We knew it was better just to ignore her, stay out of her way.
“These clothes are dirty,” she said from the laundry room. “You boys need new clothes.”
We could hear doors opening and closing. Water filling the washing machine. Mama hid a bottle of vodka in one of the cabinets. We found it over the summer and I took a mouthful like I saw cowboys do on TV. I remember it burned and made my stomach warm. My head was light. Billy only took a sip, holding the bottle in both hands. He cried and I made him macaroni and cheese in the microwave. I forgot to boil the noodles and it was crunchy, but we ate it anyway and fell asleep.
She came in the kitchen. Me and Billy were sitting at the table playing a card game I learned at school. There was a cake on the table. It was Billy’s birthday yesterday. He was eight now. She looked at the cake.
“Where’d that come from,” she said.
“Aunt Sarah brought it yesterday,” Billy said.
“Happy birthday,” she said. She went to the sink and poured a glass of water. “Make sure the firewood is stacked before your father gets home.”
We stood up. I turned Billy’s cards over. He had me beat.
“Damn,” I said. He smiled.
We went outside and loaded wood into the splitter. We learned a long time ago to do things the first time we were asked. Papa wasn’t a drunk like Mama, though he did drink once in awhile. At least she had a reason for the way she acted. He was mostly just a mean son of a bitch. Said his family had always been down. Ever since the flood that tore apart the land a century ago.
>Mama passed us on her way to the car. Said she was going to get us new clothes. She wasn’t supposed to be driving. They already took her license away. Papa hid the keys to the wagon, but she found them and made copies that she also hid. Whenever she’d come home he would yell at her. They were always yelling.
The old station wagon tore off down the driveway. We heard a pinched cry. A dull snap. Papa’s dog. She didn’t stop.
We walked over to the dog. It was dead. It lay in a small heap, like a dropped towel from the clothesline. Billy asked me if it was sleeping. “No, let’s go back inside,” I said, “Papa will be home soon.”
Neither of us liked the dog. Papa brought it home three months ago late at night. We were excited to see it in the morning. It bit Billy when he tried to pet it. Papa laughed.
“He can tell you’re scared,” he said.
Mama didn’t like the dog either. During that first week it got in to the refrigerator. There wasn’t much in there. What it didn’t eat it pulled across the floor and shredded. The floor was smeared and bits of tin foil and paper dotted the room like confetti.
>After that the dog was kept outside. It barked at us and growled. We kept our distance. Papa put it on a long chain so it could run around. Sometimes it would wrap itself around a tree and stay there, stuck for days, until Papa went out to untangle the leash. He was the only one the dog liked.
We sat down in the kitchen. Billy looked at his cake.
“Can I have some?” he asked me.
“It’s yours,” I said.
He always asked me permission when Mama or Papa weren’t around. He dug his fingers in the cake and scooped out a handful. He looked at me to see if it was ok. It was.
We heard an engine at the top of the driveway. The wheels crunched closer and slowed. Then stopped. The engine went quiet. The door whined open and then shut with a thunderclap. Footsteps. Heels of boots dragging.
I looked at Billy and his cheeks were covered in cake.
Then feet moving closer. Knocking on the wooden boards of the back porch. The screen door ripped open and slammed shut pulled by springs.
“What did she do?” he said.
His voice was gravel.
We looked at him.
“Where is she?” The veins in his neck were thick.
“She went shopping,” Billy said.
Papa’s eyes shot to him.
“Shopping?” His mouth pushed the word out, small and tight.
“And you didn’t stop her from killing my dog?”
His hand was quick and landed sharp across Billy’s face. I jumped out of my chair and stood in front of Billy, under Papa’s raised hand.
His hand came down.
And then again.
My face stung and I tried pushing back but he was too strong. He kept hitting. Billy ran upstairs and Papa’s hand balled into a fist and cracked on my head. I fell.
Papa stood over me, shaking and breathing heavy. I got up and ran. Billy was under the bed, his fingers covered in icing, his face red and messy. I grabbed the side of the dresser.
