I no longer had a fever, but Mom worried I was still sick and told me to take it easy. All throughout my first morning in our new house, she sat me on the couch with a bowl of cereal and half a piece of toast while she puttered and unpacked, nailing her brown shelves to the white walls and spreading out all her colored knickknacks over them. She collected miniatures of larger things like wooden bowls filled with wooden painted fruit, tiny glass soda bottles, little porcelain turtles, and even a set of tiny, tiny books with real pages, all of which were blank. When she’d finished, we went outside, where I sat on the concrete steps and played with my toy men, the ones my father bought me each time he returned from the casino. I had a lot of toy men so I kept them all in a black plastic tub. As I played, Mom, who had gotten a haircut I had no idea how she had time to get, worked in the shed. She organized and stacked extra boxes from our move to the Panawahpskek Nation. Maybe ‘move’ was not the right word. All I knew is that we left our life down south with my father and sister. I had asked countless times, but Mom never said if Paige was coming. I don’t even know if Paige knew we were leaving. I certainly didn’t.
On those steps I wasn’t playing for too long before I lost one of my men to a gap between the stairs and the door. It was a red alien guy, and although he wasn’t my favorite, I still cared enough about him to go get him. Looking behind the steps, my knees were wet when I knelt in the snow, and my hands were cold and muddy when I pulled myself up. The sun warmed my neck, and a sliver of sunlight also shone behind the concrete steps, right at the perfect angle, and in the light I thought I saw my toy man. But when I reached into the slush I grabbed hold of something hard and round instead. I pulled it out.
It was a glass jar filled with hair and corn and teeth. The teeth were white with a tint of yellow at the root. The hair was gray and thin and loose. And the corn was kind of like the teeth, white and yellow and looked hard.
‘Mumma,’ I said. ‘What is this?’
‘David,’ she said from inside the shed. ‘Can you wait? Please, honey.’
I said nothing, waited, and examined the jar. My hand was slightly red from either the hot glass sitting in the sun all afternoon or from the cold snow I crawled on.
Mom came out of the shed, squinting in the bright light.
‘What’s what, gwus?’ she said. Little boy, she meant.
I held the jar to her and she took it. I watched her look at it, her head tilted and brown eyes wide as the jar. And then she dropped it into the snow and mud and told me to pack up my toys. ‘No, no, never mind,’ she said. ‘Leave the toys. Come on, let’s go inside.’
She got on the phone and called somebody, whose voice on the other end I could hear and sounded familiar. ‘I’ll be by,’ he said. ‘I can get there soon. Don’t touch it, and don’t let him touch anything.’
Mom hung up the phone and lit a cigarette.
We waited for a long while. Mom stayed quiet, and with no talk or toy men to occupy myself with, I tried to remember the trip to our new home. This was not some far away memory and was only yesterday, but because of the fever, I remembered only fragments. Miles of highway, miles of pine trees. I remembered shivering in the front seat, and Mom had cracked the car window, holding her long Winston 100 up to it so that at eighty mph the passing air sucked the smoke out. ‘We left Paige,’ I kept saying. ‘We left her, Mumma.’ Mom took her eyes off the road and looked over at me. She held her hand to my sweaty forehead. ‘You poor thing,’ she said. Mom had driven fast. Real fast, and she watched me most of the time during the drive, as if I had been the road, the whole way to our new home.
Mom’s voice startled me. ‘Stop biting your fingernails,’ she said. She lit a second cigarette while we continued to wait. ‘He said not to touch anything, that includes your mouth.’
Throughout the drive to our new home, I either slept or stirred half-awake in that front seat. In moments of lucidness, I constantly asked if we were almost there, wherever it was we were going. Eventually, Mom took out a crinkly map and opened it in my lap. ‘This is where we’re going,’ she’d said, pointing to a large oval island enclosed by a river, and with a drag of her finger she approximated where we were presently. ‘We’ll be there soon, with our people.’ At some point in the drive I hiccupped, feeling a sharp pain in my chest, right in my heart. I hiccupped again, and Mom saw and must have thought I was going to throw up, and with one hand she folded the map, formed it into a wastebasket. I shook my head, my lips burning and wet with spit, and I closed my hot eyes.
Mom set the map back down on my lap and I covered myself with it, and then the next thing I knew I was either dreaming or it was nighttime and I was, in fact, in a new bed that smelled like my old one and in the dark I crawled out of bed and into the darkness of the unfamiliar house, grabbing at a doorknob that wasn’t there, tripping over boxes that cluttered the short and narrow hallway that led straight to the kitchen and small living room where a man’s voice spoke to me, telling me to go back to bed. I’d asked who he was but he didn’t answer. He guided me back to my room, his boots echoing down the hallway.
