From the back seat of the car, Benjamin read the gold-lettered sign at the edge of the rolling green lawn and said, “Why do they call it a correctional facility?” He’d meant only to think the question, rather than speak it, but lately, more and more, he experienced this kind of hotwiring between his thoughts and speech, a trend he recognized as risky business. His older brother, Randall, had recently emphasized the importance of taking control of your own destiny, and Benjamin could see that saying aloud what you would prefer to keep to yourself was the opposite. He also recalled an earlier period of bed-wetting, which, gratefully, hadn’t happened in many years, though the memory of it, zombielike, lived on to horrify.
“So they don’t have to call it a hoosegow,” said Randall, from the front, and their mother, as she steered the car into the parking lot, too fast, tipping Benjamin toward the middle, said, “Please don’t talk like that.”
“Don’t talk like what?” said Randall.
“Like how you’re talking.”
“You don’t even know what hoosegow means, do you?”
“I know I don’t want to know,” she said. “It’s just another one of your horrible words.”
Randall, who was four years older than Benjamin, and much wiser, and who took a lot of pleasure in provoking their mother, turned all the way around and grinned at Benjamin, who asked, softly, “What’s a hoosegow?”
“The slammer,” said Russell. “You know, the joint. The cooler. The clink.”
The front of the place resembled a motel—plate-glass windows, automatic doors, and a circular drive with a shed over it for drop-offs and pickups—and inside, at the reception desk, their mother showed her driver’s license and signed a ledger, exactly as if they were checking into a motel. The woman behind the desk, gray-headed and plump, looked just like somebody’s grandmother, only dressed in a cop uniform. The enormous sunlit lobby had a white polished floor, motel-like couches and tables, and fake palms in giant pots. Along the back wall were 10 blond wood doors labeled A through J, and at the far end was an alcove with drinking fountains, vending machines, and restrooms. As Benjamin wandered past one of the emerald-green couches near the windows, he suppressed an impulse to yell, though he was sure the lobby would have yielded a satisfying echo. They’d visited once before, but only now did he notice that the floor was flecked here and there with some kind of silver glitter, in random patterns like little accidental spills. Out the windows, beyond the near-empty parking lot and lawn, stood a line of trees he identified as ginkgoes with their fan-shaped leaves. It was barely fall, still too early for them to have started turning yellow, and high above these, a red-tailed hawk glided into and out of view, never flapping its wings. Much higher still, a tiny white jetliner crossed the sky at a snail’s pace, leaving the faintest vapor trail. Benjamin imagined the plane bursting silently into flames and falling from the sky, with him the only living witness, and while he stood imagining this, the woman behind the reception desk spoke the words “nine zero nine seven three one zero” into a walkie-talkie. She repeated it twice, and suddenly his mother was there, turning him around by the shoulder and telling him to please stop daydreaming and hurry up.
She clipped a plastic laminated tag with the letter C onto his shirt pocket. As she did this, she drew her lips into a line so straight and tight that they almost disappeared. She’d recently got her hair cut in a new style, shorter with bangs, and she’d dyed it a reddish-gold color mystifyingly called “Addiction.” (He’d found the box in the wastepaper basket in the bathroom.) Today she hadn’t changed out of her purple scrubs from the dentist’s office—she’d left work early, picked the boys up at school, and come directly here, to get ahead of the crowds, she said, a strategy that had apparently worked, since there were no other visitors in the lobby. The time before, they’d come on a Saturday, and they’d had to wait nearly an hour for a room.
Randall, already standing by door C, propped it open a crack with his foot, his eyes closed and his head bowed. When they reached him, he turned to his mother without lifting his head and looked at her from beneath his brow like an insane person. “And now,” he said, “for the longest 20 minutes in the history of time.”
Their mother gave them each a little shove and said, “Go on now. When you’re done, I’ll already be in the car and waiting for you at the front door. Leave those tags at the desk on your way out.”
