At breakfast, Evan spills his milk, and Boy spanks him and sends him to his room. I don’t spill anything, but Boy won’t give me my toast.
“Eat your eggs, Anna. Then you can have all the toast you want.”
Evan doesn’t cry, but I cry and climb up onto Mom’s lap. When I stuff my fingers in the pocket of her yellow-flowered apron, she squeezes me ’til I’m better. Now Evan’s back even though nobody said he can come out of his room yet.
“Mom?” Evan says. “Can I go over to Duffy’s?” Duffy is Evan’s best friend.
“Ask your father,” Mom says.
“Duffy’s waiting for me. Come on, Mom.”
Evan always wants to get out of here. He should go without asking, and Mom would know he’s over at Duffy’s, but her rule says you can’t go out to play without permission. Usually she says yes.
“Boy? Do you need Evan for anything? He wants to go to Duffy’s.”
Evan wrinkles up his nose and stomps his foot.
“Yes, I need him in the garden,” Boy says. He’s reading the newspaper at the kitchen table. He’s wearing his gardening clothes—gray shirt, gray pants, brown leather shoes. He doesn’t wear colors. I’m wearing a green plaid dress with smocking. My hair is red, and Boy’s hair is not so red, like it was red a long time ago and remembers.
“Stay and help your father for a little while, Evan. Then you can go to Duffy’s.”
Evan slams the screen door on his way out. I hear the garage door open and the scrape of a bicycle pedal on concrete.
“Evan, you heard me.” Mom raises her voice and slides me down to the floor.
“I’m riding my bike,” Evan yells back. “He’s not even out here.”
“You are not to go to Duffy’s.”
I go over to the window, to see if Evan is disobeying Mom. He’s riding down the driveway, but when he gets to the street, he turns around to come back. He pedals hard toward the garage, screeches to a halt at the garage door, and drags his bike around by the handlebars for another loop. He’s forgotten about being mad. He makes two riding sounds, a blowing-out sound and a breathing-in sound. I try it under my breath. Phoo-oo. Eee-ee-sh.
“When do I get a bike, Mom?”
“When you’re bigger.” Mom’s already busy, clearing the table so she can sort laundry.
“When am I big enough?”
“When you’re six, like Evan.”
“That’s a long time.” A whole year plus six months. I know a year has twelve months.
“Not so long. Long enough for your legs to grow, so you can reach the pedals.”
Evan is bigger than me, and when he lets me try his bike I stretch my feet down as far as they go, but my toes don’t reach the pedals. My feet only waggle in the air. Then he lets the bike fall toward him, like he’s dropping it. He laughs when I fall off and scrape my hands on the concrete. He says I’m a sissy when I cry, and he tells Mom it’s not his fault.
Boy folds up the newspaper and walks toward the back door without looking at me or Mom. He has important jobs to do.
“Come along, Anna,” Boy says. “I need you too.”
“I’m helping Mom,” I say, even though I’m not. I’m watching Evan to make sure he doesn’t go to Duffy’s.
“Go along, Anna,” Mom says. “You need some fresh air.”
I have to go with Boy, but I look back at Mom in case she’ll change her mind. I was going to put the clothes in the washing machine and measure the soap. I was going to fold the clothes without any wrinkles when they came out of the dryer. I was going to be Mom’s helper, so I don’t see why I have to be Boy’s helper.
“How long do I have to go for?”
“For a while. Go. You’ll be fine.”
“Do you want to come?”
“No, I’ve got the laundry to do, and Christopher’s having his nap. I might come outside after he wakes up.”
Christopher is our baby. We went to stay at Aunt Laura’s house, and Mom and Dad came back a week later with Christopher. Aunt Laura is Boy’s sister, but she doesn’t like Boy either. Uncle Alan stayed home with us, and he fed us long soft noodles in white cheese sauce. You can suck one end of a noodle into your mouth and swallow a little bit at a time until the noodle slides all they way down your throat and into your stomach. Uncle Alan gave me a second helping of noodles even though I didn’t eat anything else on my plate.
“Mom? Do I have to?”
“Yes, you have to.”
I don’t slam the screen door because I don’t want to make Mom mad, but I’m going to be mad at her for the whole time I have to be outside helping Boy.
“Bring the weeding stick and your basket,” Boy says. His long black shadow stretches in front of him on the grass and climbs up the side of the garage.