“Help me,” I said to Billy.
He crawled out from under the bed and helped me move the dresser in front of the door.
Downstairs we could hear yelling and cursing.
I was glad she killed his dog. I hoped she would come home and clip him on the side of the driveway too.
Then me and Billy could live with our Aunt Sarah in Altoona. Things would be better there. She wasn’t like her sister.
My lip was fat and my face felt big and tight. Billy hadn’t said a word to me and looked away whenever I caught him staring.
I sat there on the edge of the bed. Outside I heard a door slam and an engine start. Wheels gripping rocks. I imagined Mama coming home, making the turn into our driveway.
Mama hid liquor in the woods. Papa didn’t let her keep it in the house. He said it was too tempting. Made the devil in him come out. One day Mama came home from the woods, bits of leaves and dirt hanging on her clothes, and locked herself in the bathroom. When Papa broke the door down she was asleep, sitting on the toilet. He smacked her. She crawled to the tub and passed out again. I went outside to go to the bathroom. My piss made an arc off the back porch and the sun reflected gold in it. It was beautiful.
Billy used the bathroom upstairs and he had poison ivy on his ass and legs for a week.
We went back downstairs.
In the kitchen, dishes were piled in the sink and mail was stacked on the counters and on the table. A picture Billy drew of a stegosaurus was on the floor. It was ripped. He picked it up and looked at it. He moved the two pieces together. He put it against the refrigerator, making sure magnets held it at all four corners.
I wrapped Billy’s cake lightly in a dishtowel.
“Take it upstairs,” I said, “and then come back down.”
I wiped the crumbs on to the floor. A chair was knocked over. I picked it up and moved all the chairs into the living room. When Billy came back I told him to sweep the floor.
I went to the laundry room. The washing machine was full of water. I loaded it with clothes. I opened up two packets of detergent and poured them in. Papa brought home a big box of samples two years ago. He said a guy came by his work selling them by the loading dock. Ten bucks a box. A guy was always coming by his work selling things like this. The detergent would last us years he said. He was right.
I went to wash my hands at the utility sink and caught my reflection in the glass of the back door.
My eyes were already blackening and my lip wasn’t as big as it felt, but my face was red and swollen. I touched my cheek and it felt like rubber.
I stood there looking at myself in the reflection on the glass. The washing machine rocked, the inside crashing against itself. I could hear Billy sweeping behind me in the kitchen. Beyond my reflection out in the yard just on the edge of the driveway was the dog. Its legs were under it except for one that shot out at an angle. It reminded me of the fall leaves on the ground. I waited for it to blow away. It didn’t.
I remembered a story my grandfather told me a few years before he died when I was five or six. My grandfather’s grandfather survived the flood. He said houses were on top of each other and families were torn apart. He lost both his parents. He said people stole after the flood while others helped to clean up and rebuild. One of the stories he told was about a dog that somehow got on the roof of a house. It stayed there for hours as the water receded. People could see it from their attics and roofs. Someone eventually climbed up and got it. I remember asking my dad later on what they did with the dog.
“How the hell do I know?” he said.
“Did someone take it home?”
He smacked me in the back of the head.
“Goddamnit. It got off the roof. That’s all.”
I went back to the kitchen. Billy had already started on the dishes. He was a good kid. I went to help him. I took over the washing and he dried.
“We’re leaving tonight.”
We finished the dishes in silence and put them away. When the washer was done we put the clothes in the dryer and started another load. Our clothes were coming with us.
We got baths. It would be a long walk. We wouldn’t get there until tomorrow night if we left before morning. We stayed up watching TV in the living room. Our clothes were packed in our school bags upstairs and we filled the side pockets with cans of tuna fish and soup we found in the back of the cabinets. My face had already settled into a swirl of purple and black. Billy’s cheek was an apple turning rotten. Aunt Sarah would have to let us stay if we showed up like this.
