You or a Loved One

Cody’s dad hadn’t changed out of his army uniform in three days. Sitting across from him that night at the Waffle House, Cody noticed spots on the mottled green and tan that hadn’t been there before, little brown and red splotches, maybe dried blood or ketchup. His dad smelled a little sour, a little off. Cody tried to remember the last time he’d heard him taking a shower, in the pink tiled bathroom they all shared at his grandmother’s house.

Beside him in the booth, Cody’s older brother Will kept fiddling with his cell phone. They were rarely together for supper anymore, not without Granny around, anyway. It felt like a special occasion, even though they’d come to the Waffle House on Pelham Road, the old one with bad lighting and dirty floors, not the nice new one where they took Granny on Sundays, all shiny chrome and linoleum. Here, the jukebox played a bunch of old crap you only heard on the oldies station, and the gray plastic cups were streaked with soap stains.

Cody made a face as he sipped his water. “How come it smells like wet dog?”

“That’s how they do the dishwashing,” Will replied. “Dogs. Lick ’em clean.”

“I’m serious.”

“So am I.”

“Put your phone away, son,” their dad said to Will. “Family time.”

Will slid his phone back into his pocket. Together they dutifully surveyed the laminated images of the All-Star breakfast, the Dollar Menu, hash browns smothered and covered and everything in between. Their dad kept glancing at the door, every time it swung open and someone new came in. These days he always liked to sit somewhere he could keep an eye on the door. At home, Cody was careful not to sneak up behind him by accident.

After a little while their waitress came over with her pad and pencil. “What can I get y’all?” she asked.

They ordered their hash browns all the way, orange juice for the boys, black coffee for their dad, who never drank coffee. He sipped it from a thick fat mug, gazing at his sons sitting across from him in the brown booth.

“Well, then,” he said. “How you two doing?”

“We see you every day,” Will said. He had an empty look Cody recognized. His eyes were red, his mouth slack like a rubber band. Cody recognized the hurt on his dad’s face. He swooped in, knowing school was something his dad liked to hear about.

“I got my report card today. All A’s.” He’d gotten a B- in math, but didn’t mention it. “I got good enough grades I could be on the debate team next year. Once you’re in eighth grade, you can do that.”

Their dad shook his head. “That’s something else.” His voice was filled with wonder. “How about you, William?”

Will rolled his eyes, took a deep breath. “I want to do sports next year,” he said, scowling. “I figure since I’m no good at school maybe I’ll be good at sports.”

“What a load a malarkey,” Cody said, parroting an old-timey comedian he’d heard on TV. “You never played a dang sport in your life.”

“Watch your language,” said his dad. “What sport?” he asked Will.

Will flung a balled-up napkin onto the table. “Track,” he said. Cody could smell whiskey on his breath. “I can run pretty fast.”

His dad nodded. He was still nodding when the waitress set their food down on the orange table between them.

“Better load up on carbs,” he said. “Carbs’ll keep you going better than anything.”

“Except protein,” Cody chimed in.

“I’m not starting now,” Will snapped.

They ate in silence. The waitress came by to refill their dad’s coffee mug. This time, he ripped open sugar packets, dumping in three at a time. Then as he wiped his plate clean with his last triangle of toast, he declared, “Well, I sure am proud of you boys. It’s a hell of a lot more than I did at your age.”

Will stared at the waitress, who was leaning over talking to the cooks behind the counter. Cody kicked him under the table, aiming for his crotch.

“And I’ll be damned if you end up serving,” their dad added.

“Language,” Cody said.

“What?”

“You told us to watch our language, but you just said ‘hell’ and ‘damn.’”

They smiled at each other. As the youngest, Cody was the only one who could get away with correcting his father.

When they’d finished eating he told them to order waffles for dessert. He patted down his uniform, from the shoulders to the knees.

“Well dog my cats,” he said calmly. “Must’ve left it back at the house.”

