded his mind. Night sounds grew louder and louder. It’s only a story that didn’t really happen. Mama says those folks are crazy and want you that way too and she’s as Christian as Jesus is. Maybe Sam did decide to sleep under the front steps tonight? Everything’s okay like every night.

Smiled. Started counting sheep. Got to ten. Jerked alive like stepping on a rattlesnake when something touched his shoulder. O God, I’m dead!

“Are you okay?”

Jumped up grabbing his chest. Head thumping, heart running away. “You nearly scared me to death!” he cried in a squeaky strain.

“Sh! You’ll wake everybody!”

“I nearly wet my pants!”

Billy crossed his arms before his chest. “Sorry, I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”

Roy fell back against the bed, head sinking into the pillow, blood dropping. “Yeah.” Sounded angry but wasn’t.

“Okay then, good-night.” Billy patted the pillow and left.

“Good-night.” Blinked and saw Johnny. O God, no!

Waited until his brother was halfway between the beds before stretching out a hand and calling out in a weak voice, “Billy?”

“Yeah, Kid.”

“Can you stay a minute?”

His brother stood before the windows scratching his head, his tee shirt and briefs shining in the dark. “I got to get some sleep, Kid. We’re having a history test tomorrow and then practice and Dad wants me to…” His brother sounded cross but Roy knew he wasn’t.

“Please?” Dragged the word out like a kid.

“Okay, but just for a minute.” His brother walked back over. Lifted the covers and put a leg up. “Slip over. The floor’s cold.”

Roy edged over to the far side of the bed so they wouldn’t touch. As a little kid, he often crawled into Billy’s bed. Usually scared but once on Christmas Eve when I was too excited to sleep. But through the years discovered there were things you couldn’t do anymore. Maybe that’s part of growing up?

The bed settled. “Billy?” he asked slowly.

“Yeah, Kid?”

“Nothing.” Turned toward the wall. Beside his brother, who smelt soap clean, the night sounds softened. Johnny disappeared. Roy’s fear seemed like nothing. Felt safe and warm like before wrapped in the thickest quilt ever. Closed his eyes and smiled. Maybe you don’t have to lose something just because you’re growing up?

Suddenly like a cloud drifting before the sun or the lightning bolt in the story Roy realized that if he didn’t say anything his brother would go. Fingers colder than freezing grabbed his soul.

Swallowed. Turned toward his brother. Whispered in somebody else’s weak voice. “Do you think your name is in that book in Heaven?”

Billy rolled toward him. “What book?”

“You know,” Roy whispered in that same strange voice. Fidgeting with the quilt Grandma Laura and her sisters made, the chilling fingers squeezing harder. “That book that names all the folks going to Heaven after they die.” Cut his eyes over. Fingers still. Breath a giant lump in his throat.

“Oh.” Billy rolled over on his back. The bed settled again. “What makes you ask that?” The words sounded softer than a whisper.

Roy stared at the ceiling not seeing anything. After sundown the colors went blank. Wished for the hundredth time he hadn’t said anything. They could pretend Sam was under the steps. His brother could be snoring in his own bed. Everything could be like before…. and I would be afraid.

Finally his voice strained out in gasps. “I was reading one of those magazines the Jehovah’s Witnesses dropped at Mr. Thompson’s store after preaching to Lloyd Moore and…”

“Is that why you were crying?”

Nodded. Eyes burning. Lump swelling. Looked away and mumbled, “Yes.” The train rumbling around in his mind getting faster like Sam chasing his tail crashed into the concrete-brick-steel wall. After the explosion the smoke cleared leaving nothing. Stared into his brother’s boy-man face.

“I know Mama says we’re not suppose to…” The words strained out in a squeaky voice then became a blur. Rubbed his fists over his eyes. Why did I say anything?

The chirping faded. The night got darker than ever.

Held his breath waiting, afraid his brother would leave. He’ll think I’m silly! Call me a sissy and a baby! Eyes stung, bottom lip quivering. Felt his insides shrinking and crumbling, heart pounding like a drum stretched tight. Please let me go ahead and die so this will be over!

Billy lifted his arm up. Placed it around Roy’s shoulder. “Pretty scary, huh?”

“Yeah.” Those were the most wonderful words ever heard. He snuggled closer. Felt his brother’s breath. Watched his chest go up and down. Now it was okay to touch. Again felt safe and warm. This time the feeling would last forever. “This boy about your age got struck by lightning, and when Saint Peter couldn’t find his name in the Book of Life he went to…”

“That’s okay,” said Billy rubbing his brother’s shoulder in a circular motion. “I’ve read those books before.”

“Really?” Roy sat up. Stared at his brother more surprised than after hitting that blue jay in the head with a rock. Of course he cried and buried the bird promising God never to aim his slingshot at another living thing again.

“Yes.”

“Then you won’t tell Mama?”

“No.”

He settled back down again able to breathe. Glanced over and smiled. Even in the dark, he knew his brother’s high forehead, narrow nose, sunken cheeks, pointed chin, mole below the left eye, darkening above the upper lip. Billy had their dad’s oak eyes, their mama’s wide smile. They shared the Brown no-lobed stuck-out ear trademark only Roy’s poked out more. “Then it’s okay to drink and smoke and cuss?”

Billy chuckled. A bubbling that could make anybody giggle. “The Reverend Cooke doesn’t think so.”

“But Dad sometimes drinks a beer on Saturday nights, Mama pours whiskey over her fruit cakes at Christmas, I’ve heard you say damn and hell and …”

His brother’s chuckle sparkled like blinding sun on water. “You don’t miss much, huh?” Grabbed a curl, twisted and tossed it away.