Surprised, Benjamin asked her if she weren’t coming in, and she said, no, not this time. He wondered what they should give as a reason, but he knew Randall would come up with something. Right before they went in, Randall turned back to their mother, shrugged his shoulders, and said, “I guess we should just probably not even mention Dr. Mole, right?”
This question appeared to push her over a line, past which there was simply no more trying. She heaved a great sigh, shook her head, and said, “Randall, darling, you mention whatever you feel you need to mention.”
The door closed behind them with such a deep and final metallic clunk that Benjamin went back and opened it briefly to make sure they hadn’t been locked in. He looked up at the ceiling—acoustic tiles embedded with a panel of fluorescent lights—and then around the room—all white, about seven-foot square, four plastic patio chairs, a television screen and camera in one wall with a black old-fashioned telephone mounted to one side. He noted that this wall, the wall between captivity and freedom, was built of white-painted cinder blocks. A sign above the TV read, “All Visits Timed and Monitored. Lift Receiver To Begin.” Randall scooted one of the chairs up close to the TV and swung it around backward so he could straddle it. He unbuttoned and removed his sport shirt to reveal a pale blue tee underneath with the words BURNT ENCHILADA. Benjamin took another chair behind him and to one side, and Randall motioned for him to come up closer, but he shook his head and said, “I can see all right.”
What he could see at the moment was his own reflection in the gray-green TV screen, and he wished he hadn’t left his baseball cap in the car. He wished their mother had come in with them. He envisioned her smoking cigarettes in the parking lot. He wasn’t sure, but it seemed to him that bailing on things at the last minute, without warning, was something she did. His mouth had gone completely dry, and he wished he’d bought a soda from one of the vending machines in the lobby. Randall asked him if he was ready, but didn’t wait for an answer and lifted the receiver from its cradle; he let it dangle on its cord and pressed a clear button on the phone marked “Speaker” so they both would be able to hear. Immediately, their father mushroomed up on the TV screen, distorted by the camera, with an extraterrestrial’s swollen head and a bigger than normal nose. He wore short-sleeved prison-orange coveralls, with a white zipper all the way up the front and a patch on one side with the number 9097310. With his muscular arms, he looked as strong as ever, but his black hair was unusually long and oily looking, as if he hadn’t washed it in a while, and he clearly hadn’t shaved for several days—strange since he’d always prided himself on his grooming and good looks. His sideburns and stubble were nearly completely gray, and he appeared to have gained some weight. He also had a nasty cold sore on his lower lip, which he touched every few seconds with the tip of his tongue. In the background, other inmates roamed around, some on the same level, some on a balcony one floor up. Previously, their father had explained that the men were exercising, though it looked way more aimless than that. When he spoke, his voice sounded small and pinched through the speaker phone, and of course the first thing he said was, “Where’s your mother?”
“She brought us, but she’s not coming in today,” said Randall, and Benjamin thought it fascinating that his brother had opted for the truth—so unimaginative it was almost imaginative—and equally fascinating that their father nodded as if there was nothing remarkable about it. He only peered at Benjamin and said, “Ben, I can literally see like half of you. What are you doing way back there?”
Benjamin dragged his chair closer and sat down again, short of breath—the condition he’d felt all his life in his father’s company, never knowing what to say. He said, “Sorry, Dad.”
“I mean, I know you don’t want to be here, and I don’t blame you. But if you’re going to come, you might as well step up to the plate, don’t you agree?”
“The old man thinks he can continue to run our lives from inside,” Randall had said after their first visit. “Let him have his fantasy … just agree to everything he says. Meanwhile, we’ll be taking control of our own destiny.”
“Yes, sir,” said Benjamin now, and was relieved when his father’s eyes moved back to Randall.
“Shouldn’t you boys be at the orchard this time of day?”
“It’s Thursday,” said Randall. “We work Monday and Wednesday.”