At the noise of a truck and its engine cutting off, Mom said, ‘Finally,’ and she stood from the table. When the man came down the driveway and up the stairs and stepped over that gap that had taken my toy man, I knew at once that the voice hadn’t been a dream. I knew at once it hadn’t been a dream. The man Mom called about the jar was the man who put me to bed last night. He was dark like Mom, and unlike Mom he had long black hair, and little black whiskers on his upper lip. He wasn’t fat, but he had a pudge to him I hadn’t noticed in the dark, and his jeans were faded and baggy. He wore a red and black flannel button-up.
‘Gwus,’ Mom said. ‘This is Frick. He’s a medicine man.’
‘He was here last night,’ I said to Mom, and then to Frick I said, ‘I saw you.’
‘Who do you think hooked up the woodstove?’ Frick asked.
I thought Mom did.
‘Let me see your hand,’ Frick said.
I held my hand out to him and he took it and rubbed my palm. He let go and started to talk to Mom about the jar. ‘It’s bad medicine,’ he said, and Mom wondered who would put it here. Frick had no answer. ‘Could have been anyone on the rez. I’ll take care of it.’
He left the house. I wondered why you couldn’t just throw it away, wondered how Frick would handle it. I asked Mom, and she got all annoyed.
‘You can’t just throw it away,’ she said. ‘Frick’s a Native doctor. It needs to be properly disposed of.’
I asked why again, and she said that what I’d found had been meant to hurt me. To hurt us.
‘But I feel fine,’ I told her, to which she said, ‘Just in case.’
Soon Frick opened the door and said he was ready for us. Mom took me outside and to the back of the house and down into the woods where a tree had four cloth flags hanging: red, white, black, and yellow.
‘It’s the four directions,’ Mom told me.
‘What’s it for?’ I said.
‘It’s to heal us.’
‘But my fever’s gone,’ I said. ‘I’m not sick.’
‘Yes you are,’ she said.
Frick knelt in front of the tree with the four flags, and he was mumbling words in skeejin. It was strange hearing another person use skeejin besides Mom and Paige and Grammy, when Grammy would come to visit down south. But I couldn’t hear what he was saying, and I still couldn’t make out the words when smoke started rising around him and he stood up holding a giant seashell the size of a baseball glove filled with tobacco and this long thick bushy thing (afterwards Mom told me it was sage) that burned and smelled calm, like salt water.
In his hand he held a giant feather – eagle, Mom said – that was beaded at the quill. He moved toward us, still mumbling, and Mom said he was praying. ‘He’s smudging us. It’s good medicine. Watch how I do it, gwus.’
Frick stepped forward and tripped over a hard root and he dropped the smoking sage.
‘Shit,’ he said.
I laughed, and Mom let out a sharp shush and I shut up.
Frick picked up the sage among the soft mud and melting snow and he walked and stood in front of her. He had to relight the sage. The smoke rolled up and around him, and with the feather he brushed the smoke over my mother. He started on her head, pushed the smoke with the feather over her and through her short hair, and then he moved the smoke to her chest. She turned around, and he did her back. She turned around, facing him, and she lifted her arms. His face looked serious. He smudged under her arms and in her armpits. Then down her legs. Mom lifted her feet and Frick pushed the smoke under her. He stepped away from her, and he mumbled a few more words, returned to the tree with the four flags, which blew in a slight breeze, and then he knelt again and spoke more words louder. He stood up and then smudged me over in the same way he had my mother.
When he finished, he smudged my toys, too, as well as the steps and the door. Then in the house he smudged everything, and I watched our home fill with a burning fog. I coughed once. He finally finished and returned to the tree out back while Mom and I sat at the kitchen table.
In time, Frick came through the door, and in his hand he held something red. At first I thought he’d gone behind the steps and got my plastic alien figure, but then I realized it wasn’t my toy. It was thin yellow straw, wrapped in a red cloth bound in twine.
‘Can you get me a wall tack?’ he said to Mom, who got up and dug through a kitchen drawer. She couldn’t find one there and went to the empty bedroom room that I hoped Paige would soon fill. If she was coming. It was hard to imagine Paige leaving her room behind, that big bed she sat on and smoked while she flipped through magazines.
Mom came out and handed a tiny green tack to Frick. He pinned the yellow straw in red cloth above our door. ‘It’ll keep bad medicine out,’ he said to Mom and me. ‘Also, I have this.’
He reached in his pocket and pulled out a small deer-hide pouch that was sewed shut. It was no bigger than a quarter, and an open safety pin stabbed through the middle.
‘Come here,’ he told me. I stepped forward, and he knelt on one knee. Clenching the pouch, he stuffed his hand up my shirt, and in front of my heart, he stabbed the pin through the cotton and clamped the pin shut.
‘Can I have one?’ Mom said, and Frick pulled another from his pocket. Mom took it and pinned it on.
