Winter was ending, which was good. Everyone faded in winter. My breath made a dime on the window, a quarter, a silver dollar as I leaned in to see how big a fog spot I could produce. An 18-wheeler filled with holes rolled right by the house. Pretty strange, to see such a big truck so far from the highway on our gravel road. Nine wheels thunked through the big pothole before it turned into the field across the way and parked.
The others still slept, Mom and Dad and Errol and my twin Vera. I had woken early to sit by the radiator—there was only the one beneath the living room window. Each night we placed pots of water atop it and brought the hot dishes into our bedrooms to warm our dreams. Hours ago, Vera had rolled with our sheets in her sleep after our pan had cooled. I shivered even now in the fox pelts I had stolen from their wall tacks.
Why had the truck come down our road and pulled into that neglected field? Our bus stop was the farthest one from our school, from town, from anywhere. When Vera got up we would investigate—I could see the silver ass of the thing above the weeds. I liked the idea of driving a truck, with its huge comfy seats and volcanic engine air and coffee aroma, maybe even powdered sugar pastries in wax paper. I practiced dabbing the sugar with my tongue on the window.
“Hey gink, you’re up early,” said Errol. He called everyone a gink. “Cold, right? If you help me play stash-hunt, I’ll make you some butter bagels.”
He talked to Vera and me like we were babies, though we were nine and he was sixteen. Still, certain deals I would not refuse. Errol and I overturned cushions, unzipped pillows, and fished around in spider holes for illicit stashes. He was building a body of evidence to confront Mom and Dad. Today, I found two black spoons taped under the sink and earned my breakfast, toasted by Errol over the gas burner on a fork. I toasted my hands alongside the bagel halves. The parents would sleep for hours, maybe all day—they often never opened their door on weekends.
It was noon before Vera and I dallied over the springy plank into the field. We rarely spoke when alone, saving out loud conversations for school where we needed to ease the nerves of children unsettled by identical twins. Vera, standing atop a tire, peered through a slot in the truck’s trailer and beckoned me over. Inside, grunting contentedly, were thirteen pigs snuggled in bedding. I pointed to the tiniest who had a black head streaked with yellow hairs. Vera and I had always wanted a pet, and this one would be ours.
Getting around to the truck cabin soaked our jeans with cold dew. Assuming the driver would be hanging around, we cried out hello, searching for his trampled trail. We found no trace except the windows and windshield painted black and locked doors. Vera boosted me up on the hood with a stick to chip away the paint. My shoes made banjo twangs on the metal, and I scraped the stick diligently, but the paint had been applied from the inside. I shrugged and slid down. For now, the pigs appeared to be ours.
It took us nearly two weeks to remember to feed them. Vera and I spent our schooldays distracted by the other pair of twins in class, Jessie and Rebecca, who wore matching outfits every day and lived on the handsome side of town. Their parents did things like that, even paying for uniform haircuts, while Mom cut our hair whenever she felt like it, one at a time. I forgot all about the truck on the trudge home to our house, until one day an oink rang out in the valley.
When we raced over, the smallest pig with the black head was gone entirely. The other pigs regarded us happily, winking their noses. Since the trailer door was bolted, we had a pretty good idea of what happened. Thirteen became twelve and so it was. Wordlessly, we gathered old garbage bags from the pit out back and poured them through the holes. Our hogs made content slopping noises and Vera announced that we should trade off feeding every other day.
“See anything weird in the trash?” Errol asked us when we returned, sitting us down and turning the lamp on us. “Surely you saw something.”
We squealed “no!” but really we hadn’t paid any attention. He sighed and held up a paper bag with something wet in it. “I found this in a hollow panel in Dad’s closet. Really bad. I can’t even say what it is.” He looked heartbroken. We watched him carefully, knowing he would probably yell at the parents tonight. He switched off the lamp by tugging its cord. “You freaking ginks,” he said. “It’s like you don’t even care what’s inside. You just don’t care to see what’s really there.”
Maybe because of what Errol said, the next morning Vera came back from pig-feeding with news. “There’s someone inside the truck,” she told me. “A blue man in the front seat.” Sure enough, she’d found a lick of clear glass in the corner of the passenger side window where the paint had smeared thin. Right near the hole, a bluish hand lay on the cushion curled like a dead spider. If I crouched, I could peer up at a cindery cheek.