“Well, how’s that been going, the orchard?” He rested his left hand on a little ledge in front of him, and Benjamin saw the familiar scar across the back of it (wet saw) and the missing tip of his index finger (table saw). He could also see the pronounced vein on his right temple, a physical trait inherited by Randall. Behind him, a skinny, ancient black man, who’d been walking in a wide circle, now stopped, did a pirouette, and then proceeded in the opposite direction.
“It’s going okay,” said Randall. “Ben’s picking most days, and I’m usually in the barn with the old wooden press.”
“And what are you both saving up for?”
This was a follow-up question, as last visit he’d given them the assignment of putting their orchard wages aside and choosing a goal, a specific thing they would buy with their savings. Only yesterday, Benjamin had said to Randall, “I can’t think of anything. And besides, I want to keep my money.”
“Just make something up,” Randall had said. “You don’t have to actually do it, just have something to say. You know, to mollify him. To freaking placate him.”
“I’m going to buy myself a real rifle,” said Randall now. “In my humble opinion, I’m getting a little old for a pellet gun.”
“I wish I still had Papa Tom’s .22,” said the father. “I could pass it on to you the way he passed it on to me.”
Randall said, “I guess you should’ve thought of that before you passed it on to a total stranger.”
“Yeah, Randall,” said the father, “I feel bad about that. Why don’t you rub some more salt in the wound?”
Randall said, “Whatever,” and looked away, at the blank wall to his right. Randall had told Benjamin that their father had given their grandfather’s rifle to a man as payment for something, but another time, he said he’d lost it in a poker game. Benjamin didn’t know which was true, and it didn’t seem important enough to find out. They’d never known the legendary Papa Tom except as a kind of stick-figure hero who’d died before either of them was born. He’d started out as a pharmacist, but then developed a new formula for laundry detergent—it did something other detergents didn’t do, Benjamin didn’t know what—and amassed a small fortune. Both he and his wife had met an early demise when the Piper Cub he was piloting crashed into a field somewhere in South America. Nobody seemed to have an explanation for what had happened to the amassed fortune, which, in the boys’ estimation, threw doubt on the whole story. He’d left behind only a brown photograph of himself (heavyset, with a walrus mustache and fur hat), which rested atop a bookcase in their living room; the Remington .22, now gone; and a great old bucksaw, which hung on a wall in their garage like a symbol of that earlier time, when real men cut down things that got in their way.
“If you ask me,” said the father now, “a pellet gun’s all you need for shooting squirrels in the woods.”
Randall shrugged his shoulders and said “whatever” again. Then added, “I hate the woods now, anyway.”
“Hate the woods?” said the father. “Why would you hate the woods?”
“Because they’re full of Marlowe Heights assholes who act like they own the place,” Randall said. “Like they’re defending their turf or something, just because they’re rich and live in Marlowe Heights. They build treehouses and play army all the time. Last week they chased Ben straight out of the woods, right up to our street.”
Benjamin would have preferred Randall not to have mentioned this, and he braced himself for the questions that would follow. His father said, “Is that true, Ben?”
“What were you doing?”
“I wasn’t doing anything,” said Benjamin. “I was walking. I like to walk in the woods sometimes, that’s all.”
“Well, Marlowe Heights doesn’t own the woods,” the father said. “The town owns the woods. Everybody has equal access. You boys shouldn’t let them push you around.”
“Ben was outnumbered,” said Randall. “Like five to one. That’s what I’m saying. They run around in these, I don’t know, platoons or something. They think they’re in the freaking army.”
“I repeat,” said the father. “You shouldn’t let them push you around.”
“We don’t let them push us around, Dad,” said Randall, raising his voice. “But it’s not fun anymore. That’s the point. Can we please drop the subject?”
Their father stared at Randall for a long moment, thoughtfully, as if he was considering whether or not to drop the subject. At last, he said, “If you insist,” and turned back to Benjamin. “And what about you, Ben? What are you saving up for?”
Benjamin, glad to have an answer but unsure of how it would fly, said, “I plan to take us to the Bamboo Room at Taste of Thai.”