‘It’s a medicine pouch,’ Frick said. ‘I made it.’
‘How does it work?’ I asked.
‘It just does,’ he said.
The pouch was itchy, and I didn’t really like it. Later, once I was back in my room, I took it off and stuffed it under my bed, behind the black tub. At least what he hung and pinned above the door wasn’t physically annoying. Distracting, certainly – it looked like a toy, the way it was wrapped in that red, and every time I walked down the hallway or stepped over the gap in the stairs to leave the house I thought of my lost plastic guy who was getting sucked deeper and deeper into the thawing mud.
It seemed that Frick had moved in just as fast as Mom had unpacked the whole house. He’d be there all day, sitting with her on the couch or at the kitchen table, and he’d be there when I went to bed, both of them drinking wine from a box. In the morning, he drank black coffee and smoked cigarettes with Mom. Soon his hairbrush was in the bathroom, strands of hair floating unflushed in toilet water, and his toothbrush was in a cup next to mine.
I had heard Frick say the jar was an old curse, and most likely not done right, that some skeejins were just messing with Mom and me, but it was best to be safe and pray, to smudge and bless the home.
I felt fine when I had held the jar, even before the smudge, so I agreed with Frick that it probably wasn’t done right, but Mom wasn’t so sure. ‘I don’t know,’ she kept saying, not really to me, but to Frick, who would shake his head. ‘Only time will tell,’ she said.
At the end of March, I started back up at school, and after school I spent the afternoons until dinner at the Community Center – rusted roof, yellow walls – playing basketball on the concrete floor with some of the kids in my class, and it really took no time in falling into that place, feeling that I had been there my whole life and that I’d not been plucked out of my bed in the middle of the night with a fever and driven way, way north to where Mom had grown up.
If Dad was mad about our disappearance he never said anything to me, but I heard Mom fighting with him on the phone late at night, and one time I heard Frick get on the phone and yell at him. ‘You gamblin’ man,’ Frick had said. He slurred his words. ‘You lost a big a hand.’ On the nights I heard them on the phone, I often fell asleep dreaming of my lost alien figure behind the steps.
I talked to Dad after dinner almost each night, and he always asked the questions Mom never asked: ‘How was school?’ ‘What’d you have for breakfast?’ ‘What’d you have for lunch?’ ‘What’d you play today?’ ‘Get any homework?’ ‘What’s your favorite subject there?’ Sometimes he would promise to send me up a toy. ‘When this next job goes through I’ll send you up that spaceship.’ He always gave me hope about some particular thing, and when I’d forgotten about the toy and moved on, some small action figure would show up FedEx on our slanted concrete steps and then make its way into my black plastic tub with all my other men. The tub was getting full, the lid barely able to click shut.
For months, Mom mentioned the jar at least once a day. ‘There’s something about it,’ she’d say. ‘I don’t think we’ve seen the last of it.’ Eventually Mom stopped talking about it, because Frick told her to, until the end of the summer when Paige showed up. I heard her tarnished Volkswagenbefore I saw it, heard the way the engine whistled and then thumped when she drove it in first gear. I ran down the hall and into the kitchen and flung open the door. Mom and Frick were sitting at the kitchen table drinking wine from a box in hard plastic cups.
‘I told you she’d come,’ Mom said. I was so happy Paige arrived that I didn’t even care that Mom lied: she hadn’t said that.
In bare feet I ran over the sandy sharp pebbled driveway to Paige and hugged her waist and she hugged me back, ruffled my hair and kissed the top of my head. ‘You got taller, you know that, chagooksis?’ Chagooksis. Her little shit.
‘Well your ears still stick out,’ I said. While she rubbed my earlobes between her fingers she made a face, wrinkled her nose at me, and then kissed the top of my head again. We walked to the door and she kept her hand on the back of my neck. It was only then I realized how much I missed her.
The next night, I was sitting on the couch, eating an Italian Ice and watching The Simpsons. Mom and Paige were smoking cigarettes at the kitchen table, and whenever a commercial came on I listened to them.
‘Who even was that guy yesterday?’ Paige said.
‘Frick,’ Mom told her. Mom was twenty when she’d had Paige, the same age as Paige now, and Paige had a way of getting Mom to open up, be something other than a mother. Sometimes they seemed more like sisters, given the way they fought and the swears they flung at one another.
‘Frick?’ Paige said. ‘What the fuck is a Frick?’
Mom laughed. ‘His name’s Melvin, but everyone says when he’s drunk he’s always saying, ‘fricken this, fricken that.’’
Mom’s lighter flicked. ‘Does he what?’
‘Say ‘fricken’ when he’s drunk?’
Mom was quiet, thinking. ‘Yeah, I guess he does.’
‘He’s weird,’ Paige said. ‘He didn’t even talk when I got here. He shook my hand and then sat back down, didn’t even say anything else and just got up and left.’
