by Edward Boyle
My final year of high school wrestling starts today and this will be the last time I eat bacon and eggs until the season ends. I have to cut sixteen pounds to get to one hundred and forty, and I’ve been at it long enough to know that the wrestler who starts cutting weight early ends the season right. At the kitchen table, I slice my fork edge over the eyes of two eggs and they ooze yellow across the plate. If I win the state title this year it will be my fourth, and I’m hopeful it will be a ticket to wrestle in college.
Before I leave for practice, I open the bedroom door of my 21-year-old brother, Patrick. He is sitting in the center of his bed with the top half of his stubby body sprawled over the front of his legs. He is sleeping. Late last night he was looking for monsters out the windows of our front room. It’s his newest obsession, and it started roughly six months ago, just after our father died. Prior to seeing monsters, he liked to run—head bent and flatfooted—through every room in the house, chasing our golden retriever, Brewer, for hours at a time. Not long before that, he’d stand on the bathroom stool and watch himself brushing his teeth until his gums bled and red gunk clogged the bristles of his toothbrush. A year ago, he constantly held up his pudgy hands to the light, stared at them as if he were trying to see through the skin and count every tiny bone. My family has learned to wait out Patrick’s fixations and hope that the next one will be easier. It does not help to tell him that there are no such things as monsters.
Back in the kitchen, I scrub my plate under the steamy water and watch specks of egg yolk swirl down the drain. On the countertop beside me, my father’s butcher knives are neatly slotted in their wooden block. A lifetime of gripping them kneaded the curves of his fingers into their pitted handles. I reach over, slide one out and rub my fingers along its bone handle. I wonder if Dad died angry with Patrick.
I slip the knife back and pull on my double-layer sweatshirt before stepping out the side door. My sneakers make wet tracks across the frosted grass of our lawn. Along the quarter-mile-long gravel driveway that leads to the street, there are NO TRESPASSING signs nailed on the trees. Our house sits in the center of a 40-acre lot, and my father posted the signs a couple of years ago—after the blast of a hunter’s rifle was followed by the sound of a bullet ricocheting off rock and snapping through the thick woods that surround our home. Patrick likes to play outside with Brewer and he doesn’t understand that bullets can kill.
We live in a hunters’ paradise, close to the Canadian border in Coos County, New Hampshire. Around here the whitetail deer buzz through the woods like hornets in a hive. I took my first deer when I was 14. I was in our eastern pasture hunting with Dad and was ashamed at what I’d done with a rifle, felt as though I’d wrestled an opponent who was handcuffed behind his back.
“That’s a good thing you’re feeling, Casey,” Dad told me. “Don’t ignore it.”
Wrestling practice starts in an hour, and from the top of our driveway I begin my jog to the high school. This is what I like, what I have always relied on. Soon I will crack my first sweat of the season. I take the long way and run past bleak fields where cows huddle against the cold. A couple of pickup trucks pass, and the drivers beep their morning greetings. The bacon and eggs are heavy in my stomach, and I focus on them to remember their taste. A month from now, my stomach will be as shrunken and hollow as the inside of a tennis ball.
In the wrestling room, Coach is mopping the mats, and the airborne traces of bleach seep into my open pores and burn. I’m the first to arrive.
“Hey, Casey,” he hands me the mop.
“Coach. Mopping mats? I’m a senior…”
“Good,” he laughs. “I’m a coach.”
I know enough not to cross him, and while I mop, I jog in place.
Once practice starts, Coach puts us through a light drill and pulls a couple of the younger guys aside to teach them some basics. I glance at the circle on the wrestling mat and laugh to myself that some wrestlers are scared of it. There are no monsters in the circle, no stacks of unpaid bills, no father straining to lift his head for one more breath.
After practice, Coach calls me into his office.
“Edinboro called me this weekend. They want to fly you down for a visit after season.” He leans back in his chair and stretches.
“Coach, that’s D-1!”
“I know what division they are.” He sits up. “Let’s see what happens this season before we get too excited.” He raises his eyebrows and smiles.
I run home along the same route, then cool down and jog the driveway to my house. Patrick is sitting on a blanket in the front yard, and Brewer is lying beside him with his head resting on his front paws. Patrick is caught up in the one obsession he’s never given up. He sits at a 90-degree angle—legs straight out, back straight up—and stretches his headphones over his low-set ears. The music in the headphones links with him, and he slips into a trance. He tilts his head back as far as he can and looks up at the clouds. His arms hold up an invisible medicine ball, and he twists his upper body to the right, then to the left. Sometimes, when the music is upbeat and throbbing, he contorts so wildly that his outstretched feet bounce off the ground. He’s like a twirling cyclone that scoops up everything in its path, only he scoops up just the rhythm. And once it enters him, he smiles. It’s as if all that chaos makes something inside him calm.