“Really?” said the father, laughing a little. “What’s the Bamboo Room at Taste of Thai?”
“It’s a restaurant over by Shelley Brook,” said Benjamin. “It’s built up on stilts, and out back they have this pier that shoots out into the woods, and you can eat out there right next to the stream.”
“Nice, Ben,” said the father, nodding.
“Yeah, it’s expensive. And you have to have reservations if you want to eat specifically in the Bamboo Room.”
“Really nice,” said the father. “Pretty cool that you’re saving your money to do something nice for your family.”
“But kind of gay, too, right?” said Randall.
He’d said this without looking at Benjamin, and Benjamin despised him for about a full three seconds. First of all, Randall himself was fond of saying that opinions were cheap, and this opinion only meant Benjamin had come up with a good idea that Randall envied. Furthermore, Randall’s “gay” had never made any sense. Not long ago, when they’d visited the science museum in the city and Benjamin had said the coin smasher that converted pennies into souvenirs was cool, Randall said, “Yeah, sort of, but kind of gay, too.”
“No, Randall,” said the father now. “There’s nothing gay about wanting to do something nice for people.”
Suddenly the skinny black man came up behind him, yanked the receiver from his hand, and shouted into the phone, “Jesus sold drugs in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday!”
The father stood up, took the receiver from him and used it to punch him hard in the stomach. The old man doubled over and backed away, out of sight, crying, “I’m going to tell,” just like a wounded child.
When the father sat down again, Randall said, “Why’d you have to hit him? He’s about a hundred years old. And batshit.”
“Yeah, well, that old batshit son-of-a-bitch stole my pen, my notebook, my soap, and two of my shirts. I know it was him, and the guards know it was him, but they won’t do a damn thing about it.”
He switched the receiver from one hand to the other. “Now, Randall,” he said. “What do you have to say for yourself?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Randall.
“I think you owe your brother an apology for that crack you just made.”
“Oh, my God,” cried Randall, throwing his head back.
Without thinking first, Benjamin said, “It doesn’t matter. I don’t care.” He instantly regretted having said it, for it was bound to rankle his father, who now glared at him and said, “Actually, it does matter, Ben. And I care. Now say you’re sorry, Randall.”
“Okay, okay,” said Randall. “Christ. Sorry.”
“Now I want you to look at him,” said the father. “And I want you to say it like you mean it.”
Randall turned to Benjamin and looked at him with exaggerated sincerity. “Benjamin,” he said. “My dear little brother, whom I love very much. I’m very sorry for what I said. It was very thoughtless, immature, and, uh, extremely doctrinaire. I hope you can forgive my endangered speciousness. I never meant to …”
They both started to laugh, and the father said, “All right, now shut up and tell me how your mother’s doing.”
Generally, Randall would field this sort of question, but now they sat in silence, and Benjamin thought Randall was testing him: If Randall didn’t answer, how long would Benjamin sit there without speaking? At last, Benjamin said the only thing he could think of: “She cut her hair.”
“Cut her hair?”
“And dyed it,” added Randall. “She’s virtually unrecognizable.”
“Seriously?” said the father.
“Yeah. And she jogs now, too,” said Randall.
“Just about every night.”
Their father seemed to go into a kind of reverie. He put the receiver down on the little ledge, closed his eyes, turned his head to one side, and sneezed. He wiped his nose with the back of his hand and took up the receiver again. “So what’s with the T-shirt?” he said to Randall. “I’m dying to know.”
“It’s a magnet,” said Randall.
“When I wear it, every girl in a 20-mile radius comes up and asks me about it. Just like you just did.”
Their father smiled sarcastically and said, “And what do you tell them, Romeo?”
“I tell them the truth. I say, You know what an enchilada is, right? You know what burnt means, right? So put ’em together.”