‘Oh, he’s just shy.’
‘If you say so.’
Mom pushed her chair back and the legs squeaked against the floor. I heard the fridge door open. ‘Gwus,’ she said. ‘You want something to drink?’
I told her no, and then she asked Paige if she wanted a cup of wine. I stared at the television as Homer choked Bart, his yellow face getting redder and redder and redder, and I was laughing and laughing all by myself, my empty plastic cup of Italian Ice bobbing up and down on my belly. And then a commercial came on and I stopped laughing and there was this moment of immense silence, and then Mom was on Paige like Homer on Bart.
‘Whose is it, Paige? Huh?’ Mom was yelling.
‘Would you calm down?’
‘I ain’t gonna calm down.’ She slammed her plastic cup down. ‘That’s why you come up here, isn’t it? You little bitch. Little bitch!’
I peeked around the corner and into the kitchen, and Mom was standing over Paige, and then Paige stood up and leaned into her, yelling back, cursing, pushing her with her body.
This was nothing new, but I still panicked and screamed and slapped the wall. ‘Stop it!’
Mom didn’t look at me. ‘Go to your room, boy. Right now. Go to your room.’
I hurried down the hallway, Mom’s words buzzing in my head, and I heard Paige before I shut my door: ‘He’s gonna grow up to hate you too.’
I stayed in my room, playing with my plastic men, while they fought with low voices over the running kitchen sink faucet. Mom slammed plates and cups and silverware while she did the dishes. Half the time that was how she washed dishes. Every so often Paige’s laughter would hit my ears and I knew that made Mom angrier and angrier. After about an hour of bickering, the house was quiet, but just because they weren’t talking didn’t mean the argument was over.
I put my plastic men away and opened my bedroom door, crept down the hallway into the kitchen. Mom was wiping the kitchen counters, and the door was open, and through the screen door I saw Paige outside sitting on the steps, smoking, her knees pulled up to her chest.
‘Boy,’ Mom said. I stood still. There was one word that told me Mom’s mood, and that was the word. Boy. There was just something about it, the way she’d call me gwus – which meant boy – or the way she called me boy. Maybe it was the tone she said it with.
‘Boy,’ she said again. ‘Go tell your sister that smoking’s bad when you’re carrying a child.’
‘Go tell her?’ I said.
‘You heard me.’ She scrubbed the stovetop which shook the burners, a rattling metal. She tossed the rag down and picked up her plastic cup and finished what had been in there. She went to her room.
Through the screen door I said, ‘Paige?’
She didn’t look at me. ‘I know, David. Go watch TV.’
Mom didn’t come out of her room for the rest of the day, and Grammy showed up after Paige cooked me dinner. Grammy always popped over unannounced, and sometimes Mom would see Grammy pull in the driveway and Mom would shut all the lights off and take me in her room and tell me to be real quiet, that she didn’t feel like visiting that day, and I had to sit there on the itchy carpet with her and listen to Grammy knock and knock and knock, and I imagined she was putting her face to the little window on the door, looking in, looking for us. ‘We went for a walk’ was what Mom always told her when she saw her next.
The door was open, and so Grammy came in. I hopped off the couch. ‘Hi, son,’ she said. I gave her a hug. Paige turned off the sink faucet and dried her hands.
‘When’d you get here, doos?’ Grammy said to Paige.
‘A few days ago.’
Grammy walked over the linoleum with her shoes on and gave Paige a hug that said it’s nice to see you. ‘Where’s your mom?’ she said.
‘She’s not feeling well.’
Grammy looked up the hallway.
‘Must have been something she ate,’ Paige said.
Grammy said, ‘Mm-hmm.’ She stood in the doorway, and Paige asked if she wanted to sit down. ‘No, no,’ Grammy said. ‘I was coming to see if David wanted to go to the evening service at the church.’ She looked at me, and in looking at me I was compelled to say yes. She was my Grammy after all. But I didn’t want to go alone with her, not because of her but because it was church. I hated church.
‘I’ll go if Paige goes,’ I said. Paige dropped her head and shoulders, shook her head. She went to her bedroom and changed.
Grammy’s car was a puttering, two-door piece of rusted metal. I’d thought Paige’s car was bad, but Grammy’s was something else. The engine made this whining sound every few minutes, like a bomb siren. Her turn signals worked, but on the dashboard it didn’t say if they were on or off, so sometimes she drove with her turn signal on for miles. Maybe she knew; maybe she was just messing with other drivers. Also, the radio turned on and off by itself, and after we drove in silence past the small health clinic and the large tin-looking community building and the tribal offices tucked behind thick pine trees and the tan-brick school and the football field, we pulled into the church parking lot and the radio kicked on and blared out Meredith Brooks’s ‘Bitch,’ and Paige started bobbing her head, telling Grammy to turn it up, but she shook her head and flicked the radio off.
