Ma was by the chicken pen giving that new latch a good look. She had a long memory, ’specially when that memory circled around something I’d said or done that was off or skirting the truth like Grams was fond of saying.
She shrugged, but didn’t move, just stood there staring into the pen. I imagined her eyes following the hens, pecking and scratching at the hard dirt, though without much rain lately it’d gotten like concrete in there. Didn’t keep’em from doing it though. And it didn’t keep Ma from watching.
It was like she was waiting on an event, on something important to happen.
I heard the tractor wheezing as Pa dragged the disker around to the shed. Damn thing was a bitch to maneuver. I’d tried it once, but it took a corner off the shed so that was the end of that. Course I’d been ten at the time, my feet barely reached the pedals and the gear shift took both hands.
He was back early. That meant one of two things—an early dinner giving me time to head to the pond and see if Zach was gonna be there, despite me saying not to come … or more than likely he’d be hauling my ass down toward the county road to fix that line of fence in the near dark.
We had a couple steers meant for the freezer down there. They got frisky at this time of year with the grass going poorly on their side and the county trimming the stuff on the outside so it looked and smelled tasty. That meant they pushed on the barbed wire, hard enough to take it down. Not that they went far, but the traffic wouldn’t see them until it was too late.
The sun was setting, seemed earlier every day now. I had two more days until the bus would come for me, take me to the new school for orientation, whatever the hell that was. I didn’t want no orientation. I already knew everything I needed—keep my head down and my mouth shut, and hope the ones from last year who made my life hell found somebody else to pick on.
Please God, make it be like that. I ain’t got Zach to stand with now. I ain’t got nobody.
Pa shuffled up to Ma like he always did, walking herky-jerky after spending all day out in the fields. We split the chores, him and me, but when it came to the big stuff, breaking ground, working the tight corners where the land sloped toward the pond, that he handled. I suspected soon, though, he’d be willing to give me a go at it.
I liked watching them together. Pa was shorter than he used to be, not by a lot—an inch maybe. It’d gotten more pronounced after the accident and him busting up his back and hip. He teased her about it, told her she had to buy those flat shoes to keep the folks at church from talking, pointing out his shortcomings.
He’d say short hard at the front end, and Ma would get all upset and holler he was mocking God and his plan, and all the Bible shit she liked to bring into a conversation. Pa took it in stride most times. Grams called them a good match. Suited to each other. He called her Mother, I called her Ma. Sometimes I wondered if we’d both forget her Christian name someday and have to look it up for the tombstone, make sure it got put right.
I was hovering at the back door to the run of porch we used for storing stuff Ma wouldn’t have inside—muck boots, lead ropes, leather gloves. Her baskets for collecting vegetables was stacked neat as a pin to the right. We kept a couple of those folding chairs, the ones the church was throwing away, against the shingled siding.
The overhang made nice shade in the summer heat, kept the kitchen cooler than it would have been otherwise.
Grams came up behind me, her slippers making a thupp thupp sound with their leather soles on the linoleum. She took her place opposite me, the door jamb doing double duty now, holding me and her up, both of us turned toward Ma and Pa—watching them stopping, starting, stopping, nodding, talking low like they was whispering secrets, like it was something private.
Then Pa spoke up, loud enough for us to hear, “Now, Mother…” but Ma waggled a finger, speaking quick, her hands fluttering like bird’s wings, like she was drawing pictures in the air. It reminded me of a spider making a web, and I wondered at what was so important they couldn’t say it at the table while dishing out the mashed potatoes.
My belly growled.
Grams asked, “What’s going through that head of yours, boy?”
I spoke to the floor, told a fib, said, “Nothing,” and almost believed it.
The thing was … I had so much going through my head, it was like it was empty and full all at once, and none of it was anything I wanted to share. Even if I did, even if saying the words to Grams, confessing how shit-scared I was to go to the new school, it wouldn’t make no difference because there was my future on the line, and Ma had made the decision, and when Ma decided that was it. She used words like prospects and me having opportunities to be better, to go somewhere, make something of myself.
Grams gave me snake eyes, reading me, making me think it was only women who got to see through you. She huffed, “Uh-huh,” and turned to look out the screen door.
Ma and Pa was near shouting at each other, but then Ma clamped her lips tight and stared at Pa who was digging his boot toe in the dirt, making circles, round and round and round, burying whatever he had wanted to say right there.
I’d seen them go at it before, but it’d been quiet. Determined. Civil, it was civil.
What was going on out there wasn’t civil at all, so I asked Grams, “Are they fighting?” and got that hole in my gut, adding fear on top of fear, thinking on how sending me to the new school might be a burden and we didn’t have enough to get by most years.