Again the father stared silently at Randall for what seemed like quite a long time. Entirely unamused, he said, “Let me share something with you, Randall. And I’m speaking here, unfortunately, from experience. There’s a certain kind of girl that likes a smart-ass. But the problem is, she’s not going to make you happy in the long run. And this is because she likes a part of you that you don’t really much like yourself.”
He paused to give the boys time to absorb the weight of what he’d said.
Benjamin noticed that a guard, a huge man who might have been a professional wrestler, was coming toward their father’s station. He wore a beige and green uniform with a belt that had several things attached to it, including leather gloves, a flashlight, and a massive ring of keys.
Randall turned to Benjamin, cupped his hand at the side of his mouth, and whispered, “Psychospeak,” and then the guard was there, standing next to their father’s chair, looming over him.
He said, “Hang it up.”
“What do you mean, hang it up?” said the father.
“Right now,” said the guard.
“These are my boys I’m talking to here. We’re not done yet. We still have another—”
The guard reached for the receiver with both hands and pried their father’s fingers from it, one at a time. The last thing the boys saw was the guard leaning over their father to hang up the phone, bending their father’s head forward toward the camera and pressing the ring of keys into his ear. Benjamin thought that must hurt, and then the TV screen went blank. Of course, it was a startling moment, but not so much as the next, when he looked over at Randall and found him putting his shirt back on, alternately struggling with the buttons and wiping tears from his face.
Minutes later, as they were leaving the parking lot, Benjamin had trouble getting the image out of his head of his father touching the pink tip of his tongue to the cold sore on his bottom lip. But then he gazed out the window and saw that the sun was striking the ginkgo trees in such a way that the paling green leaves were lit from behind and looked like little quivering fan-shaped lights.
When their mother asked about their getting out early, Randall said their father had had to cut it short in order to go to some meeting or something. She accepted this without question, and then Randall surprised Benjamin by asking her to drop them off at a spot on the main road where they could follow an old logging trail home through the woods. Their mother asked Benjamin if that was okay with him, adding that it would allow her to get back to work a little sooner. Benjamin said fine, and they left their backpacks in the car and said goodbye to her from the berm of the road. Once they’d gained the narrow logging trail that would take them to their neighborhood, Randall said, “I have to say, I just don’t understand it. I don’t get how she can actually kiss Dr. Mole. I mean, how does she keep from laughing or gagging or something? It’s kind of radical extremist.”
Dr. Mole (or sometimes simply, The Mole) was the name they’d given the dentist their mother worked for, on account of a dark brown mole that grew at the very tip of his nose; his real name was Dr. Llewellyn, with its curious pair of double-Ls. Benjamin was still getting used to the idea that their mother, according to Randall, was having a love affair with the dentist, but he allowed himself to imagine the kiss and said, “She probably closes her eyes. I think people usually close their eyes.”
“Oh, yeah,” Randall said. “I hadn’t thought of that, Einstein. You’re probably right. But still.”
It was true that since their father’s incarceration (a word that sounded to Benjamin like being doused with gasoline and set on fire), the dentist had started giving their mother a ride home from work occasionally, something he’d never done before. That of course required him to pick her up the following morning as well, because she would have left her own car at the office, which, in turn, required the boys to walk the 20 minutes to school, when normally she would’ve dropped them off on her way to work. Randall, always sleepy and grumpy in the morning, hated having to walk, and Benjamin thought maybe he’d concocted the love affair out of resentment. Still, Benjamin couldn’t think of another explanation for the new and weird carpooling, and it didn’t help matters that when Randall confronted her, their mother had only said, “That’s none of your business,” which was recognizably less than a denial. What Benjamin disliked most about the idea of the affair was an indelible image Randall had put in his mind: he’d suggested that on those evenings when Dr. Mole brought her home, they probably left the office early, drove to some isolated place like Gordo’s Rock, parked, and made out in his cream-colored Lincoln Continental. Randall had also told Benjamin that they’d better prepare themselves, because The Mole happened to be married to the town’s mayor, and if the affair should ever come out, it would definitely get into the papers. Benjamin had asked him how they were supposed to prepare themselves, and Randall shrugged and said, “That’s the problem, Little Ben. That’s the whole ball of wax, the whole kettle of fish. There’s nothing you can do but turn yourself into a big hard-on who doesn’t give a shit about anything or anybody.”