I sneak up behind Patrick and pull off his hat and headphones. His slanted eyes round at first and then the skin surrounding them crinkles. He opens his mouth and smiles. I laugh at his crooked teeth. He used to love when Dad teased him that his mouth was a china shop and the tiny bull who lived inside had rammed all his porcelain.
“What’s up, pal?” I ask, and kneel beside him.
I reach over and lower him flat on his back. He’s not sure what I’m doing yet, and he eyes me warily. I scoot out to his side and slide one hand under his neck and the other through his far armpit. Brewer scrambles to his feet and whimpers. I clasp my hands together beneath Patrick’s shoulder and lie across him, chest-on-chest.
“Casey’s got the headlock and he’s going for the late pin,” I mimic the colorful voice of our favorite, big-time wrestling broadcaster.
Patrick’s body quivers. “Hi, C-c-c-asey,” he laughs, wiggling his trapped arm free and waving his hand close to my face. I growl and show him my teeth. He squirms, and I let him roll me over onto my back, then open my eyes and mouth in feigned fear. Perceiving my weakness, he grins with confidence and wedges his forearm into my neck while Brewer bites my shoelaces and jerks my feet back and forth.
“Enough!” I finally laugh. “Okay! I give up.”
Patrick does not want to stop and I poke his ribs. I stand and laugh because he is red-faced and out of breath. He closes his eyes and mouth, and his jaw quivers while he tries to stutter out his words.
“I w-won?” he finally asks.
“Yup,” I tell him. “You won.”
“I’m the big brother,” he says, only it sounds more like “I’m da big brudder.”
“Yeah, you are,” I say. “Did you eat yet?”
“C’mon. I’ll make you some eggs.”
I help him to his feet. He’s no taller than a wooden fence post, and his potato-shaped body totters when he walks. I shoo Brewer because I know that Patrick will share his eggs with him if I let him into the house. A few years ago, Brewer would have paced the porch floorboards when I separated him from Patrick, but he’s old now and sits at the bottom of the steps staring at us with his brown, grandfatherly eyes.
“Bye, Boo-er.” Patrick waves when I push open the front door. Brewer stares at Patrick and whines.
“Go see Dutch, Brewer.” I point to the barn where Patrick‘s pony, Dutch, is stabled. Brewer glances at me coolly, then turns and limps away.
Inside the house Mom sits at the kitchen table. The silver streaks in her auburn hair don’t match her wiry body. Dad used to tease her that her energy, as the only woman in the house, somehow trumped ours, that her 100 pounds carried more weight than ours, the three men of the house, combined.
“Let’s go,” she’d clap her hands and pace when Dad, Patrick, and I were watching a football game on the television, and she needed help in the garden or lifting the window boxes on and off their wooden mounts. “Three strong men and lots of work to do,” she’d rally us. She pretended not to hear Dad’s moaning about living with a tyrant, but occasionally I’d see her put a hand in front of her mouth to hide her smile.
Now I watch her separate a stack of bills into neat piles across the tabletop. There are worry lines around her eyes and mouth.
“Well, at least you’re not stressed,” I joke.
She squints and rubs her temples. “Right,” she tries to smile.
I seat Patrick in a clear spot at the table. He stares blankly and chews his tongue. My mother gathers up the bills and bundles them with a rubber band, then walks over and sets them on the countertop.
“These will have to wait,” she says.
I soft-scramble the eggs the way Patrick likes them and spoon them onto his plate. He lets them sit.
“What we do today?” he looks up. His words mix into each other, but I can usually figure out what he is saying. Both of us are graduating from the regional high school this year: me because I’m a senior and Patrick because he’s legally too old to stay any longer. Sometimes Patrick’s teachers page me to their classrooms when they don’t understand what he wants.
“Maybe I’ll take you out for a hike later, pal. I have to work out for a while.”
“Where’s Boo-er?” he asks.
“Boo-er’s in the barn sleeping like a lazy dog,” I kid.
He has not asked in a while, and I sometimes wonder if he forgets for long periods or if he just puts up a barricade every time he remembers. I kneel beside him and touch his forearm.
“Can you do me a favor?” I whisper.
He squirms, staring down into his lap. “I dd-on’t know.”
“Can you tell Casey what happened with you and Dad in the woods?”
The crinkles around his eyes go slack, and he glances up at Mom. She sighs and walks over with the bottle of ketchup, slides between Patrick and me.