I find my basket next to the wheelbarrow, and I put the weeding stick inside with the sharp part pointing down.
Boy measures fertilizer into a tin bucket and sets the bucket in the wheelbarrow next to the baby crabapple tree. The tree’s roots are wrapped in newspaper, and it doesn’t have any leaves, only skinny branches on a skinny gray trunk. Mom wanted a cherry tree with pink flowers and sweet cherries to eat, but Boy said cherry trees bring birds that eat all the fruit anyway. Boy says the crabapple tree will have white flowers and no mess. Mom didn’t say it was okay, but Boy’s doing it anyway. He says he’s the gardener in the family.
“Evan!” Boy calls out.
“I’m coming.” Evan rides out toward the street again. He’s doing another loop instead of coming back here right now.
Boy turns away from the wheelbarrow and marches out of the garage. His shadow rushes down the driveway and grabs Evan’s arm above the elbow. Evan stops, but his bike keeps going, wobbling from side to side until it crashes into the curb on the other side of the street.
“Ow!” Evan cries. Boy’s shaking Evan back and forth.
“You come when I tell you,” Boy says, the words far apart. “You come” smack “when I” smack “tell you” smack. When he lets go, Evan’s skin is red from the marks of Boy’s fingers and white in the spaces between. I can’t see his bottom.
I want it to be over, but Evan wants to get his bicycle. When Evan heads across the street, Boy grabs Evan’s arm again, in the same place. Evan’s arm stings like fire. I can feel it too. Evan’s eyes are shiny with tears, but he’s not crying. Boy can squeeze tears out of Evan, but he can hardly ever make Evan cry.
“Get the rake and shovel and bring them around to the vegetable garden.”
“Dad, I have to get my bike,” Evan says. Broken pieces of white reflector lie in the street.
“Leave your bike where it is.”
Boy marches back to the wheelbarrow. He wraps his long fingers around the handles and pushes the wheelbarrow toward the garden. I’m right behind him, carrying my basket over one arm so the handle of the weeding-stick bumps my elbow when I walk, but I look around to see if Evan is coming too. Evan runs to his bike and kicks the fender so it makes a rattling sound. Boy pretends he doesn’t hear.
My toes disappear and reappear in the wet grass, and my shadow falls through the garden fence, across the rows of vegetables—radishes, carrots, cucumbers, beans. I don’t know if Boy has a job for me. I squat between the vegetable rows and poke at a weed with the weeding stick. A weed is anything Boy doesn’t want. I loosen a root and pull out a long red stem with round green leaves and tiny yellow flowers. I tuck the pretty weed in my straw basket.
Evan carries rocks to the hole Boy is digging for the crabapple tree. With every load, Evan scrunches up his eyes and sticks out his tongue at me. I can hear the nya-nya nya-nya nya-nya sounds so loud in my head that I peek around to see if Boy can hear them too.
Boy mixes the tree food into the dirt piled up next to the hole. Then he sticks the tree in the hole and shovels loose dirt over it, pushes the dirt down with his foot. Around the tree, Boy builds a rock wall, and he hides the wall under the rest of the dirt. I want to know why the tree needs a wall, but I won’t ask him.
“Evan, get me some pine needles.”
Boy never says please. We do, and Mom does, but he doesn’t.
Evan walks up the hill to collect pine needles. Our three white ducks live up there in the duck pen, and I can hear Evan talking to them. He’s probably opening the door to their pen, walking inside to pat their long necks and wrap his fingers around their smooth yellow bills. I’d like to go too, even though the duck pen is smelly and full of flies, but I’m busy weeding. My basket is almost full.
“What are the pine needles for, Dad?” I already know but I pretend I don’t. I want Boy to forget that Evan is taking too long.
I like that word. Mulch. It sounds like what food is like after I eat it.
“Do you know what mulch is for?” He raises his chin, looks down his nose at me.
“Yes.” I’m shaking even though I’m not cold.
“It keeps the soil from drying out.” He thinks he knows everything.
“Evan?” Boy says, not loud enough for Evan to hear even if he was listening.
Evan doesn’t answer.
Boy drops his gloves and marches up the hill, his shadow broken to pieces by the trees. I set my basket down and creep along behind him.