Now, deeper into the woods, Randall said, “Let’s cut over to the cliff,” and led them into the low brush, into territory they’d not previously explored. The woods, once a home to apple orchards and mica mines, had long ago been acquired and preserved as a wilderness area by the town. You could still occasionally find glistening fragments of mica on the ground beneath the oaks, white pines, aspens, and elms. The cliff, due east of the logging trail, was Benjamin’s favorite spot—it fell, in places over 100 feet, to the river, but they’d never visited the cliff this far north. Benjamin noted that the day had turned surprisingly warm and that he was starting to sweat beneath the brim of his cap. He noted also that as they tromped through the brush, they made a strange and interesting fizzling sound. He worried for a moment about ticks and reminded himself to do a tick-check later.
When they got near enough to the cliff to see, through the trees, the white empty air above the river, Randall stopped and held up his hand. He said, “Look at that.”
At first Benjamin didn’t see anything unusual. Then he noticed, some yards away, at what was surely the very edge of the cliff, horizontal rungs on the trunk of a tall elm. He moved a few feet forward and gazed up at a spectacular treehouse, high in the elm, built out of weathered lumber, with a rusty corrugated tin roof. Immediately, he started to run toward it, but Randall shouted, “Wait.”
Randall took the lead again, and they crept to within 10 feet of the tree. Randall called, “Hey up there, Swiss Family Robinson! Anybody home?”
As Benjamin followed Randall up the tree, he counted the two-by-fours that were nailed into the trunk. Halfway, he thought of the word fraud, which sounded to him more like a disease than a crime, in the same category with croup, gout, strep, hives, and mumps. If you caught a case of fraud, you would turn ashen, lose your hair and most of your teeth, cough all day and night, and spit up blood. There were 14 rungs altogether, so at the top, where they hoisted themselves through an open hatch onto the wooden floor, he judged the treehouse to be about 25 feet from the ground. The most amazing thing about it was a square cupola in the middle of the roof, made of four old windows; Benjamin especially appreciated this unnecessary touch, added purely for aesthetic value. The place was a mess inside: two filthy red cushions salvaged from an outdoor furniture set; a Mason jar with about a thousand cigarette butts floating in brown water; a red-and-white Igloo cooler, empty, no lid; two oil lamps; an amber, mostly melted-down pillar candle; a half-full plastic jug of distilled water; a box of kitchen matches; a jumble of crushed beer cans. The side of the room that faced the river was open except for a protective balustrade, and despite the magnificence of the vista, what commanded their attention first was a poster thumbtacked to the wall opposite—a beautiful woman, sitting in a pickup truck with the door open, wearing nothing but a man’s polka-dot tie and eating a banana. Randall snorted through his nose, said, “Class act,” then ripped the poster down from the wall, rolled it tightly into a tube, and launched it out the open side of the treehouse. Benjamin stepped quickly to the balustrade and watched the poster rock down to the river, unfurling as it went, and landing at last on the water, a tiny white rectangle, carried away by the current.
Benjamin sat down and dangled his legs through the balusters, Randall moved beside him and did the same, and together they took in the view. Faraway upriver they could see the glass skyscrapers and church steeples of the city, downriver, nothing but woods, as the river bent out of sight. The water was mostly deep green, with paler snaky patterns caused by the current, and with scattered shards of silver sunlight that appeared to have been dropped from the sky. Across on the other side, two pastures sloped to the cliff, green right up to the lip, divided by a hedge. Black cows grazed on one side, and on the other, somebody was operating a tractor the color of prison coveralls, too far away to be heard, harrowing the field and stirring up billows of brown dust that swelled and drifted out over the water. The cattle against the green of the pasture reminded Benjamin of the polka-dot tie the naked woman in the poster had worn around her neck. The trees behind the pastureland looked like the fake trees of a terrain model. At last he said, softly, “What do we do if somebody comes?”
