There was the sick wet of old earth, the gun tilt, lazy like a doll in his hand. The disapproving thunks and slicks filled the sound of the trees, and called the ants and crawling things to seep out from their hiding places, told them it was alright to be seen. Only death lives here.
A soft moth perched on the screen door. It was the hot bit of July, when he’d stay inside because even the wind was sticky and he hated the way it felt on his skin. His Mama laid on the striped couch all day, fanning with the paper fan, leaving her Soaps on at all hours and letting beautiful male voices echo against the walls. Her tongue hung from her mouth, like a lolling dog’s, and he thought her slimy skin was the foulest thing he’d ever seen. Occasionally she would raise her giant fist and slam a bug on the window, and the house would shake violent and that bug would twitch violent in her giant greasy handprint, while she just laid there.
This was the way the summer was.
And in the cross, barren glare of the afternoon sun, he and Abby would run the length of the property, catching beetles from the hard earth and giving them new names. Through the big window they could hear Mama, her old laugh, wide and weak and only for herself. They would run until they bit dust, until the sun burned their small shoulders ripe red, or until they were tired. Abby was small and had a jeering face, not mean but just difficult, like she didn’t know what emotions were which or when to use them, and she mixed them up. But she was a sharp girl, always knowing which direction was west and all kinds of facts about the world around them.
Summer was the time when they could be free out in the summer sun. They played games like Horses, and Dares. But their favorite game to play was the one where they would go out into the woods.
The woods were just a bit, on the very edge of the property. It stretched further outside, for miles and miles, but he and Abby weren’t allowed to go any further. If they went further, Mama would know as soon as he came bashing through the screen door, she’d smell the outside world on him, and she’d give him one greasy slap, for being a “Cretin Who Didn’t Listen”. That slap was the foulest thing he’d ever felt, and it made his skin crawl just to think about it. So he and Abby played just on the edge of the forest, where the hard ground met the trees at an angle, and they could both still see the farmhouse.
They played a game called Digging, where they were pirates. Abby was the captain and she would bury the treasure while he pressed his forehead to the tree and counted. The treasure was an old dirty Coke bottle they found in the shed, a treasure indeed. He would press his forehead to the rough bark and count to fifty and close his eyes and try not to listen to Abby, rustling about behind him and moving the dirt and branches. At the end of fifty he would whip around, always expecting to catch her still hurriedly burying that treasure, but there she always was, standing perfectly with her hands behind her back, grinning her jeering grin and pressing the toes of her mary janes into the cool stinking earth below.
But today, in the hot bit of July, when he and Abby played Digging, she grinned and giggled and laughed fit to burst when he turned around. She had a secret.
“I buried a new treasure,” she proudly informed him. “And it belongs to my Pop, so ya better find it! Or else he’ll be missin’ it and we’ll both be in trouble!” and she went on laughing.
But he was worried, because Abby’s dad was a scary man and when he yelled and screamed and shook his drink about from the yellow house next door, his Mama, even in her summer stupor, winced and closed her eyes and shook her head sad and tired.
But there was a spot by where Abby’s mary jane was planted, where the earth was freshly turned and dark black and thick. He took the little plastic sand shovel, almost too weak for the rich worm-soil, and dug up a shiny brown revolver.
It was heavy in his hands, and cold in the shade. Abby squealed and danced.
“You found it! You found it! Buried treasure!” she clapped tiny hands.
But he didn’t want to hold it anymore. It felt wrong, and it was too heavy and he’d seen guns on the television but this didn’t feel tough like James Bond or G.I. Joe this felt like someone with whiskey on their breath and sadness in their mind and waving about wildly and not caring where or what or who. But he didn’t know that.
He put it down, back into the soft earth.
“No,” Abby’s face fell. She knelt down. “You hold it. In your hands, like this, see? Dontcha ever watch the police on TV? They keep people safe.” She picked up the gun and held it like an action hero. It was huge in her hands but she was so confident, orderly, sane. When she pointed it she had the gleam of a calculated being, one who knew consequences, and right from wrong, and how to do all kinds of things that Abby had no idea about.
And when she pulled the trigger she still had that gleam, it was so big and brilliant now that it had taken over her entire form and it practically blinded him and he thought about how she normally looked and couldn’t help but wonder what had changed.
And she still had that gleam, brighter still, when the bullet from the chamber tore through him and red blood went up and down and stained his blue shirt and he fell on the ground.
The last thing that he thought about was the stinking earth and how cool it felt on his sunburnt shoulders, and the dark beetles crawling across the ground and into his hair and the names they’d given to each of them, and how Abby was the captain of the pirate ship.
Mama, from her place on the striped couch, heard the blast and the boom and felt the laughter cease like the earth was in pain, and panicked Abby, who could hardly tell glee from rage or when to use either, knew in the bottom of her heart that it couldn’t look like her fault. She thought of all the criminals she’d seen on the TV, she thought of how their wrists fit in those handcuffs, and her wrists were too small for handcuffs, but even so. One tiny hand pried apart the fingers of another tiny hand, and she passed the gun to him. She tried desperately not to look at his face, peering up towards the barren sun. Mama propped up on her sweaty fists and lifted from the couch with such urgency and her heart pounded and punched so hard that it punched right through her body. She never made it out that screen door.
Just on the edge of the property, just on the edge of the forest, there was the sick wet of old earth, the gun tilt, lazy like a doll in his hand. The disapproving thunks and slicks filled the sound of the trees, and called the beetles and crawling things to seep out from their hiding places, told them it was alright to be seen. Only death lives here, in the sun.
Ellery Pridgen is an 18 year-old student living in Seattle, WA. Her work has been appeared in Unstamatic Magazine and Prometheus Dreaming. She currently works part-time at a thrift store, and dreams of becoming a writer full-time.