“What are you doing?” She warns me while squirting ketchup over his eggs.
I stand and shrug. “You never know. He might remember something…“
She stirs the eggs and stares at me.
“I thought we decided we were going to move forward?” Her voice trembles. She smiles down at Patrick and tousles his hair. “Eat up, sweetheart,” she says. “I’ll take you out to see Brewer after you’ve finished breakfast.”
While he eats, Mom wanders into the front room just off the kitchen. I follow her.
“He’s up again at night,” I tell her.
“I heard,” she says.
“Maybe the doctor can give him something to sleep.”
She does not answer me right away, and for a moment I see her on the day my father died, sitting on the screened-in porch and quietly staring out at the rain.
“I’m thinking we have to sell the house,” she finally says. “And I’m going to call the state next week about Patrick.”
“Dad wouldn’t be calling the state,” I challenge her but regret it as soon as I do. Her head tilts as if she is waiting for more.
“Okay…so your idea is…?”
“I’m not sure,” I mumble.
“This is his last year at the high school, and I can’t leave him alone and I can’t keep my job at the nursery if I have to stay home all day,” she says.
“So, maybe there’s a program where he can go and still live at home.”
“Maybe…” she says.
“I just never figured…” I say, but stop when I see her take a deep breath and hold it.
“And I did figure?” she sighs, and turns and walks off into her bedroom, shutting the door behind her.
Dad had died six months ago, in June. The week before he died, we’d been clear-cutting the back couple of acres to build a new corral. The weather was hot and sticky. Dad downed and trimmed the trees into one-foot logs while I dragged the slash across the field and fed it to the wood chipper. After a few days we had a mountain of woodchips and a field full of stumps sticking up out of the ground like kinged checkers waiting to make their next jumps.
On Saturday the weatherman forecast a break in the heat—heavy afternoon rain—and during breakfast, sitting at the kitchen table, I asked Dad if he’d mind my skipping out on the day’s work and instead going into Portland with a couple of the guys from school.
“Portland?” He looked at me the way he might look at a single tiny screw sitting on his workbench beside a carburetor he’d just rebuilt. “What about clean-up?”
“I figured clean-up could wait, what with the rain coming,” I said. “Besides,” I smiled, “clean-up is better left to guys that are past their prime.”
“Humph,” he glanced up from his breakfast and grudgingly smiled. “You go ahead, you’re tired. Patrick and I will pick up the slack.”
That morning, while I was in Portland, mobs of black clouds rumbled down from Canada and muscled the heat south. They massed over our valley and let loose torrents of rain. When Patrick and Dad didn’t come home, and Mom couldn’t find them, she finally called the sheriff.
“I’m glad I found them, that your mom didn’t,” the sheriff later told me.
Patrick couldn’t tell us much of anything about what had happened but, from what we could piece together, he and Dad had driven across the side yard behind the barn that morning and entered the woods on the old logging trail that we never used anymore. The tractor had flipped on the rutted trail. Its engine housing had landed across Dad’s chest and torso, and cracked a couple of his ribs. It had also pinned his shoulders and back to the bottom of the creek that runs along there.
“Patrick just lucked out and got thrown clear,” the sheriff explained later. “Not a scratch on him.”
I doubt Dad knew he was in real danger when the tractor first flipped. His ribs were banged up but he was no stranger to pain, and by the looks of the site around him he stayed focused on trying to free himself. There were grooves and divots in the dirt all around Dad where he’d tried to scratch himself out with his hands and feet. A heavy branch was wedged between the ground and the engine, where he must have tried to lever off some of the tractor’s weight. Knowing Dad, I bet he felt more foolish than afraid. Besides, that early in the morning, the water in the creek wouldn’t have been more than a trickle after the week’s heat wave.
But at midmorning, when the rains started and the creek began to bubble across his back, all Dad would’ve had to do was turn his head to see what would soon come rolling down the hill.
They were 300 yards from our front door. Shouting distance, almost. I’ve seen bow hunters fly their arrows over practice targets and find them stuck in trees 300 yards away. All Patrick had to do was leave Dad and take a five-minute walk to tell my mother. And all I’d have had to do was skip Portland and help Dad with the clean-up.
When the sheriff found them, Patrick was sitting waist deep in the middle of the rain-swollen creek, his hair and clothes soaked clean through. He was holding Dad’s floppy head in his lap, still trying to lift it above the rushing water. And he was saying over and over to himself: “Hurry. Go get help, Patrick. Go get Mom.”
It’s a few weeks into the wrestling season, and our first meet is in three hours. Coach puts us through a light drill after school, and his eyes flash when I step off the scale. I weigh 142.5…two-and-one-half pounds over.