‘Michaganasuus,’ Grammy said. This shitty thing.
We got out of the car, and Grammy hurried in front of us. Paige walked by my side and started whispering about Gook’ooks. Evil Spirits. ‘They follow Grammy around,’ she said to me. ‘That’s why the radio turned on.’
I tried not to be scared, but I was. Paige always talked about Goog’ooks, and one reason why I kept refusing to stay at Grammy’s house was because Paige said it was haunted. When I told Mom that she said the whole Island was haunted, that years and years and years ago our people used this place as a graveyard, and even that late at night she heard Goog’ooks tapping on the walls. Mom told me not to be scared.
In the church we took our seats, and I thumbed through the Bible in front of me. Other than that, I didn’t really pay attention to anything, just watched people here and there, some with their eyes closed, some open. I didn’t think Paige was listening either – her head was turned sideways, like she was struggling to survive the priest’s Word.
After we’d lined up to receive the body of Christ – which I wasn’t allowed to ingest because Mom hadn’t had me baptized – we returned to our seats, with Paige and Grammy having received a cracker each and me having received a pat on the head from the priest. Paige nudged me. Grammy watched, hand on her chest, as Paige broke her cracker in half and gave it to me. It dissolved in my mouth, and it tasted like chalk that had gotten wet and had dried.
Paige saw the disgust in my face, and she whispered, ‘It’s the best Jesus could do.’
‘Jesus made this?’ I said.
Paige had her arms crossed. ‘I know, right?’
Grammy told us to shut the heck up.
Church dragged on. When we had to kneel, we knelt; when we had to sing, we sang; when we had to pray, we prayed. Grammy probably prayed for God to forgive Paige, and Paige probably prayed for a cigarette. Me, I simply prayed for the safe return of my strange alien figure in his red space suit. I still felt bad that he was all alone under those steps, buried in the cold mud, and I prayed that somehow the change in seasons would churn him out to the surface, and I’d find him one day lying there.
Grammy dropped us off, reminded me once again that I could stay at her house any time I wanted, and I told her maybe. Frick was there, his truck pulled right behind Paige’s, but we didn’t see him or Mom. I walked down the hallway to my room, and I looked at the base of Mom’s door. There was no light. There were no voices.
I got ready for bed, put on my pajamas, and went to Paige’s room. I stood at her open bedroom door, trying to get her attention. She was lying in bed fully clothed still, head propped up with a pillow, reading the local Overtown paper with a cigarette between her fingers, the smoke clinging, rolling off the gray paper up to the ceiling. She moved the paper to the side and looked at me.
‘Be-dee-gé, chagooksis,’ she said. Come on in, little shit.
I crawled on her small bed, tried to roll over but elbowed her in her side. ‘Ow! Would you sit still?’
She read. Smoked. Flicked her cigarette. Read some more. Stubbed her cigarette. Lit a new one. Turned the pages, crinkled them. Finally, she lay the paper flat on her stomach, and it looked like a little mound but I knew it was just her clothes making that bump, not the baby. Paige blew out an extra-long puff of smoke, and then was quiet.
The fridge in the kitchen hummed, and then it grumbled low like a stomach and clicked off. A pipe in the wall rattled. A minute of silence before the fridge started up again, humming, grumbling. Click. Another pipe. Silence. This went on until a different tapping began, gentle knocks down the dark hallway, over and up the walls. They got louder, closer, and Paige must have felt me grip her arm, because she said it was a pipe, but the knocking got louder, seemed to tap right on her bedroom door, and I knew there were no pipes in that thin hollow plywood.
Paige opened her eyes and looked. The knocking stopped, and I heard the fridge hum again and the floorboard heater ping, but then it all stopped again and the next thing I knew Paige jumped up, which sent me flying off the bed, and she screamed, grabbing her thigh.
Paige’s scream woke Mom and Frick, and Mom came out in her underwear and a long t-shirt and Frick came out with his big brown belly hanging over his blue boxers, and in the light both Mom and Frick squinted.
‘What the hell is the matter?’ Mom said.
‘Ow, shit!’ Paige couldn’t roll up her black pants, so she pulled her pants down, and Frick looked horrified at her doing it, but then his eyes widened. I was grabbing Mom by the wrist, holding onto her, looking at Paige’s thigh. Something had bitten her – itty bitty teeth marks.
‘Move,’ Frick said to Mom.
‘Could it be the jar, Frick?’ she asked.
Frick ignored her, got close to Paige, real close, knelt and looked at the bite mark. Paige told Frick and Mom what we heard, the knocking, and then the silence, and then the pain she felt in her leg. I still gripped Mom’s wrist.
We were spooked, but Frick stayed calm. He went into Mom’s room and brought out a little bag made of deer hide, and he told Paige to go outside with him.