He got up and looked around, checking his seat and under the table. Cody crouched down too, trying to help. Will’s eyes were on the waitress again.

“Tell you what,” their dad said. “I’ll run get my wallet, and by the time I come back you boys’ll have finished your waffles.”

On his way out he ruffled Cody’s hair, which he hadn’t done since the boys were little. As Cody watched him open the first glass door, then the second one that led to the darkness outside, it looked like his dad was moving underwater.

*

“Where’s Pop? What’s taking him so long?”

An hour had gone by, and the house wasn’t far. Will shrugged. Under his hoodie, he resembled a sack with a mouth. After their waffles, they had each ordered a piece of chocolate crème pie. Will had barely touched his. Cody looked out the window at the parking lot. Mayflies bounced off the streetlights, bright white motes of pure energy. He couldn’t see Granny’s car in the space where they’d parked.

“Should we call Granny?”

“Why is it so easy for you?” Will asked.

“Why is what so easy?”

“You talk to Pop like it’s no big deal.”

“It is no big deal. You just don’t like talking to him. You don’t like talking to anybody.”

Before Will could say anything, Cody got up and went to the counter to tell their waitress what was going on. Her little yellow nametag read SHEILA, just like their dad’s uniform had the lapel with their last name in big letters. Sheila sucked air in through her teeth. Her teeth were smoky gray, like their grandfather’s had been before he died, when Cody was little.

“Strange things happen here all the time,” Sheila said. “Man had a heart attack just last week, right where y’all are sitting.”

She let him use the phone by the cash register to call home. On the third ring Granny answered and listened to Cody’s story. Then she asked him, “What did y’all do?”

Back at the booth, Cody told his brother, “Pop ain’t home.”

Sheila came over and bared her teeth at them. “Y’all planning to camp out here?” Will slouched further and further under his hoodie.

“No, ma’am,” Cody said. Sitting up straight, he said brightly, “Our granny’s coming to get us. We’ll pay up then.”

Sheila glanced at Will. “He all right?”

“He’s fine,” Cody said. “Just tired. He runs track. Gets wore out.”

The waitress went back to her register. By then it was nearly eleven. Cody looked out at the parking lot, where the mayflies were still flinging themselves at the streetlights. He noticed some of the letters missing from the bright yellow Waffle House sign, like teeth. He aimed at the gaps with an invisible gun, pretending to fire through the glass.

Pow.”

*

As they came inside the dark house Cody half-expected to find their dad reclining in the La-Z-Boy with the cat curled up in his lap. Granny clapped her hands and all the lights came on. “Clap on, clap off,” Cody used to sing. He stopped once they got older and Will started making jokes about him having the clap. “You see it a lot in the army.”

The orange cat strolled up to greet them. Cody reached down and hoisted him into his arms.

“Better call your mother,” Granny said. She’d left a good tip at the Waffle House,  but she hadn’t said a word on the way home, in the pickup—not her own car, the one their dad had taken.

“Great idea,” Will said from under his hood. “She’ll know what’s up.”

Ignoring him, Granny picked up the phone. The cat purred in Cody’s arms.

“You think you’re real funny,” Cody said. Will went to his room and shut the door.

Cody stayed with Granny, cradling the cat while she listened to the phone ringing at the other end of the line, up north, somewhere in Tennessee. She stood very still, her blue eyes clear as pools behind her reading glasses. As he listened to her explain the situation to his mother—slowly, patiently, as if they were in no hurry—he felt like everything was stretching away from him, as though the floor and the furniture and his grandmother were all made of elastic. He dug his fingers into the cat, who chirped upside-down, trying to squirm out of his arms.

“She wants to speak to you,” Granny said. Cody dropped the cat and took the phone.

“Mom?”

“Hey, baby.” Her voice was husky with cigarettes. “Your dad take you to supper?”

“Yup.”

“That’s sweet. First time he’s done that in a while.”

“First time without Granny, yeah.”