“I’ll make weight, Coach,” I assure him.
I suit up in heavy sweats and start my run home. The first time making weight each season is always hardest because I’m never sure my body is going to get low enough for my weight class. I imagine it’s the same for every wrestler, along with second-guessing why we put ourselves through it. It’s not the physicality of the sport that makes most kids quit, it’s that constant uncertainty of the weigh-in. Wrestling is not the six minutes on the mat. Wrestling is every time the lunch bell rings and you go to the gym instead of the cafeteria, every time you walk past the water bubbler, and every time you can’t sleep because your tongue feels like it’s been dipped in dust.
Once home, I toss my backpack in the house, jog out to the woodshed, and find my tempo smashing logs with a maul. When I’m too tired to swing any more, I jog in place. After 15 minutes, I crack a sweat. My legs are sore and cramped from dehydration. I feel my pores open wider, and soon a wet blotch appears on the neck of my sweatshirt. I stay in the woodshed about an hour, and by the time I return to the house, the sweat is flowing. I try to keep my feet bouncing. I know what it takes to get two and a half pounds off and when I think I’m close, I strip down, towel off, and step on the scale. 140.3. I can float the three tenths. I shower and go into Patrick’s bedroom and turn off the TV.
“Want to come with Casey?” I ask.
“OK.” His face brightens.
We hike the trail that leads to the high ridge overlooking the eastern pasture. The cool air distracts me from thinking about how thirsty I am. I help Patrick along the rough spots, and when we get to the ridge, we sit.
“You coming to the meet tonight, pal?” I ask him.
“Do you want me to win?”
“Do you want to wrestle tonight?” I smile, and he studies me, tightens up the muscles in his face.
“I ddd-on’t wrestle…” he stammers.
“I know…but do you want to?”
“I ddd-on’t wrestle…” he nods.
“Well, we might need you, so be ready,” I tease him again, but he looks at me blankly.
“I’m kidding,” I tell him.
“I’m a good bbb-oy?”
“Yup. You sure are.”
We sit and scan the pasture. I sneak a sideways glance and see he’s watching a couple of low-drifting clouds bunch along the western hills. I can tell by the way he follows them that he likes being here. After a moment, a soft wind swirls, and he turns his ear to the rustling of pine needles brushing across the trail behind us.
When I see him like this, enjoying the same things I enjoy, I know he’s not all that different from me. He just needs to find something that makes him feel like he belongs. I’ve been lucky. Wrestling has always been the reason I open my eyes in the morning. It drives the whole of me, sort of like the heart in my chest.
And that’s what Patrick needs. That’s what I want to help him find. I work my tail off to win, to get my hand raised at the end of a wrestling match. I have to. We’ve got to find Patrick something that gets his hand raised.
“You got to stop roaming around at night, OK, pal?” I turn and nudge him. “Mom’s worried.”
He lowers his head. “Mm -onster hurt Dad.”
“What? Hey, the monsters didn’t hurt Dad, and I promise they’re not coming to get you,” I explain. But I can see he does not understand, and after a while we head back home.
At the meet that night, I make weight. 139.9. That’s a tenth of a pound of water I could have drunk. After weigh-ins, my teammates chug water and sports drinks, but not me. I’m in no hurry to wrestle with a gallon of water sloshing in my stomach. Coach calls us together and tells us that this is our season, but nobody is paying attention. Everybody is focusing inward.
When I’m on double-deck, I jog in place hard. I want to have a light sweat going before my match starts. The 135-pounders are called, and I remove my warm-ups. I see them wrestling but don’t pay attention. The match ends, and the 140-pounders are called to the mat. Coach waves me to our corner and growls something about needing a win here, but I am past all that. Before I leave to check in, he slaps me hard across the face to focus me. A swirl of heat rises from somewhere deep in my stomach.
Not yet—I take a deep breath.
I check in at the head table and walk to the center of the mat. My opponent is already there, pacing back and forth outside the inner circle. His arms hang straight down, and he is clenching and unclenching his hands. Every couple of seconds his face scrunches into a grimace, and I know he is trying to pump himself into a frenzy.
I pace outside the starting circle and glance up into the bleachers. Mom and Patrick seem lost without Dad sitting beside them. The referee brings my opponent and me to the center. We both crouch, shake hands and stare into each other’s eyes. His are fierce, and that usual feeling comes over me, the one where I want to tell my opponent that it’s not too late to stop this, that it’s crazy what we are about to do. I shake the nonsense from my head and invite the jitters in. I want the adrenaline they bring. The referee blows the whistle. We come out of our low crouch and circle each other, hands out to protect ourselves. He circles left; I circle right. The match is more a dance than it is wrestling now. I focus: he leads with his right foot, hesitates when his feet come together, and his right hand is the slightest bit high.