‘Just stay here,’ Frick said to Mom and me. He still only had on his underwear, and I felt the chill come through the open door and nip through my pajamas. Mom and I sat at the kitchen table, and we were both in separate chairs. She was rubbing her head, and I asked her if she had a headache.
‘A little bit, gwusis.’
They were gone for a long time, and then Frick opened the back door, with Paige following him, the cold following her. Frick held the seashell bowl and smoke was coiling up and it swirled and blew away when he shut the door behind him and Paige. He smudged the whole house – especially Paige’s room – and then he smudged Mom and me.
When he finished, he blessed his seashell and tobacco and put it all back in the deer hide bag. Mom didn’t say anything. She gave Paige a hug, kissed her goodnight, and then did the same to me, but told me to get to bed.
But I couldn’t sleep. All night I listened and listened for the knocking, which never came back, and I tried not to think about what it all was. What it all could be. At some point during the quiet night I got up and went to the floor and slid out from under my bed the black plastic tub, and when I pulled it out the medicine pouch Frick had given me dragged underneath the tub. Just in case it would help, I pinned the pouch to my shirt on the inside, and the pin pricked me. In the dark, I didn’t know if I was bleeding. I touched the skin, and it felt bloodless.
I opened the black plastic tub. I didn’t take out the men – I just looked at them there, a pile of plastic bodies in the moonlight that shone behind me through the parted black curtains draped over the window. I realized that I’d have to get rid of some of the men, have to make room for new ones. What to do with the old toy men, the ones fading in color, their joints clogged with dried mud and crud? I thought about my father before I closed the black tub quietly and got back in bed. As the hours passed – as I dozed on and off – my room lit up with cold dawn light pouring through my window. I felt for the pouch, but it had fallen off. I flipped my blankets and pillows and looked for it, then I looked between the bed and the wall. It was way back under the bed. I tried to reach for it, yet it was too far down there. I left it, and I went down the hallway and into the kitchen.
Mom usually poured cereal in a bowl for me the night before, and filled a small cup up with milk and put it in the fridge, so that way I didn’t wake her, and I could fix breakfast myself. But Mom had forgotten to do it, and instead of trying to dump cereal into a bowl and pour milk from a gallon jug over the food pantry corn flakes, I just went straight to the couch and turned the TV on and watched cartoons. The house was cold, and Mom had told me not to touch the thermostat. Frick still hadn’t shown me how to run the woodstove, so I covered up in a blanket and blinked at the television, which was on low, and during commercials I listened for Mom or Frick or Paige to see if they stirred, coughed, flicked their lighters.
After a few shows I heard a door open and the bathroom light flick on and the hum of the fan, and I heard pee hit the water hard, splashing down, and I knew it was Frick. He flushed, came out of the bathroom and into the kitchen and plugged the coffee maker in. He didn’t say anything; maybe he didn’t see me.
In time, everyone was up, and Mom and Paige were talking about what to make for breakfast while Frick sat at the kitchen table smoking and sipping his coffee. Paige made scrambled eggs and Mom made some sausage, the cheap stuff in a yellow box that cooked in the microwave. She also made some toast, but we didn’t have a toaster so she put it in the oven, and the bread wasn’t really crunchy, just stiff and stale.
Mom turned on the dusty gray boom box, inserted her Elton John CD, and played ‘Tiny Dancer’ . No one talked about the jar, the bite marks. Frick and I ate and listened to Mom and Paige laugh at each other and sing along – sometimes their mouths filled with eggs or a bite of toast, until we all finished eating and listened to the song three times.
‘Damn,’ Mom said, rising, clanking together all of our plates and bringing them to the sink. ‘Those were some good eggs.’
Paige turned in her chair. ‘You want to know the secret?’
‘Love?’ Mom sang.
‘No, low heat and a stick of butter.’
Mom looked at Paige real slow, how I imagined the eggs had cooked. and in my mind I stared at the thought I’d been thinking earlier, that this morning had seemed like we all had traveled back in time to the day Paige had pulled down the driveway in her tarnished Volkswagen. Butter! A whole stick of it! I could’ve sworn my heart fluttered, all that fat, but Mom interrupted it all when she ripped open the fridge, the door swinging and banging, glass-bottled condiments clinking on the rack.
The door swung back and nudged Mom, whose head was in the fridge, her hands pushing aside dollar store Tupperware covered in tinfoil. ‘That was our last stick,’ she said and stomped down the hallway to her room, the bangs almost as loud as my heartbeat.