“Guess he wanted you all to himself.”

“Mom, do you know where he is?”

“Oh, baby. I wish I could tell you.”

He heard a voice grumble something in the background. Her boyfriend—maybe the one she’d had before, maybe not. She’d been gone a year and it still felt like she should be coming home after they got off the phone.

She told him not to worry. They exchanged “I love yous,” and he hung up.

He stood facing his grandmother, gnarled and skinny as a dogwood, still stretching away from him across the elastic floor, threatening to snap back like a slingshot.

“I’m not a baby.”

“I know you’re not.”

“She don’t talk that way to Will.”

“Nobody talks that way to William. Everybody knows better.”

“Did you call Pop? On his cell phone?”

“He left it here. In the kitchen.”

“He leave a note?”

She shook her head. Cody looked at the floor.

“Maybe he just went for a drive,” he mused, feeling foolish for saying it. It was the same feeling he’d get when she sent him out to pick out his own switch for telling fibs. Picking out his own switch for her to do the beating: that was the insult on top of the injury, the ultimate humiliation.

Now, his eyes filled up because he knew she wasn’t going to say or do anything at all. He’d seen enough TV to know they had to wait twenty-four hours before starting to look, really look. Would they really look?

Upstairs, on his way to his room, he paused in front of Will’s door but didn’t knock. For a long time he lay in bed without sleeping. He turned over the past few days and weeks in his mind, trying to remember any behavior of his dad’s that seemed out of the ordinary, which was another thing they did on TV. But he’d been gone for so long before that; anything that seemed unusual might have become normal since they’d last seen him. Except the uniform, maybe. Splotches that Granny normally would have insisted on having drycleaned, stuck there.

Toward dawn, just as pink light was starting to bleed through the trees, Cody got up. He padded in his bare feet to the living room, where Granny reclined in the La-Z-Boy, wide awake, her hands folded across her stomach, her eyes resting on nothing in particular.

*

On Father’s Day a few days later, the doorbell rang. Cody was lying on his bed, face down. Nobody else was home. He rolled out of bed and slogged toward the front door.

The girl who lived across the street stood in front of him, holding a Tupperware container. She was a year behind Cody in school, with a locker at the end of the hallway.

“Hey,” the girl said to Cody.

“Hey.” Cody squinted at her. He could never remember her name.

She held out the container. “Here.”

Cody popped it open. Inside were pink-frosted cupcakes, nestled in neat rows.

“Red velvet,” the girl said. “My mom wanted me to bring ’em over.”

Cody closed the lid, waiting. She rubbed a finger back and forth under her nose.

“You remember a few weeks ago, when my mom parked her car in front of your house?” She meant in front of the path that led from the front stoop down to the street. “And your dad came out and started yelling at her? My mom said sorry and he just kept yelling, said she oughta show a little more respect?”

Cody’s eyes wandered to the birdhouse tacked to the tulip poplar in the front yard, near the path. He remembered, although he did not remember his dad yelling, not exactly. They had all stood behind his dad in the doorway, watching. His dad had been red in the face, trying to keep everything in but unable to stop, a vein popping out on his shaved head. His exact words had been level, precise: “Will you explain to me, ma’am, how exactly my poor old mother is supposed to get up to her house with that fucking monstrosity in the way?”

The tulip poplar was littering blossoms all over the path, all over the rocks that were usually there. Cody wondered if he should do something about it. “Trees are messy,” his father had said all the  time. He hated them. He wanted them all cut down.

“A beautiful mess,” Granny called it. She thought it looked like confetti, like there were parads going by all summer.

“What about it?” Cody said to the girl.

She shrugged. “My mom said she’s not mad at him anymore, is all.”