Then I am in a tunnel. All I can see is his right leg. Nothing else matters. Not the people cheering in the stands or Coach yelling instructions from our corner. Just his right leg. I feel my toes coiling. My calves, thighs, hips, chest, neck, and head all twisting together like cable wire. And just as his feet come together, my body uncoils, and I shoot across the mat.
He is quicker than I thought, but I lock my hands on that right leg. They’re above his knee, though…keep pulling, you’re in a bad spot…I am kneeling face down on the mat and he’s sprawled over me, squirming to back his hips out and get his leg back…don’t let go…he slides his right hand down and flattens my nose to my face with his thumb-knuckle…he’s grinding me with his knuckles? This son-of-a-bitch is grinding me?…he wants his leg back…does he understand what he’s doing?…and he levers his forearm between my looped arms to try and break my grip…because if he doesn’t understand, I’m going to fuckin’ make him understand…and tries to bounce his hips lower…no food or water for days and he thinks he’s gonna intimidate me?…but I suck his leg in tighter…my fuckin’ leg, he’s wearing it, but I own it…and he pushes back against my pull…I’ll show him monsters…but I bend my toes into the mat and push forward and now I have him…his leg?…reach up with my free arm and club the back of his head…three hundred yards from the house…and force him to his hip…because he’d break both of my arms and legs if he could…and bundle him up into himself in a cradle…and now, if he doesn’t go over, I’m gonna break his…until he rolls to his back…fuckin’ who’s intimidated now?…and I squeeze as hard as I can until he lies flat…three hundred fuckin’ yards …
The referee slaps the mat.
After the meet, both teams line up to shake hands. Coach has a big grin on his face. The skin around my eyes and cheeks is puffy, but nothing too bad. When I get to my opponent in line, he slaps away my outstretched hand and says something about seeing me again at States and how things will be different next time.
A few days after our first meet, the real estate agent’s car is in our driveway. It’s Mr. Cormier, whose son Jason wrestles with me. When I walk into the house, he and Mom are sitting in the den. He stands when I come into the room. I hear Patrick laughing in his bedroom over the sounds of cartoons.
“Hey, Case,” Mr. Cormier says, “ready for another big season?”
I shake his hand. “Yeah, I’m ready.”
“How’s the team shaping up?”
“Good. We’re going to be tough this year.”
“Well, you take it easy on Jason in practice, OK?” He smiles.
“Sure thing, Mr. Cormier.”
He sits back down next to Mom, and they flip through a book of houses that are for sale in the area. Mom is smiling, but Mr. Cormier knows why we are selling, and it makes him fidgety.
Occasionally, Mom sighs and stares at nothing, and that’s when Mr. Cormier turns back into a real estate agent. He notices the way the carrying beam hugs the plane of the ceiling and fits snugly into the plaster walls, the way Dad meticulously countersunk each cut-nail that holds the wide-planked pine flooring in place. I can see he is making mental notes of things to point out to prospective buyers. When he leaves, Mom rubs the back of her neck and smiles at me.
“Well, the paperwork will be ready to sign in a couple of days.” She shuffles across the room to the fireplace Dad built and traces a finger along a curved mortar joint between the gray and purple rocks. Years ago, the four of us had spent a summer weekend gathering these water-worn rocks from the creek bed. My father had carefully selected a spot for each of them.
“What about Patrick?” I ask.
“The state’s going to send somebody out for an evaluation. I’m thinking maybe a weekday group home. I can keep my job at the nursery and be with him on weekends.”
I nod, and she brightens.
“We’ll get through this. If the house sells quickly, we’ll rent something in town until the school year is over. I talked with your coach, and he thinks you’ll get good offers from a few schools.”
“OK,” I say.
A couple of Saturdays into the season, the phone rings early in the morning.
“It’s Coach. Meet’s cancelled.”
“Look outside, Casey.”
I pull back the curtain. Everything outside is white and clean. There’s a foot of snow on the ground, and the top of the wooden fence posts are wearing white elf hats. Coach tells me to enjoy my day off and go back to bed.
“Watch your weight,” he warns before he hangs up.
Snow days are a danger to wrestling teams. Without the pressure of having to make weight, a lot of wrestlers think they have more time than they really do before the next weigh-in. It’s common for whole teams to wrestle up a weight class at the meet following a cancellation. Coaches don’t like it because some kids get used to the jump in weight, realize all the good food and liquids they’re missing out on, and never make it back down.