Errol never yelled at our parents. Maybe he’d taken a note from us too. Either way, I prayed for spring to end—all the pollen and bright green leaves put everyone on edge.
Summer brought summer rains. Errol brought summer friends. Both went into our basement. Vera and I peered through the bannister slats at the teenagers downstairs every night. Gadgets were strewn around; someone’s red speaker, a wax puck and a poke & stick kit, not to mention piles of snacks we’d never tasted – gas station apple pies, tastycakes, bright blue drinks. When the cellar flooded, the boys cranked the music and pissed into the water, ejecting into the same sea rocking our old coffee table and throw pillows.
Errol caught me watching one night after Vera had gone to bed. The guys were spraying a quick fssp of mace into their solo cups before chugging the mixture, doubling over with laughter and pain. Some of the girls seemed to exist just to react to the boys. Other girls ignored them. I was fascinated by these ignorer girls, the swell of their breasts and their makeup, and tried to picture myself in their bodies.
“Whatcha doing?” said Errol at the foot of the stairs, startling me. “Spying! That it?”
I heard the beer and jolly in his voice so nodded yes. He leaned against the railing, glancing back over at his friends. “So you’ll snoop on me but not Mom and Dad? What’s the difference? Every time I face them you and Vera run off. You’d never go into their room to stash-hunt with me. Guess what I found down here? A loaded gun in Dad’s old boot. You or Vera could’ve picked it up.”
The difference was obvious, but I couldn’t quite articulate it. “It’s not the same.”
“That so?” His smile never reached his eyes, but he mimed punching me in a friendly way. “Well, no matter what you say, I’m going to tell you to go join your gink sister in bed.”
Vera and I released the pigs, which we had half-named, on account of the rain. We forced the bolt out and swung wide the gates so old Long-Hair and Spotty and Beatrice, etc., could poke their snouts out and trot into the woods. Their bedding had molded, the sour odor too awful to bear mixed with their waste. We told ourselves it would be inhumane to keep them in the truck forever and said goodbye to the blue man too. We never looked at him anymore for fear he would have changed somehow.
I couldn’t find the words to answer Errol’s question until fall, when we returned to school and the other kids talked about police dragging the river for some missing ranch hand. That was exactly it. I watched my brother and his friends in the basement because it seemed like a way out. Groping around our walls for Mom and Dad’s sins was dragging the river.
Jessie and Rebecca asked about Errol as they pogoed around us on the recess field. “He’s interesting. What’s he like? Our older sister talks about him sometimes. She likes him, we think, but he goes for the slut girls, is what she says. He’ll probably end up sick like your parents anyway. What do you think?”
We met their tiny eyes without responding. They couldn’t pogo in sync, weakening their effect on us. By fall we knew Errol was sick but in a different way. He’d upturn the house for hours at a time, obsessed with the idea of snaring our parents, of crumbling their façade. Even as a kid he’d finger the pelts on the wall, fishing for Dad’s bullet hole instead of petting the fur. Vera and I climbed the sleek yellow bars on the playground and felt the wind at the top.
Autumn was closing when Errol finally lost it for real. The trees took on a singed quality as naked branches drew black lines in the oranges and reds, bare trees dark as fossils. Vera and I trotted home eyeing the forest for any sign of our pigs but didn’t find them. We knew some had survived, because we’d found tracks in the clay, and because our trash disappeared from the pit out back. “Like the garbage man came!” Errol would say.
The pothole out front had become a pot-pond, a pot-gulf. By the time we reached it that day we could hear tapping from our house, steady percussion from one of Mom’s CDs. She kept stacks of them in the corners and spun them in a whirring machine with thin acoustics. She would inspect the album art and the credits, pinching that creaking plastic sleeve, seeming to live inside the songs themselves while they lasted. The sound of CDs and the shifted car in the yard meant Mom and Dad had gone out today, probably for groceries, and had settled in the living room, an unsafe scenario if Errol was home. He was.
“Oh, it’s Vera and Julie!” Mom cooed from the couch when we pushed wide our whistling door. “Do you two want a snack? I just bought cereal.”
“I told you they’d be home soon,” Errol said. “I told you and Dad to get out of here.”