*

Later that afternoon, Will came home from work, wearing his black Waffle House polo with the yellow nametag that said WILLIAM. Cody was dangling upside-down on the couch, watching commercials about healthcare lawsuits. They all started with “Attention, TV viewers! If you or a loved one . . . ” and proceeded to list every single awful thing that could happen to you after using talcum powder, or getting a metal implant, or getting your limbs hacked off by factory machinery, and just how much money you were entitled to, something called “compensation.” These ads had a brisk, lawyerly authority that he preferred to the sappy ones for the cancer kids at St. Jude’s, or the Wounded Warriors Project, which seemed to be pleading for his money more and more these days, in exchange for a souvenir blanket.

The Tupperware container lay open on the floor. Cody shoved another cupcake into his mouth as Will came into the living room.

“Where’s Granny at?” Will asked.

“Church. Father’s Day fun-k,” Cody hiccupped, “function.”

Will looked at the cupcakes.

“Where’d you get those?”

“Girl across the street.”

“That crazy bitch?”

“Her kid. Said they ain’t mad no more. Want one?”

Will stared at him. Then he went to his room. Cody watched a red 800 number erupt across the screen. He toppled off the couch and carried the cupcakes down the hall to Will’s room.

The door was half-open. Will was throwing clothes around like he was looking for something. His room was a mess, clothes and empty energy drinks cans everywhere.

“Want one?” Cody asked again.

Will looked up at him, his eyes hard and black. He arched his eyebrows a lot, like the villain in a comic book. Everything about Will was dark: his eyes, his hair, his hoodie that he always wore, even when it was warm out. Cody took after their mother, pink skin instead of pale white, brown hair instead of black.

Will glared at the pink frosting like it was poison. “Granny talks too much.”

He started rifling through his chest of drawers, rattling things around inside. Cody shoved another cupcake into his mouth. “How was work?”

“Fuck off.” Will pulled the top drawer out.

“Didn’t she try to make us go one time?” Cody garbled around the cupcake. “To that thing at church?”

“Probably.” Will flung things out of the drawer. He took out a dime bag, studied it carefully and looked at Cody. “You smoke my shit?”

“A little.”

Will tapped his glass pipe inside his trash can, then scraped out the bowl like a pro. He packed and lit it.

“Shouldn’t you turn on a fan, or something?” Cody asked. “What if Granny gets back?”

“What if?” Will jeered. “What if? You worry too much. Hell, she could use a bowl herself.”

Coughing, he handed the pipe to Cody, who took an even bigger hit. Will slumped on the floor while Cody sat on the bed. They passed the pipe back and forth.

Through the smoke, Cody asked, “Don’t it feel—I dunno—sorta normal?”

“What’s normal?”

“You know. For him to be gone.” Most of Cody’s life had been taken up with his dad going to war. He had gotten used to him not being there, always returning a little quieter, his eyes looking farther and farther off at nothing. He’d been around for more of Will’s childhood than Cody’s, but Will never talked about it.

After a while, Will finally ate a cupcake, then another one. Cody lay back on the bed, folding his hands under his head. He stared up at the ceiling.

“That musta been where I made the birdhouse,” he said. “That thing at church. I think we had to hammer it together as a surprise.”

“Surprise for what?”

“Father’s Day.”

Moments later they were in the front yard, staring at the birdhouse. Cicadas rattled in the trees all around them in the thick, heavy air. Across the street, the girl from school was crouched in her driveway, wearing shorts and a tank top, drawing on the concrete with chalk. When they came out, she stood up, the bright green chalk in her hand. Cody tried to ignore her. He started wondering if he hadn’t made the birdhouse in Boy Scouts instead, a long time ago. Will had made it all the way to Eagle Scouts, but Cody had dropped out after the kids started calling him fat. It didn’t help to have an older brother who was tall and skinny and pretty good-looking.

The bottom of the birdhouse was rotting out. Will stooped, picked up a rock from the path leading down to the street, and threw it at the birdhouse.

“Think they had any babies?” Cody asked.

Will didn’t answer. He kept flinging rocks at the bird house until the door on the side popped open. A bad smell crept out, like something dead.