I stumble into the kitchen and pour myself a cup of black coffee. If I keep moving and work hard today, I might be able to eat tonight. Before long, Patrick swishes in wearing his footie pajamas and sits at the table. Tufts of hair stick out from his head; he’s in that world between awake and asleep.
“Where’s Boo-er?” he asks, dreamily.
“Sleeping in the barn.” I scramble him a couple of eggs. They fluff in the heat of the frying pan, and my stomach hitches.
“Good morning, men.” Mom walks into the kitchen. She bends and kisses the top of Patrick’s head, then pours herself coffee.
“Meet cancelled?” She yawns.
I nod. She wanders to the front-room windows. “It’s like a postcard out there,” she whispers.
I scoop the eggs onto the plate in front of Patrick, sit at the table and watch Mom sip from her steamy mug.
“Let’s go outside after breakfast,” she says, turning to Patrick. “You can ride Dutch. You need the exercise.”
Patrick turns to me for help. He doesn’t like the cold. Or riding Dutch for exercise. “I can’t help you,” I tell him. “I’ve got to get out there, too, and clean up this mess.”
After breakfast, Mom helps Patrick bundle up in layers. She and I do the same. Together, we trudge through the deep snow to the barn. I push the wide door open until the snow piles up against its bottom, stopping it. We squeeze through the opening, and I turn on the light. Brewer struggles up from his bed of old blankets and limps across the barn to Patrick. I grab the saddle from the tack room and plop it next to Dutch’s stall.
“If you saddle him, I’ll shovel us out,” I tell Mom.
I shovel the area in front of the door and swing it fully open. Deep in the shadowy barn, Patrick and Mom squint out at me like lost cave dwellers. I walk to the tractor at the rear of the barn. It’s been parked here since Dad died. I climb up onto the seat and rub my hands over the cold steering wheel. This was the last thing my father gripped. I look up to see Mom quietly watching me. She nods, and I nod back. I pump the primer and turn the ignition key. Surprisingly, it starts. I wink at Mom, and she tilts her head and smiles. I take a deep breath, back out slowly, and peck away at the snow around the barn door. Once I’ve cleared a big enough area, I lower the bucket and push snow across the width of the driveway.
After a few minutes they emerge, Patrick sitting on Dutch and Mom holding the lead rope. She begins leading Dutch around the area I’ve just cleared. We are packed too tight for comfort, and I drive up near the first bend in the driveway to clean the edges. I hear the crack of the hunter’s rifle echo from the woods behind the barn and turn in time to see the lead rope tighten in Mom’s hands as Dutch spooks. She yanks the rope across her body, trying to gain control, but her twisting hips make her feet slip on the snow and come out from under her. Trying to catch herself from falling, she lets go of the rope.
Free, Dutch would normally run to the barn. But the shot came from that direction, so he bolts. I yell: “Grab the reins, Patrick!” But he doesn’t hear me. The heavy snow slows Dutch, but he keeps galloping up trail. I jump off the tractor. Mom stands up and turns to me with wide eyes. We both sprint. I catch up to her halfway up the trail and hear her gasping, “Patrick, Patrick,” as I run past.
When I get to the ridge, I look down. My heart quickens. Dutch has cleared the woods and is in the pasture, galloping toward the pond. Only no pond is visible, just a field of snow.
As I scramble down the ridge, I see Brewer behind me, charging up the trail. He slides to a stop, and the snow at his feet puffs up like flicked flour. His head perks up and he looks and listens…then leaps into the woods. He is no longer an old and tired dog. He zigzags between trees like a low-flying missile, bursts of snow exploding behind him like land mines. He busts clear of the tree line and into the pasture. Patrick and Dutch are almost at the pond. Brewer gets there first and spins to face them. He stands coiled, barking and growling.
Spooked, Dutch rears and Patrick slides out of the saddle, just as I reach the bottom of the hill. Patrick stands and brushes the snow off his jacket and face. I slow down, trying to catch my breath. I know Patrick is probably afraid, but at least he is off Dutch and hasn’t broken his neck.
Then Patrick starts walking toward Brewer, who is still barking and growling, his back to the pond. Patrick knows that Brewer will never hurt him, and he keeps walking. Every step Patrick takes forward moves Brewer backward out onto the pond.
“No! Brewer! No! Come to me!” I yell, but he is focused on driving Patrick back to the shore.
I sprint, again. My feet sink in the deep snow, and I lean forward, pumping my legs harder. I whistle, but Patrick is wearing his heavy hat with the earmuffs. When I am about 50 yards away, Patrick finally stops and turns. He watches me calmly. I sprint to the edge of the pond.