In late October, Frick started taking Mom to his camp on some skeejin land twenty miles north. They took me there once, and I didn’t have a good time. All Frick and Mom would do was play cribbage and drink wine from a box while I was stuck walking around outside all by myself with a single toy man, Han Solo whose blaster I had lost (I couldn’t bring my black plastic tub with me; only so much stuff fit in Frick’s ash utility basket). One afternoon at camp, Frick brought me hunting. He let me use his pump .22, and I enjoyed shooting it at cans – I felt like Han Solo. Then he took me further into the woods and he pointed at this small rabbit. Frick said, ‘Go on, before it hops away.’ It was standing still, this soft little creature knowing we were there or knowing it was in the presence of something dangerous.I readied the gun, looked down that thin brown barrel at the white rabbit, but I couldn’t pull the trigger.
‘Go on, he’s gonna run. Do it,’ Frick said. But I stalled too long and it hopped away. I was relieved until Frick said, ‘I might as well drop you off at Save ‘n Shop, let you go hunt like white people.’ I never told Mom, but she knew I was upset about something. After that she let me stay home each weekend with Paige while she and Frick went up to camp.
After a few weekends staying home, Paige didn’t want to watch me anymore. She said she needed a break. Not from me – maybe I was partly the reason – but from the world. Paige was like that: time and time again she slowly sunk into some darkness, and then when it got no brighter she’d pack up and leave as if to chase the sun so it could never set. She always returned though, and I liked to imagine that she’d gone around the world, never letting the sun dip below the horizon and out of her sight, until she finally made it around the globe and home again and was full of the light she’d chased. Each time she left I worried a little, and I always had this feeling that a time would come when she wouldn’t return, that she’d disappear for good. But, there was no way she’d leave now: she was pregnant, and so I felt she knew better than to run.
Since Paige didn’t want to watch me, and since I didn’t want to go to camp, Mom arranged for me to stay with a kid named Jay Pitch (but his parents and teachers and classmates called him JP) at his house. JP was a bit chubby, and when he kept his long black hair tied back he looked chubbier. I was happy about staying with him – we were always shooting hoops at the Community Center after school, and he had some cool plastic men too.
So for most weekends I spent my days at JP’s, playing men outside until it got too cold, eating dinner with his Mom and dad and brother who was in high school, and at night JP and I would get yelled at by his Mom when she heard us up way past twelve o’clock laughing real hard at pigadees, or when we told or made up stories about our plastic action figures. JP told me about leaving one out during the summer once, and the sun beat down so hot that it melted his face, and we couldn’t stop laughing at that deformed guy, couldn’t get his funny-looking face out of our heads late at night while we lay in the dark. I always went to JP’s house pretty tired, but come Sunday, when Mom and Frick picked me up, I left real awake in a way I didn’t feel when Paige got done watching me.
I never told JP the story about the jar or the bite marks – not because I couldn’t tell him (no one had told me not to talk about it), but because with him the world and its randomness didn’t matter. All that mattered was good weather – yet we could make do with rain – and our action figures, and so I had forgotten all about the jar and bite marks until one blue cold Saturday when Mom and Frick picked me up a day early. ‘Go get your stuff, gwus,’ Mom said.
No one explained anything. Mom said something like, ‘I still don’t know why he has to be there,’ and Frick told her, ‘Because it matters. It concerns him.’ When we got home and parked the truck in the driveway, Mom hurried real fast inside and Frick and I followed her. She yelled for Paige, but Paige didn’t say anything. She was in the living room, sitting on the couch with a blanket over her lap, spacing out, looking at herself and maybe at all of us in the reflection of the black screen TV as we huddled around her.
‘Honey,’ Mom said, putting her hand on Paige’s shoulder. She sounded like she wanted to cry, but Mom never cried. ‘Where is it?’ Paige looked up at her, and then her eyes flicked to the hallway and to the bathroom. ‘OK,’ Mom said. She turned to me. ‘David, gwus, go to your room. We’ll get you in a bit.’
I did, but I didn’t want to be in my room. I wanted to help, be part of it all. Whatever all of it was. On my bed, I set out my black plastic tub, took out a few men. I didn’t play with them, just looked at them, waiting for Mom to come get me. The house was quiet, and my thoughts were quiet, too. I heard Mom and Frick in the bathroom. He was telling her they needed a case, something hard that wouldn’t leak.
And then I knew how to be part of it all, how to make it concern me. I grabbed my black plastic tub and dumped all my men out onto my bed. Mom and Frick were in Mom’s room, and I opened my bedroom door. Mom heard and hollered for me to get back in my room.
‘Here,’ I said. ‘Here, Mumma.’
Her feet were heavy on the ground and I felt the house shake when she stomped. She had crazy eyes when she came out of her room, but when she saw me holding out to her my black plastic tub her stare softened under her short hair and she smiled.
‘Here,’ I said again. ‘You can use it. I don’t need it.’
Frick looked it over, said it was good, and he took it into the bathroom. Mom took my hand, guided me to the living room, and sat me on the couch next to Paige.