“Pick me up,” Cody said. Will grabbed him around the waist and hoisted him up so he could open the door wider and peer inside. The smell got stronger, mildewy and warm, but all Cody could see was a nest that had turned black, a dark mound of fluff on the inside. A few ants crawled out.

Will set him down. They looked at the box some more.

“Let’s take it down,” Will said after a while.

He went inside the house while Cody stood there, listening to the cicadas. Across the street, the girl went back to drawing.

“Fuck off,” Cody said softly, just to see what it sounded like.

When Will came back, he told Cody, “I couldn’t find the shotgun.”

He was holding his BB gun. He’d gotten it for Christmas when he was nine and Cody was six. Cody had thrown a fit. Their dad had bought him a plastic Wild West pistol to make up for it.

Will aimed at the birdhouse and shot five or six times. The wood puckered with each BB. When Cody looked across the street again, the girl was gone.

*

That night, he dreamed his father called him on the phone. Cody answered with his heart in his chest, breathless. On the other end of the line, all he could hear was a crowded, buzzing noise, a man’s voice from far away, intoning something over a loudspeaker, like at a shopping mall or an airport. Even though he’d only been to an airport one time, that was what it sounded like. Voices jammed together.

“Pop?” Cody said into the phone. The connection was bad, crackling static. “Pop, is that you?”

“Hello?” his dad said. “Hello?”

“Pop!” Cody cried. “Pop, it’s me! It’s Cody! Can you hear me?”

“Hello?” his dad kept repeating. “Hello? Hello?”

*

“What happened to the birdhouse?” their mother asked when she came to see them a few days later. She was looking out at the yard with her back to them. Granny sat in their dad’s La-Z-Boy, while Will leaned against the bookcase and Cody sat cross-legged on the floor. Their mother’s boyfriend sat on the couch by himself.

They’d driven down in her shiny SUV with the tinted windows. Their mother looked like a movie star with her giant sunglasses, her big hair and red fingernails. She sold cell phones now, at the mall in Memphis. It was hard to imagine she’d ever worked in a hospital cafeteria.

Her boyfriend had tiny, scrunched-up eyes and greasy hair, thinning on top. They hadn’t known he was coming with her.

Cody examined the nail on his index finger. He’d slammed it in the lid on the washing machine a couple of days earlier. The fingernail had a white crescent running across it, with a red patch underneath where the blood had dried. He started chewing on the nail so he could try and get to the scab. It hurt, but in a way that was oddly soothing.

“Anybody know?” their mother asked again, turning around. She loomed over Cody. “Cody, quit doing that.”

He looked up at her and kept chewing.

“Boys will be boys,” said the boyfriend.

“Will be boys will be boys will be boys,” Will said. He leaned harder against the bookcase and smirked at his mother.

When she’d told them she was driving down for lunch, Cody had assumed they’d get pizza at the place in town, like they normally did. Sometimes she’d order a beer and Will and Cody would sneak sips of it when the waitress wasn’t looking. The things you could get away with—that was one of the nice things about having a mom who wasn’t always around. But Granny and the boyfriend were with them that day, so instead they wound up at Martha’s, a buffet restaurant full of old people and gloppy “homestyle” cooking.

They sat at a table in the middle of the restaurant, their glasses of sweet tea shimmering. Cody slumped in his chair, rocking back and forth a little, in a warm fuzz brought on by the whiskey he’d drunk and the weed he’d smoked with Will before they left the house. Will kicked him under the table and he stopped rocking. He sat up straight, put his napkin in his lap, and started folding it in the triangle shape his dad had taught him to fold flags in, the flags of widows, military funerals.

He looked at his mother and started chewing on his fingernail again. His mother and Granny and the boyfriend were talking about Memphis and how great it was, and how Will and Cody would have to visit sometime. The boyfriend would say something and then watch for Will and Cody’s reaction, his eyes moving back and forth between them, all scrunched-up and nervous.