“C’mon, c’mon, c’mon,” I plead, and he takes a step toward me.
Brewer hesitates, stands still, and his weight stresses the ice beneath him. A loud crack. The sound startles him. Brewer backs up, and the crack widens and swallows his hind legs. He scrambles wildly, and while Patrick walks toward me, the ice supporting Brewer’s front paws shatters and he plunges into the icy water. A moment later, Patrick is near enough for me to grab.
“Jesus!” I pull Patrick onto the shore by both his shoulders and stand him straight in front of me. “Jesus!”
Brewer’s upper body pops up like a cork, and he splashes his front paws in the water and reaches the edge of the hole. He lunges and sets his paws on the ice. It looks like someone has molded a wet bust of him and set it on the snow-covered pond. His wet face is bony, and his ears are dripping woolen socks hung on the sides of his head. His fur is curled and matted. He tries to scramble up and out of the hole. He can’t. I turn away when I hear the crunch of Mom’s boots. The skin is tight across her eyes and cheeks as she runs to Patrick and hugs him.
“Oh God, I’m so sorry,” she holds his face in her hands and kisses his forehead.
I know that Patrick is okay so I hunch down, turn back to the dog. He never moves his eyes away from Patrick. I stand and start to inch my way out on the ice while making low kissing noises. Mom stops me with a strangely soft voice.
“No. I’m not going to bury you, too.”
I stop and turn toward her. This is an argument I won’t win.
Brewer is old, and it doesn’t take long. He is quiet, his eyes on Patrick the entire time. After a few minutes, his front paws slide off the ice and he disappears beneath the water, leaving the tiniest of ripples. Behind me, Mom begins to cry. I stare at the empty hole. I feel the heat rising in me, and I turn to Patrick. I close the distance between us with two quick steps.
“Are you that stupid you couldn’t have just jumped off?” I jab my finger in his face.
His eyes open round and wide. He turns to Mom. I reach out and grab his chin and force him to look at the empty ice hole.
“You look at what you did.”
After a moment, I twist his face back to me.
“What is it with you?“ I demand. “First Dad, now Brewer.”
“Casey,” Mom steps between us and grips my arm. “Don’t.”
“Don’t?” I ignore her pleading eyes and shrug her grip off my arm. I move my face until it is almost touching Patrick’s. My grip on his chin props up his cheeks, but his eyes stay wide open. “You don’t even know, do you, you stupid fuck? Dad was telling you to go get help. He was telling you to go and get Mom.” I take one last glance at the empty ice hole and run up to the house.
When I get home from the pond, I close the door to my room. When Patrick and Mom return a while later, they stay quiet and go to their rooms. Hours later I hear footsteps and roll over to see my alarm clock. It’s 1:30 a.m. I get out of bed and crack open my door. Patrick is roaming again. He is creeping from window to window in the front room, looking out into the darkness.
“Monster,” he whispers. He starts a few feet away from each window and inches closer, and when he reaches the sill, he crouches. I step into a corner of the room, but he doesn’t notice me.
“What are you doing up?” I finally ask.
He startles, turns and studies me.
“Where’s Boo-er?” he asks.
“Never mind Brewer,” I shake my head. “What are you doing up?”
“Monster,” he murmurs, and sheepishly points toward the windows.
I march over and grab him under his arm, pull him across the room.
“There’s nothing out there! You get it?” I explode, but he looks at the window. He is still afraid. And then he points to the glass reflecting his face.
A few days after Brewer’s drowning, a Ms. Creegan from the Department of Developmental Services is sitting with Mom and Patrick at the kitchen table when I get home from practice.
“What do you think about your brother living in a group home, Casey?” she asks.
“I don’t know,” I shrug. “He might not like it.”
Patrick turns his head from Mom to me, then back to Mom.
“Well, it’s natural to be afraid. But most challenged adults adapt and actually enjoy the experience. There’s more stimulation in a group setting, and they’re with their peers.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
Mom keeps rubbing her temples, standing up, asking Ms. Creegan if she needs more coffee even though her cup is full. When she does sit, only the balls of her feet touch the floor and both legs are shaking. I sit down next to her and put my hand on top of her leg. She glances at me.
“They’re shaking…” I whisper.
“Oh…” She smiles feebly, and I worry she’s about to unravel. She and Dad used to joke that at least they would always have Patrick after I left for college.
“Well, you should discuss this as a family. There will be an open spot in the next few months, and we will try to place him as close as possible to where you are living.”
Before she leaves, Ms. Creegan asks if we have any questions. I want to know if Patrick will be able to listen to his music, find his rhythm, but it seems like a stupid thing to ask. “No,” I say.