Grams said, “Disagreeing,” like it was the end of the matter.
“Ain’t that the same thing?”
I waited for the explanation, the homily that would flesh it out, broaden my horizons, but it didn’t come. Grams ignored me, straining to hear what was said. Her curiosity, the way she strained to hear, that made it more than disagreement.
She took my arm and hauled me into the kitchen, all five foot of her, and I followed like I always done because she’d always be bigger and stronger than me no matter how tall I got. At the counter, she waved toward the stack of plates. “Bring them in the dining room, boy. Let’s set the table.”
Tossing each plate down, I moved around the table, Grams tailing me, twirling each plate so the flowers were at the top and the basket faced your lap, setting down knives, forks and spoons. She caught me fidgeting and said, “People sometimes argue, Jackie. Doesn’t mean they don’t care.”
I jammed my hands in my pockets and set my mouth in a way she called sullen. Said if I did it too much my face would set that way. I figured that was like me going blind, so I didn’t pay her any heed.
One thing niggled at me, so I asked, “What if you don’t ever agree? What happens then?”
She gave me a careful look, one that made me squirm. “If you love each other, you agree to disagree.”
I had to think on that for a few minutes, process that idea, and then it hit me like a ton of bricks. I looked at the clock, wanting to bolt for the pond. I needed to find Zach and tell him I was wrong—dead wrong for turning away from him and hurting him more.
Ma came in before I could tell Grams I wasn’t hungry. She had the bowl of mashed potatoes, and Pa came behind her with the beans. They moved around the table, giving each other a little more space than normal, but their faces didn’t give anything away.
When Pa said, “I’ll get the iced tea, Mother,” I breathed a sigh of relief. He never helped at dinner, never. Him making that offer was his way of saying sorry.
I wondered what I could do to show Zach I was sorry too.
There was no moon, which was fine. I knew the way—every stone, every gully, every stray branch was right there, fixed in my head. I could close my eyes and still see.
Most nights I got to the pond first. Zach’s dad made him stay late at the store, cleaning up or restocking shelves, so lots of times he didn’t get dinner ’cause he wanted to meet me so bad. I’d taken to bringing a sandwich or cookies for him, but I’d run out right after drying the dishes so all I had in my hands was a towel I’d grabbed from the hook on the wall in the wash stall.
If Zach didn’t come, I wasn’t sure what I’d do. Pa went into town on Saturdays, taking Ma and Grams shopping, going to the bank, picking up feed at the mill. I could talk them into taking me along, say I needed clothes for school, which was true. I’d grown out of most everything over the summer.
Days like this I felt like a walking skeleton, like my skin was paper thin and every bone, every joint stuck out at odd angles. Like nothing belonged to me anymore. I needed for Zach to put me back together, to make me feel whole.
At the tree, I stripped and bundled my clothes, setting the pile aside. I laid the towel on the ground and then waded into the pond, enjoying the feel of the warm slime against my skin. Deeper out it would be clear and all the crap would float away. I could float away.
I lay on my back, weightless, watching the clouds winking out the stars. Thunder rumbled in the distance, the storm moving away. I didn’t hear him until he was on me, coming up underneath me, supporting me like he always did.
We floated like that for a long time, me and him like a single body, his lips and tongue running over and around and inside my ear, making my cock jump and my chest get tight. The air turned cooler. A breeze sprung up out of nowhere. It smelled like rain coming. Flashes of lightning toward the south zinged the air with a sharp tang you inhaled through your skin.
We stood and waded back to shore hand-in-hand. Neither of us had spoken a word. It was strange and awkward, and I had a flutter in my belly, my throat closing up so tight I thought I might suffocate on the spot.
Zach led me to the towels, his and mine, side-by-side. He knelt and pulled me down, easing me so I lay under him, with him straddling my hips, our cocks touching. God, it felt so good when he rubbed us together, slow and easy, and I shut my eyes and listened to him breathe, to our slick skin sliding back and forth. And then it wasn’t slow. It wasn’t easy. It got hard and rough and took me to the edge, took me right there, my body screaming for him to do it, throw me over, let me fly free again.
Oh, God I needed that freedom only he could give me.
Hissing, “Fuck, Zach, fuck fuck fuck,” I bucked my hips, everything inside me exploding. I squeezed my eyes shut and saw stars. Thunder vibrated my bones, sending shock waves through my thighs, clear to my toes. The only sound I heard was blood pounding in my ears as hot cum baptized us both.
We curled together, trying to catch our breath. Each time I exhaled it was sorry sorry sorry until he cupped my chin and pulled me into a kiss, and I tasted sorrow for the first time in my life.