When they headed to the buffet Will stuck close to Cody. He jabbed him with his elbow.

“You tryna get us busted?” he whispered.

“Whaddaya mean?” Cody spooned a wad of mashed potatoes onto his plate and moved on to the creamed corn.

“You’re blasted, man.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time in this fambly.”

Cody slabbed a pork chop onto his plate, grabbed a few rolls, and went back to the table with his head held high, carrying his plate very carefully.

“I’ve created a masterpiece,” he announced to the table. “A beautiful mess.”

Nobody got the joke. He could still feel his brother watching him.

“What’re you boys up to this summer?” their mother asked once they’d all sat down again. The boyfriend perked up, like he really wanted to hear the answer.

Déjà vu,” Cody remarked, and giggled. Everybody looked at him. Cody pressed his fork into his mashed potatoes and decided not to talk anymore.

“I got a job,” Will said.

“Oh?” his mother said. “Where?”

“Waffle House.”

His mother made a noise, high-pitched and pleased. “Oh yeah? How’s that working out for you?”

It was like she had a script she had to follow. Cody couldn’t stand it. He broke his promise to himself almost immediately.

“Oh, it’s a real  scream!” he exclaimed. “He gets benefits—all the waffles you can cram down your gullet. Mountains of waffles. Forget ‘House’—it’s a verifiable Waffle Mansion!”

“Cody,” Granny said, looking levelly at him. “That’s enough.” It was the first thing she’d said to him during lunch.

“Well,” his mother said coolly. “I hope you’re enjoying it as much as Cody says you are.”

The boyfriend poked through his mashed potatoes. “Must be awful strange,” he said, “to be working there. After what happened.”

“What happened?” Will looked right at him. “What do you think happened?”

The boyfriend blinked, glancing at the boys’ mother. Cody imagined him leaning back his head and opening his mouth wide, waiting somebody to feed him, like a baby bird. He started to chuckle at the thought, holding his hand over his mouth to keep the food in.

*

The best thing about riding in the pickup was that their dad always sat up front with Granny, while Will and Cody got the back all to themselves. Back there they could spit and cuss with the wind rushing around them. They could gawk at people in other cars. They could talk about stuff that would have sounded stupid anywhere else.

But now somebody always had to ride up front with Granny. They took turns, Will in back one trip and Cody in back the next. She didn’t force them to ride up front with her. Even though the radio didn’t work, and the AC coughed and choked out of the vents, it was something understood between them, something, Cody guessed, that their dad would have wanted them to do. Keep her company.

Driving back from the restaurant, it was his turn to ride up front. After they hugged their mother good-bye and shook her boyfriend’s sweaty hand, they went to the pickup and climbed in.

Cody felt a little better after eating. He could smell his mother’s crunchy, burnt-popcorn-smelling hair from where it had crushed against his shoulder. He got in next to his grandmother and looked behind him. Will was leaning against the back windshield, smoking a cigarette.

“She say anything about Pop?” Cody asked.

“You were there sure as I was.”

“I know. I just wondered if, like, she might’ve said something while I was in the bathroom.”

They stopped at a red light. Granny said, “I didn’t notice you’d gone anywhere.”

A black cloud hovered over the road. She turned on the wipers as raindrops splattered against the windshield.

“Don’t you think it’s kinda weird?” Cody asked. “That Mom didn’t say nothing about Pop that whole time?”

His grandmother looked in the rearview mirror. Cody looked too. Will had tossed the cigarette away and pulled his hood over his head.

“We’re none of us big talkers,” Granny said as she stepped on the gas.

Cody swallowed. “Pop talks. He got to talking real big right before he left. Like at that lady across the street.”

They were heading toward the intersection right before the turn-off onto their street. He felt a knot in his stomach and it seemed like if he didn’t get the words out at that moment he would never say them. The food had made him bolder.