After Mom ushers Ms. Creegan out the front door, she turns and the three of us look at each other. Patrick keeps turning his head, as though trying to measure Mom’s reaction, and then mine.
“My baby,” Mom finally moans and hurries across the room. She stands Patrick up and pulls him close to her. “My baby,” she says, and rocks him back and forth. Patrick looks startled and starts to cry.
And sitting there at the kitchen table, watching them, right then—I know what I am supposed to do. I can finish high school, get a job here and take night classes to get my degree. Maybe Mom and I can work split shifts and try to keep the house. That’ll keep Patrick at home. That’ll fix everything.
It’s the last day of hunting season, and Mom is upstairs ironing. Patrick is in his bedroom watching cartoons. I want to eat. My body is beginning to attack my muscle for fuel. I know this feeling, have been through it before, and the only way to deal with it is to ignore it.
I take Dad’s rifle from the front hall closet, put on my winter boots and jacket, and pack some gear. At the front door, I turn around and see that Patrick has come out of his bedroom and is standing in the hallway. We haven’t said more than a few words to each other since Brewer drowned.
“Can I come?” he asks timidly.
“I guess,” I shrug.
I make sure he dresses in warm clothes. On the way out the door, he slips his portable radio and headphones into his coat pocket. I sling the rifle over my shoulder, and we make our way to the wood line and follow the trail toward the ridge. It is dusk, the perfect time for deer to feed on the scattering of pine saplings in the pasture.
“Listen,” I whisper while we sit up on the ridge and scan the pasture. “It wasn’t right, me saying those things the other day.” I pull a shell from my belt and slide it into the rifle’s chamber.
He turns and stares over my shoulder into the woods.
“Do you understand what I’m saying?” I tilt my head in front of his sight line and try to get him to focus on my face. “What I said was bad. It wasn’t your fault. None of it. Brewer…Dad.”
My voice finally gets his attention and his eyes move slowly over my face and connect with mine. I stiffen, smile, and draw in a deep breath. He tilts his face upward, closes his eyes, and bunches his lips. His chin quivers in a stutter.
“Mmm-usic?” He finally gets his stuck question free and reaches into his pocket to pull out his headphones.
I release my breath. My body slackens. I look down and rub the back of my neck. When I look back up, he’s still staring at me, only now his eyes and mouth are rounded into tight, tense circles.
“No, no,” I reassure him. “It’s OK. I’m not mad. You’re a good boy,” I reach over and rub the top of his hand.
He smiles and slips on his headphones. We are not there long when a big buck struts out from the wood line. It trots across the pasture to a cluster of pine saplings and stops to feed. Now and then it raises its head and sniffs the air for danger, but we are downwind. I turn and glance at Patrick, and he is staring slack-mouthed at the grazing deer.
I bring the rifle to my shoulder, and as I do, it hardly seems fair that this beautiful buck that has survived so long has made one big mistake. The deer turns broadside, offers me its length; I squeeze the trigger and cut it down where it stands. It drops like a sack of sand. We take our time trekking down the hill. I know the deer won’t need a mercy shot. When we get there, it is lying flat, and there is a dimple in its neck where the bullet has entered.
I work quickly now, because night is close. I loop the buck’s hind legs together with twine and thread it to a hang-rope that I throw over a low branch. I pull the end of the rope and hoist the deer upside down into the air. Its tongue hangs from its mouth like a thick strip of leather. Patrick sits in the snow, sneaking quiet glances at me while he listens to his music.
I take my knife, start at the genitals, and work it all the way to the sternum. As the innards spill, I slice them from the cavity until they drop to the ground in a steamy heap. I scrape the inner rib cage clean, and then walk across the clearing to pick up my rifle. On the way back, I tap the top of Patrick’s head and startle him out of his rhythm. He gazes around the clearing as if he’s just been transported here from a faraway land. His eyes find me, and I reach up and wiggle my ear lobe. He takes the headphones off.
“Time to go home, pal.”
He smiles and struggles to his feet. I stand in front of the hanging deer, my hand flat on its shoulder and my eyes closed as I feel the last current of warmth leaking through its thick winter coat. For a moment, I picture Dad’s panicked face and the tendons in his neck straining to lift his mouth and nose above the rising water. I snap open my eyes and shake the image from my head.
Three weeks from now at the State Tournament—when I wrestle what will be my final match —I will win my fourth state title. No one can beat me.
I reach over, yank the slipknot on the hang-rope, and the hollowed-out deer crumples when it hits the frozen ground.
Image: “Geraniums” by V.A. Smith