My brother William, 10 years old to my 13, visibly shook in the big feather bed and gave me his famous zombie gaze; he had a way of somehow flattening his face so that his dark brown eyes, science-fictionally wet at all times, nailed you—a look of disappointment and immediate forgiveness that could make you feel ashamed even when you were innocent of whatever thing it was he thought you’d done, or, more often, as now, left undone. We were at our crazy paternal grandparents’ farmhouse in the woods of Alpharetta, Georgia, in the unheated first-floor bedroom always assigned to us, where, this time of year, two days past Christmas, it was cold enough to see your breath. I’d not yet got into the bed with William, but still sat on the edge of it, removing my shoes and socks. I’d just asked him a question he’d declined to flatter with an answer, and when I turned to him, there it was, that look. What I’d asked was, “Why didn’t you just tell him to stop?”
The moment before, he’d softly confided to my back that Daddy Perry, our scary tyrannical grandfather—big and fat; narrow brown belt cinched high on his belly; salt-and-pepper crew-cut; white-stubbled neck bulging from the collar of a plaid flannel shirt, topmost button always buttoned; spit-slimy cigar clamped between tiny yellow teeth—had groped him that afternoon in the dairy barn. William had said touched, not groped, but I knew what he meant because the old man had pulled the same stunt with me when I was William’s age. Of course, I should have admitted this to William, but I’d never told anyone, and something about the onset of puberty had pretty much sealed my resolve to keep it that way. I’d also acquired, through a kind of cultural osmosis, a knack for making unpleasant things smaller than they actually were.
I put my back to William again and stuffed my socks inside my black-and-white tennis shoes, which I tossed against the short wall beneath the nearest window. Because all the room’s walls were bare wood, the shoes made a loud thump that might have brought one of the adults in to see what was going on. I waited a few seconds, listening for footsteps, but none came, so I stood up and started unbuckling my belt. I automatically glanced into the farthest corner of the room at the rifle leaning there, its stock about the same reddish-brown color as the walls, its dark barrel gleaming in the lamplight: the Christmas present I’d expected to get a year ago, when I was 12, but which, for reasons never explained to me, had been delayed a year—a Winchester .22 Hornet, the so-called “rifleman’s rifle.” Since I’d had it only four days, I was neither convinced of the fact of it nor used to its attendant weight of responsibility. It had also come with a small box of cartridges, which I was keeping close to hand, on the table next to the bed. Once stripped down to my underwear, I crawled in, shivering , next to William beneath the covers. The only light in the room was on my side of the bed, a double-globe table lamp that required three turns of the switch to get it to go off.
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