“If somebody comes,” said Randall, “we don’t let them push us around.”
Benjamin nodded and saw in his mind’s eye the scar on the back of his father’s hand. “If you commit murder,” he said, “you’re a murderer. But if you commit fraud, does that make you a frauder?”
“No such word,” said Randall. “It makes you an asshole and a liar. It makes you a scumbag who takes people’s cash and buys materials. Brings the stuff to the site so they’ll think you’re ready to start building. Then sneaks back in the night, loads everything back onto the truck, and disappears. He did it twice before, you know, before he finally got caught.”
“And did he lie about the Queen Mary house?” asked Benjamin.
Their father had once told them about a house he’d built for a couple who’d taken their honeymoon on the Queen Mary 2. They’d loved the cruise so much that when it came time to build their first home, they designed the interiors to look just like the great ocean liner, with curved walls, brass railings, portholes, and so forth. He’d built the house exactly to their specifications, and they’d been happy with the result until they discovered they couldn’t live in it because they were constantly seasick. Likewise, any friends they had over got sick and soon had to leave.
“Of course he lied,” said Randall. “Total bullshit from the first word to the last.”
A turquoise damselfly glided in on a breeze and lit on the back of Benjamin’s hand. He blew it gently away and said, “I’m thinking about trying out for basketball.”
“Don’t do that,” said Randall. “Basketball is for dickheads.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because look who plays. Agoraphobic dickheads. Only.”
Benjamin was first to hear the voices outside. He hopped up and peered through a crack between the boards. He said, “Six of them. One has a gun.”
At his side now, Randall looked through the same crack, said, “Come on, let’s go,” and lowered himself out the hatch. Of course they were spotted immediately as they scrambled down the trunk, and once they were running through the brush, back in the direction of the logging trail, they could hear the others coming after them. The Marlowe Heights boys yelled continuously, muffled and garbled by the crackling of the brush, and Benjamin thought, what a waste of energy, all that yelling. He knew that he and Randall, in their absolute silence, would easily outrun them. They hung a left at the logging trail, increased their speed, and were soon on familiar ground. Small landmarks—a certain perfectly round stone at the side of the trail, a solitary holly bush, a rusty deserted wheelbarrow—whizzed by in a blur. The sunlight, slanting in at a low angle, produced a pleasing stroboscopic effect through the trees. Benjamin saw Randall look over his shoulder only once, and he was grinning. Soon the asphalt disc of their cul-de-sac came into view, and they were sprinting across their lawn to the front door.
If Randall hadn’t needed to pull his key from his pants pocket and unlock the door, they would have been inside before the others emerged from the woods. Benjamin heard the scuff and drumming of their shoes on the pavement and turned just in time to see the biggest of them—the long-haired Cro-Magnon with the gun—halt at the curb and take aim. Randall swung open the door, and Benjamin nipped inside under his arm, heard a pop from outside, and saw a puff of bluish smoke at the curb. Randall cried out, grabbed the back of his left arm, and slammed the door shut. Without pause, he ran up the stairs, two at a time, and then, in a matter of seconds, was snapping closed the barrel of his own rifle as he bounded back down. “Open the door, Ben,” he said.
The Marlowe Heights boys were now on the sidewalk, about halfway between the street and the house. Because Benjamin was crouching behind Randall, he could see that he deliberately aimed over their heads, but when he fired one shot, and then broke the barrel to reload, it was enough to make the group turn and run. One of the boys yelled, “You better not ever …” but Benjamin didn’t catch the end of it.