It was almost midnight and a light rain kept starting and stopping. We had to wait for Papa to come home so he wouldn’t find us outside. Mama was probably asleep in a field somewhere. That’s how they always found her. On the side of the road, corn stalks crushed under the car.
Headlights shone through the back window. We could hear Papa stumble to the porch and through the house.
“Can we go upstairs,” said Billy.
“No. We’ll be fine.”
Papa came in the living room, his eyes bloodshot and his hair greasy. He sat down without looking at us.
>“You’re up late. School tomorrow?” His voice slurred. He must have went drinking.
“School starts next week,” I said.
“Oh.” His breathing was heavy. His head dropped.
He looked over at me from under his eyelids, his chin on his chest.
His eyes scanned my face.
He pushed his hair back and swallowed hard.
“Come here,” he said. His voice cracked. His body heaved and he started crying. We sat there watching him.
He got out of the chair. Wiped his sleeve across his face.
“Stand up,” he said, his voice low.
He was big. I wasn’t sure which way this would go.
“Come on, stand up,” he said.
I pushed myself off the couch and squared myself to him.
He half smiled.
“I’m not gonna hit you,” he said. He put his hands on my shoulders.
“I’m glad you stuck up for your brother. Had to teach you a lesson. A man gets beat so he can get stronger. Only way to survive.” His hands gripped my shoulders harder.
I looked up at his face. It was weary and pocked. It reminded me of a scarecrow too many crows had gotten the best of.
“Good.” He pulled me in tight. My face pressed against his shirt and it hurt. He smelled like smoke and motor oil. The hair on his chin scratched my forehead. His breath was stale and hot and smelled like beer.
He let me go and we sat down.
“I loved that dog. Would have survived the flood.”
Always the flood when he got drunk. I think some part of him thinks he was there – that he deserved to be there, or that something that happened long ago was an excuse for the way things are now. The way he acts now.
“That woman would have got us all killed,” he said. “Not my dog.”
He hugged himself.
“Don’t know why she had to go and kill it.”
His head dropped to his chest again.
His mouth hung open.
Billy poked me.
He slipped quietly off the couch and went upstairs. He came back down with our bags.
Papa was almost asleep.
We pulled our bags over our shoulders. On the way to the back door, Billy stopped. He looked at Papa. He pulled at the blanket from the back of the chair and laid it across him.
“Come on,” I said.
The rain had stopped and we snuck out the back. We jogged off into the darkness – past the dog and up the driveway that led away from that place.
Up on the road it was dark. Our flashlights bounced along the asphalt and dirt shoulder. In the woods we heard crickets and small animals. Nothing dangerous. We would be on a main road soon. After that, we would take to the flood trail for the night.
When I was little Papa always told me stories his grandfather told him – that his grandfather probably told him. A long time ago, a bunch of men built a dam and canals for factories. A terrible storm hit. It rained for days. The dam broke and millions of gallons of water surged downstream destroying all the towns in its way. He told us a fire burned for three days. I never understood how a fire broke out during a flood. But it did. And it burned. Houses and animals were swept away. He told us barbed wire from farms was ripped along and people got caught in it.
I tried to imagine what it would look like getting caught in barbed wire. Billy had a dummy on strings. The strings always got tangled around the limbs. I imagined it would look like that.
We walked in silence. We were soon on the flood trail. No one should be out this late. It was used as a hiking trail now and people were often out here, but at night it was abandoned. We sometimes rode our bikes here, but we never went past the tunnel – it was supposed to be haunted by the people who got caught in it and drowned.
Billy complained his feet hurt. I shone my flashlight to his shoes. The bottoms had worn through. We used cardboard when that happened. It wore away and we didn’t have any with us. I told him to put on more socks and tore away some bark from a tree and stuck it in his shoe. We had to walk a few more hours before we could rest.
“How long do you think we’ll be away,” Billy asked.
“A long time I hope.”
“Where will we go to school?”
“Do you miss home?”
“No. Do you?”
I stopped walking.
“Do you miss getting hit? Or being hungry? Or being afraid?”
Billy didn’t answer.
“Sorry,” I said and put my arm around him.