Evan has his head inside the duck house, his fingers in their straw-filled nests. I whisper, “Evan!” to warn him, but Evan doesn’t hear me, doesn’t notice Boy until he opens the gate. All three ducks rush to the other side of the pen.
Boy jerks Evan up by the arm, the other arm, so now both arms will have red marks and skin rubbed thin and bumpy. Boy winds up and smacks Evan hard on the bottom. The blow makes a hollow sound, and Evan’s body flies forward. His feet flap in the air before they touch the ground. Evan is yelling, “Ow! Ow! Stop, Dad.” Boy swings again, and the blow spins Evan around to face Boy, who hits him over and over.
“Where . . . are . . . the . . . pine needles?”
I am hiding in the shadow of the duck house. My face is burning, my heart is bumping and crashing against my ribs, and my throat hurts like after I had my tonsils out.
Boy drops Evan into the duck doo, green and black noodles squished down by webbed duck feet. Evan wiggles away from Boy’s feet in the brown leather shoes and lies on his back crying. This time he has to cry. The ducks are quacking and pushing their heads through the fence, lifting up their wings, but they don’t remember how to fly.
“Get up out of that filth.”
“You-hoo-hoo . . . did . . . it.” Evan coughs and spits a dribble of white foam out of the corner of his mouth. A squiggle of duck doo hangs from his right cheek. His bottom lifts off the ground because it hurts a lot—I know—like a shovel hit it, and the pain spreads out in a circle from the red marks, stinging and itching for a whole day.
I fly through the pine needles and down the hill and into the kitchen where Mom is feeding Christopher. He twists his head away from the bottle and smiles at me. He doesn’t know anything.
“Evan’s all covered with duck doo.” My voice is squeaky.
Mom wipes Christopher’s mouth and raises him to her shoulder for a burp. “What, Anna? What happened?”
“Evan forgot about the pine needles and Boy hit him and he fell down in the duck pen.”
“Don’t call him Boy, Anna. You must call him Dad.”
“No.” I stamp my foot. She cares more about Boy than Evan, and Evan is hurt.
I can hear Boy calling from the top of the hill. “Ruth. Ruth.” He wants to tell the story first, to say it was Evan’s fault. I don’t want him for my father, and I won’t call him Dad. I want Mom to spank him and send him to his room.
When Mom goes outside to rescue Evan, I go to my bedroom and pick up my Angel Baby doll and hold her tight. I can see them coming across the lawn. Mom is angry, and Evan is sniffling. Christopher is looking around and waving his arms like he’s in a parade.
“Boy, what is wrong with you? Why did you let him fall in the muck?”
“I told him to get pine needles. He’s up there playing with the ducks.”
I’m standing next to the window so I can hear everything.
“He doesn’t follow directions,” Boy shouts.
“He’s six years old,” Mom says.
I’m four and a half, but I know how to follow directions better than Evan. That’s why I’m safe in my room and Evan’s a stinky mess.
I follow Mom and Evan into the bathroom. She wipes Evan’s face with a wet cloth and helps him out of his filthy clothes. She fills the bathtub with warm water, washes away the muck, dries him with a clean towel, and pats thick white cream on his upper arms and his bottom while she makes clucking noises in the back of her throat. Christopher wants to have a bath too and cries when Mom says no.
“Can I go to Duffy’s now?”
“Yes, Evan, you can go. Come home for lunch.”
“Evan’s not to go anywhere,” Boy says. “He’s to go straight to his room.”
Boy is arguing with Mom, but I don’t care about that. I race back to the window to watch Evan. He yanks at the handlebars until they’re pointing the same way as the front wheel. He swings his leg up over the crossbar, but when he sits down, he makes a high, yipping sound and rides away standing. At lunchtime, Evan will telephone and ask to eat at Duffy’s house. He won’t come home until dinner, and then he’ll say he’s not hungry, and Boy will send him straight to bed.
When I’m in bed with the light off, I remember my basket. I forget where I left it. I rub my hands on my arms where Evan’s are red and bumpy and sore, and I spread my fingers as wide as they will go. Inside my pajamas, I squeeze my bottom tight. I slide down so my head is hiding under the covers. In the morning I’ll find them—my weeding stick and my basket—and put them back in the garage where they belong. Boy will never know I left them outside all night. When I start to shake and cry, I push my face into the pillow so I don’t make a sound.
Copyright © 2002 Carol Peters