Randall showed Benjamin the little pink crater the BB had left on the back of his arm, then retreated to the bathroom upstairs. Benjamin went into the dark kitchen, bent his head sideways under the tap, and took a long drink. He felt mentally blank, and soon found himself doing the dirty dishes piled up in the sink. After that, he wandered into the living room, where he experienced a strange urge to overturn all the furniture. Instead, he straightened the crooked shade on a standing lamp, then climbed the stairs, went into his room, and fell facedown onto his bed. After a minute, he sat up, lowered his pants to his ankles, and checked his legs for ticks. He found none, but took a few seconds to examine what he felt sure was a new freckle on his right thigh, then pulled his pants up, and lay on his back. Pale orange sunlight came through the window blinds and fell in stripes across his stomach. When he closed his eyes, he saw rainwater dripping from some serrated leaves, and he had a memory of waking up on the front seat of his father’s truck, eye-level with an ashtray in the dashboard that was stuffed with butts. For about the hundredth time, he felt an ugly pang of guilt over the fact that his father’s being sent to prison had come as a great relief. For some reason, it occurred to him that his mother considered herself superior to most people, certainly superior to the man she’d stupidly married, but also to her children. He wasn’t sure if he was right about this and decided to ask Randall’s opinion. He recalled his father’s once bragging that he could sell ice to Eskimos, and Benjamin, even now, couldn’t see what was admirable about that. An impossibly heavy silence fell over the room and pressed him an inch or so deeper into the mattress. A toilet flushed somewhere far away, and then he heard, through the tall screened windows of the Bamboo Room, a friendly dinging of water over the stones in Shelley Brook. It pleased him that several of the items on the menu contained pineapple and coconut, two of Randall’s favorite foods …
A short while later, Randall stood at the foot of his bed, most peculiarly, with Papa Tom’s old bucksaw hanging over his shoulder. “Ben,” he said. “Wake up. Let’s go.”
Along the way, they passed the pine tree where, weeks ago, Benjamin had shot a squirrel. At the moment of impact, it had dug its claws into the bark about 12 feet off the ground, and there it remained, dead, legs splayed, slowly decomposing.
They hid behind some blueberry bushes several yards from the treehouse, where they waited, watched, and listened. The sun had dropped below the tree line already and now steeped the woods in a kind of beautiful fire glow. Once they concluded that no one was still in the treehouse, they took their positions on either side of the trunk, at either end of the bucksaw. First, as their father had taught them, they made the two cuts for the wedge, with its open mouth facing the river. When they were done, Randall popped it out, cast it over the edge of the cliff, and immediately picked up the saw again and moved to the other side of the trunk. He showed no mercy, not to the tree, and not to Benjamin, who was determined to keep up despite a stitch in his right side and sharp pains in both his hands. The third cut went more slowly, probably, Benjamin thought, because even Randall had begun to run out of gas.
Afterward, he would recall the low, resonant crack inside the wooden hinge as the top of the tree lurched toward the cliff. He would reflect that the whole felling took them less than half an hour, without any wimp’s benefit of a chainsaw, and that they’d not spoken or made a sound until Randall let out a high-pitched warrior’s whoop at the moment the hinge gave way.
The trunk upended for a moment, high above their heads, then slid off the rock edge with a single sound like a gust of wind. “Awesome,” said Randall, and he turned back toward the stump, as if the stump were the interesting thing. Benjamin took a giant step to the lip of the cliff: the treehouse struck an outcropping halfway down, shattering the beautiful cupola and cantilevering the severed trunk outward over the water, and the elm completed a somersault before crashing into the river with a great bloom of whitewater; the current steered it parallel to the nearer bank, trunk first; the upper branches, which on land had drooped, now arched forward as if by design, and what remained of the treehouse looked like ruins aboard a vessel that had survived some mythic death match. It fishtailed one way and another and waggled onward toward the distant bend.
Randall moved alongside Benjamin, put a hand on his shoulder, and said, “Fuck ’em.”
Benjamin said, “Yeah, fuck ’em,” but what he didn’t say was how no hint of cloud marked the copper sky, and how the air above the river almost seemed to hum with stillness.
Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.