“Nope.” It was okay if his brother touched his hair.

“I didn’t think so.”

Roy squinted his eyes. Wrinkled his nose. “But ain’t those things wrong?”

Billy lifted his arm. Rubbed his chin. Cupped his hands together on his chest, his thumbs twiddling one way then the other. Stared at the ceiling. “It depends.”

“On what?”

“When you do them and how often.” The thumbs stopped and Billy rolled toward him. He knew his brother was beginning a message lesson; the kind older brothers and fathers were especially fond of. The serious ‘Let me think a minute’ voice was a giveaway. But since he was happy and safe, that was okay. “Dad doesn’t drink like Lloyd Moore does he?”

Shook his head back and forth, the correct answer. “No, Albert says even a fish doesn’t.”

“And Mom just pours whiskey over her cakes at Christmas?”

Nodded. “Yes.” Enough already, make the point!

“And I just cuss around Fred and the guys?”

Grinned. Wagged a finger at his brother. “Yeah, because if Mama ever heard she’ll wash out your mouth with soap!”

“I know.” Billy ruffled Roy’s curls then fell back against the bed. “So there’s a time and place for everything.”

I know that! It’s the same with every lesson. Something I know but sort of forgot. Rolled over. Sat up on his elbow. Stared at his brother. “So I can start drinking and smoking and cussing?”

Billy glared a moment, used the roughest voice ever heard. “Do and I’ll kick your butt!”

“But you just said…”

“I know, but sometimes you got to wait until you’re older. I ain’t tasted beer yet and I’m fifteen.”

Roy pounded his fists against the bed. “I’m too young for everything!” Flipped over. Crossed his arms before him. Mumbled, “How do you know when you’re old enough?”

His brother shrugged. Used a strange voice. “I don’t know, you just do.”

Frowned. Wrapped his arms tighter. Wasn’t really interested in smoking, it stunk, or drinking, beer looked like pee and his mama said made you crazy, but would like to increase his vocabulary. “Sometimes I say darn.”

Billy instantly had his brother’s head against his chest in an elbow hug. “Bad boy!” he scolded scrubbing a fist over Roy’s skull like Sam digging for a bone. “Bad, naughty, sinful!”

“Okay, okay, I’m sorry!” Roy cried his hands flying over his head and between his legs. “Stop before I wet my pants!”

“Promise you won’t say that again?”

“Yes!”

“Okay. I don’t want to swim back over.” Billy let go.

They fell back against the bed giggling and gasping for air. Roy felt a hundred feet high, floating on a cloud.

His brother slapped his hands together, mumbled, “Most terrible thing I’ve ever heard!” Then, “Just don’t let Mom hear you, we men got to stick together.” Looked both ways, leaned over and whispered. “I once heard Dad call Uncle Russell a bastard.”

Again started giggling again out of control. “Well, he acts like…”

“I know.” Billy stretched his eyes. Pinched his nose. “An old fart.”

Roy buried his face into the pillow trying to drown the noise. Kicking and pounding the bed while his brother tickled under his arms. They stopped when he broke wind.

Billy jerked back wildly waving his arms to clean the air. “Dammit, Kid. What did you eat rotten?”

Stuck out his tongue. Billy’s the greatest, most wonderful brother ever!

Finally they settled back side-by-side like before. Again Billy’s voice was soft and low. “Well, Kid, you okay?”

“Yeah.” Smiled. Wiped his eyes, the lump warmth inside.

“No more crying?”

Shook his head fast back and forth. Never as long as you’re around.

“Good, don’t let those magazines scare you.”

The bed squeaked as Billy crawled out. Sat on the edge and tucked the covers around him. “Think you can sleep now?” His brother used his mama’s ‘Sweet dreams’ voice.

“Yes,” he grinned gathering the covers closer.

“Okay. Good-night, Roy.” Billy leaned closer like he was going to kiss his cheek. Stopped. Straightened. Grabbed his shoulder but didn’t shake, the touch strong and firm and warm. “Don’t let the bed bugs bite.” Got up and was gone.

Roy shakes his head back and forth, the good feeling a memory. Drinking is wrong when you’re driving on Pine Landing Road. Miss the curve past Big Bend Bridge and smash into a pine tree. I ain’t ever going to taste beer! I ain’t even going to learn to drive!

Gets up. Pulls the quilt closer and shuffles to the back door. The quilt feels like a hundred tons. Pushes the curtains back. Wipes the glass with his hand and stares through the lopsided circle. Now the on-at-dusk off-at-dawn pole light just shines on family car.

Heaves. Sighs. Looks at the clock.

Soon Dad will be up milking. Then Mama making breakfast, Shirley setting the table, Martha staying in the bathroom too long and the kitchen will be warm. The black will become gray, then dawn starting the day. Everything will look like yesterday. Each hour will tick sixty minutes. But nothing will ever be the same. Closes his eyes. Sees the new tombstone in the cemetery with Billy’s name.

“Dammit no!” Roy hollers out loud pounding his fist against the door. “It ain’t fair! It ain’t right! Why did Billy die? I promise if it was yesterday again I’d do everything different, even the smallest detail, and my brother will be alive. I don’t care if Brenda Sue is his girl and Dodo Bird his best pal. I don’t care if I can’t go to Ralph’s and have to sit with Mama and Dad during the game. Please give me another try! I promise never to ask for another thing in my life!”

And standing before the door, Roy waits for the sunrise.

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About John Northcutt Young

I write. Remember making-up stories from spelling words in the fifth grade. A journalism degree followed. Thanks for looking.
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