Mom grabbed a kitchen chair and brought it next to the couch, sat down close to Paige, put her hand on her leg, and I did too, but she looked like she didn’t want anyone touching her.
After some time, Frick came out of the bathroom and he carried my black plastic tub, water dripping down its side. He set it down on the floor and went to the bedroom, came back out with his deer hide bag. ‘I’m ready,’ he said to no one, and I got up and Mom got up but Paige stayed sitting.
‘Come, doosis,’ Mom told her. ‘It has to be done.’
Paige got up real slow, and the blanket fell off and she was in her underwear. The couch cushions were wet. Mom got her some pants and helped Paige into them.
There wasn’t enough room in Frick’s truck for all of us, so Frick told me to get in the back of the truck, to lie down and stay down.
I got in but Mom told me to get out. ‘He ain’t riding in the back there. I won’t let you put him in there.’ She meant it.
So we all piled into the truck, Paige in the passenger seat, Mom in the middle holding the plastic tub, and Frick driving with me on his lap. ‘Just keep your head down,’ he said. He smelled sour like old grape juice filled with snuffed out cigarette butts, and the safety pin – stabbing through his medicine pouch and through his shirt – poked my back when we hit potholes. Maybe I should have brought mine.
We drove as far north as was possible on the Island, then turned onto a bumpy dirt road toward the riverbank. We got out. It was cold, and the sun was sinking fast behind dark pines across the river. A wind blew off the water and the hairs on my arms stood up. We followed Frick down a path and came out to a little sandy brown beach.
Frick told Mom and me to go find little pieces of dry wood, and I tried real hard to find good pieces, but it was getting dark. I found maybe a couple good pieces, and Mom thanked me in skeejin, and then set them in her big pile. Frick started a fire and knelt in front of it the way he had with the tree out back of our house, his arms to his sides and his face looking up into a bruised sky.
Mom pushed down on my shoulder, had me kneel beside Frick, and then she knelt. I looked at Paige. She stood, and in the glow of red flames from the fire her face was shallow and deep, and it shone like plastic wrap in the light. Frick reached in his deer hide bag, pulled out his seashell, and poured tobacco in it. He lit it with a stick that he held in the fire. My eyes and nose burned from the smoke.
He smudged himself first, and then Mom. When he smudged me I watched his sweat glisten in the firelight, roll down his forehead over his nose and drip down into the seashell or onto the sand. He finished with me and then smudged Paige, and Mom had to help her, had to lift her arms for her, had to help her lift her feet up. Then Frick set the seashell down and went to his truck.
The fire popped. A beaver slapped its tail somewhere in the river. I heard Mom swallow once, heard her clear her throat.
Frick came back with a shovel and he started digging and then he stopped. ‘We have to take turns,’ he said. Mom made me shovel next, and it was hard work. Sweat dripped down my nose and it tickled me. I stopped to itch it, and Mom must’ve thought I was crying, because she took the shovel from me.
‘It’s OK, gwus. That’s good enough.’ Mom started shoveling, and she really went at it, jabbing and jabbing the sharp metal tip into the sand, loosening all the hard ground, and then she scooped it up and tossed it into the woods. She didn’t stop until that hole was dug.
‘She has to do it,’ Frick said, talking about Paige.
Mom rubbed Paige’s back, but Paige didn’t say anything, just stared out at the river. Mom rubbed her back, whispered in her ear, hugged her, let go, hugged her again. Eventually, Paige moved, looked down at the ground at the black plastic tub at her feet and she bent down and picked it up. She cradled it, brought it to the hole. She knelt. The fire spat yellow. She stayed like that for a long time, holding the tub, whispering to it. Then she spoke aloud. ‘I can’t do it, Mumma. I can’t do it.’ I wanted to rub her back the way Mom did, but when I stepped closer Frick held his hand out to stop me. Mom went to her. Paige set the tub in the hole and then on her hand she leaned shakily in the sand.
Nobody said anything for a moment.
Paige looked at Frick. ‘You’re sure it’s the right thing to do?’
‘It’s how I was taught,’ he told her.
Paige got up and Frick said she could go back to the truck, and I tried to follow her down the dark path, but Mom told me no. ‘We dug the hole,’ she said, ‘and now we fill it.’ She looked at Frick to make sure.
We were all on the ground and in the cold sand, using our hands to shovel the sand back into the hole and over the tub and when the sand fell it hit the tub, made thumping noises, and eventually the tub was gone, buried four feet under the sand, and I wondered if the river would undo our work when it rose up, ripping away the sand and sucking out my tub, taking it away forever and ever, carrying it downriver before dumping it out into the salty ocean.
Photograph © biologycorner
Excerpted from Night of the Living Rez: Stories (Tin House) by Morgan Talty. Copyright © 2022 by Morgan Talty