“Remember how he’d get to talking? He’d be quiet for days and almost never come out of his room. Just stay in bed, asleep. Then he’d make an appearance just to start hollering about stuff, bossing us around, acting like he’s better than all of us. Like he’s some kind of hero.”

“He wasn’t no hero,” Granny said. “But he did the best he could. With me. With you boys.”

“All I’m saying is, he sure acts big for somebody who killed people. If he even killed people. He didn’t even get wounded. Man, he’s so soft, I bet he ran away the whole time he was over there. That’s what he does, Granny. Runs away. Either that or he hides, or he talks so loud can’t nobody talk over him.”

“I told you, he did the best he could.”

Cody looked at her. “Why you keep talking about him like that? Like he’s already dead?”

Right then his grandmother slammed on the brakes, hard enough for them to both jolt forward. They’d stopped two inches from another truck honking across the intersection in front of them. Granny lifted her face from the steering wheel. Through the wipers they saw the man driving the truck flick them off and drive on, his muffler roaring.

Granny sighed and put the truck in reverse until they had backed up to the crosswalk and the red light she had run.

“Is William all right?” she asked.

Cody turned around. He couldn’t see his brother.

“Shit!”

He jumped out, his heart pounding. It was hard to see through the rain.

Will was crumpled in the bed of the truck with his hands over his face. Cody clambered in and crouched next to him, putting his hand on his brother’s back, his whole body shaking. Will peered up at him, moaning. Blood covered his face, gushing out of his nose and into his hands.

“Jesus Christ,” Cody breathed. “Fuckin’ A.”

The light turned green, and the truck started moving with both boys in the back.

*

At home, Cody made Will lie down on the couch. He felt important, taking charge, bossing his brother around. He plunged a fist into the freezer and grabbed a handful of ice cubes. As he brought them out to the living room they slipped out of his hands. He’d always been clumsy, but it seemed like his hands were shaking more than usual.

“That’s not how you do it,” Granny said sharply. She had a bruise on her forehead from where she’d hit the steering wheel. She went into the kitchen herself.

Cody stood over his brother. The ice cubes burned his hands, dripping everywhere. Will had squeezed his eyes shut and was making a horrible, high-pitched whining noise way up in his nose, like the cat when he got pissed off.

Granny came back with a bag of frozen blueberries wrapped in a dish towel. She handed it to Cody, who handed it to Will, who shoved the bag against his face. Cody wished Granny would go away. He willed her to do it, in his mind. After a while, as if she had heard him, she checked Will’s nose and said, “At least it’s not broken.” Then she went to lie down in her bedroom at the back of the house.

Cody sat next to his brother on the couch, his hands still shaking. His neck hurt, his fingernail throbbing. It felt like all the air had been pushed out of his chest, and on top of that his chest had been stomped on. Why couldn’t he fix anything?

He heard a phone ringing, somewhere in the back of the house. He listened to the rain falling outside, the awful noise straining out of his brother’s nose. He balled his hands into fists.

“Stop it,” Cody said.

Will kept going.

“I said stop it.”

Granny came into the room.

“They found the car,” she told them.

Slowly, Will drew the bag of blueberries away from his face. All the blood and snot and tears had turned it into a big ugly mess. Granny drifted out of the room again. Cody turned to his brother.

“What’d you do to yerseff, son?” he sneered. “Shoot yerseff in the face?”

Will looked at him like he hadn’t heard right. Then he slammed the bag into Cody’s face, flinging blueberries all over the couch, like marbles.

*

When the sun came out later that afternoon, Cody went out to the front yard. Steam rose up off the asphalt where the rain had fallen. He squinted at the tulip poplar through the wet, hazy air.

Something rushed through him, something he had no name for. He started picking up rocks and flinging them at the birdhouse, over and over.

“What did you want?” he demanded, flinging rocks into the air the. “Just tell me what you wanted, you bastard!”

He paused. Holding a handful of rocks in his fist, he looked up to see the girl from across the street, watching him.