The slope of the hill, going up on the right side of the trail, was cut by the Little Conemaugh River and deepened by the flood. The river overflowed with the force of the dam water, reshaping the land. I wondered how different the trail was before the flood. There were other times it overflowed, but none as bad as that first time. It was quiet here. We could hear the soft push of the water downstream to our left.
“Are there bears in the woods?” Billy asked.
“No. They’re asleep.”
I had no idea. Last year a kid at school told us how his uncle was attacked by a bobcat in the woods behind his house. His face was almost ripped off. I forgot if I told Billy that story and decided this wasn’t the time even if the story was made up. I wasn’t thinking about animals anyway. I knew the tunnel would be up ahead soon. It was an old railroad tunnel. I thought about bodies caught in barbed wire. I felt a raindrop through the branches. The trees were thick and a little rain wouldn’t matter much. We kept walking. It rained harder.
There it was. A dark hole in the black-green of the night. We were wet. We were hungry. We walked in just under the lip. The rain echoed. We were shaking. I wished we would have brought matches. I shone my flashlight through the tunnel. The light fell grey and dissolved on the curved arch of the walls. The ground was flat and dry.
“I’m cold,” said Billy.
I didn’t want to be in the tunnel. I thought about climbing up the hill. That would be harder and we would get muddy.
“Let’s run to the other end and then eat,” I said before I could change my mind.
“Make sure to keep your flashlight in front of you.”
We ran. I didn’t believe in ghosts but when the wind blew through and howled I couldn’t help myself from thinking again of people caught in here and drowning. I imagined people running from the wall of water. I thought about Billy’s shoe. Would have to fix it again when we got to the end of the tunnel.
We set down our bags.
“Let me see your shoe.”
He lifted his foot up. The bark held.
“Good,” I said. “Let’s change into dry clothes and then eat.”
I set our flashlights against our bags, crisscrossing. We changed and opened a can of soup. We peeled the lid off and drank it. It was slimy and cold and we were careful not to cut our mouths on the can. When we were done eating, Billy leaned against me and closed his eyes. I looked at my watch. It was almost four. I let him sleep. I sat there looking out into the night, the rain coming down harder. I could hear the river waking up. Billy’s breath was warm against my arm.
A hand was on my shoulder when I opened my eyes. I saw boots and the dim lights of our flashlights.
“Hey,” a voice said. I jumped. I saw a man’s face when my eyes adjusted.
“It’s okay,” he said. I recognized the patch on his shirt. He was a park ranger.
It was still raining. The morning was a blanket of grey. I was cold.
“You boys spend all night out here?”
I didn’t answer. He looked at my face and then at Billy’s.
“What happened to you?”
Billy stirred and looked up.
“Come to my truck. The river is rising. You can’t be out here.”
We got up and walked through the heavy rain. The river was high and white. We got to the truck. The ranger gave us his thermos of coffee. It was hot. We drank it. He drove and radioed headquarters. He put an earpiece in and spoke quietly. I told him we lived in Altoona and gave him our Aunt’s address.
“Okay,” he said.
“Can you take us there,” I asked.
“You hungry?” he replied.
“Are you going to take us to Altoona?”
He handed a brown bag over the backseat.
“There’s a sandwich in there and a granola bar.”
We ate the food and held the coffee in our hands. The truck was dry and warm. We drove on the road alongside the river. Outside it was raining hard. I didn’t know where we were going. Up ahead we saw lights from a fire truck and a police car. There was a form on a stretcher being lifted into an ambulance. The ranger slowed as we passed. Through the grey I saw a station wagon tied to the back of a tow truck. I looked away, up ahead through the front window. The wipers moved fast, pushing away endless water.
Daniel DiFranco lives in Philadelphia where he is currently working on an MFA from Arcadia University. He teaches high school music and English. His work has appeared in Crack The Spine. Wanderlust bit him at an early age and he learned the hard way there is no peanut butter in Europe. He can be reached at Daniel.DiFranco@gmail.com