Cradled in his arms was a gun, the gun, silver and glossy and expertly engineered, something more suited for a spaceship than our brown bowed house. Dad sat at the kitchen table, chin resting in his palms, a trembling triangle. “Ow to sea,” he mumbled. “Whee go out two C.”
“Cereal?” asked Mom, beckoning with a smile like a cracked bowl. “Someone’s starving for cocoa puffs. I just know it. Milk?”
I shuffled forward, but Vera squeezed the color out of my wrist, restraining me. Horrible things lay strewn around our mother, printed photos of Vera and I sleeping, some of our clothes half-stuffed in a yellow hard-shelled suitcase, Errol’s paper bag, two pills nearly hidden in her fingers. Raised veins in Mom’s arms pulsed contrary to the music. Dad grinned with his eyes closed, reminding me of a stone with teeth.
“Explain this to them,” Errol barked, knocking the paper bag on the floor with the nose of the gun. Out spilled hair, locks of wavy black, hair from Vera, hair from me. Tape bound them in bushels and a sharpie assigned them to men’s names. “Explain it or get out.”
“Itch just business,” said Dad, shivering to his feet. A fork glinted in his hand. “They’ll bi this type shit ether whey.” Something like glue gilded his yellow eyes.
Mom didn’t look happy, but the smile stayed. Even with their other faults, Mom and Dad were a team, linked, two arms of some starving beast. “Errol. Put that down. It’s true. We need to make ends meet. You can sell almost anything these days. Some products get higher bids.”
“And what will you buy,” Errol said, nudging the bag, “with these products?”
I poked Vera. Dad, overhead light shining right through his hair onto his scalp, was wavering toward Errol. Vera kicked Errol. Dad lurched forward, and Errol fired the gun straight up. Light the color of cider streamed in. Even with stinging ears, sunlight struck me as a surprising thing to pour out of a bullet hole. Why hello, heaven.
Dad angry-screamed and we scattered like rats. I disappeared into the weeds across the street, huddled inside the rusting trailer where the pigs once lived. The trailer was not so different than our home, really, a shotgun structure with a door on each side. The sky grew pink horsetail clouds and the twigs gleamed copper, but nobody came for me, not until dark, when I recognized the hollow stutter of Vera tiptoeing through pine needles. Could Rebecca and Jessica recognize one another by footfall in the forest? Probably not.
Errol was close behind with a flashlight. “Cover the bulb with your hand,” he whispered, pressing it against my palm. “Took me forever to find Vera in the woods. We need a way out.”
I pointed to the truck cabin behind me. “This parked here a couple of months ago.”
“There’s someone inside,” Vera added. “A blue man.”
Errol frowned, then Jesus Christ’d, scrutinizing the blacked-out windows, trying the doors. “It’s our best bet,” he concluded finally. “Dad is out looking for us in the car. Keep the flashlight here and find something heavy to break a window.” Vera rooted through ferns and needles for a rock, eventually coming up with a brick. Errol flung it and glass crunched into the sky, shined like spider eyes in the grass. Gingerly, he unlocked the door, averting his eyes from the blue man inside and the black stain haloing his body.
I made the mistake of letting the light slip through my fingers, and it caught the blue man’s face, cheekbones climbing out of his skin. Vera whispered fearfully. The face remained in the round shadow in the middle of the beam no matter where I aimed, batteries rattling as I spun. I heard the engine groan to life—there was gas in the tank. The headlights were smudges, suggestions of light, but they seemed to regain confidence quickly. “Engine charges the battery,” Errol explained, herding us inside. “We’re lucky.”
None of us dared move the blue man, but after a few moments I found I could manage staring at his hanging jaw, his shrunken eyes, that dried nub of tongue. Vera climbed over his lap, and I followed, shrinking against the dashboard to avoid his shriveled knees. His old fruit scent had soaked his clothes and the seat and our t-shirts, held over our noses, soon followed. But it wasn’t so bad. He’d be sitting there whether or not I looked at him. Vera even patted him on the shoulder.
Launching clods of mud, we peeled out of the field, meter on E, the knobby shoulders of a blue man jostling between us. Vera and I waved goodbye to our dark house full of pelts and secrets. Passing by, we saw them at last: a herd of fluffy boars circling our pit, bristling with curls, cleaning our trash pit. Frost made white smirks of the grass and I’d never been so excited for winter.
© James Cato
[This piece was selected by Katrin Gibb. Read James’ interview]