My brother has a new plan: hurl piss at Old Man Gogol’s face. Today. First my brother will piss into an empty Gatorade bottle, then he will ring Gogol’s doorbell, and when Gogol hauls his monstrous, ancient bones to the door, my brother will take the bottle and—
There’s no point to this plan apart from the danger of it. Every kid in this flat mile of sun hates Old Man Gogol’s guts, because every kid is shit-scared of him. We haven’t lived here long, but we know that much. Three houses down from ours in the cornfield direction, the sprawling stone one is where Gogol lives, every window boarded or covered in cardboard.
At noon, I wait for my brother at the main oak tree. When he arrives, late, he doesn’t talk to me. He finds me unworthy of being spoken to sometimes, because he is older and I am a girl. He is holding the Gatorade bottle, half-filled with lurid yellow. This means I don’t have to watch him piss. I often have to watch him piss: into flowerpots or open manholes, onto cornstalks, petunias, dogs.
My mother used to call us feral children. For our dust and the rips in our pants, our outside-ness. I am an outside girl, simply that. My brother is feral. He scratches and bites and beats my ass, tries to drown me in mudpuddles. I like to be alone, to fish or bike in dead silence, but I have no choice in the matter of hanging around with my brother. There are consequences if I try to refuse hanging around with my brother.
We walk past the mailboxes of Jensen and Kulczycki, turn into Gogol’s thicket. Prickly bushes scrape my arms, leaving raised red lines. I can’t believe we’re doing this, but I also can; I always knew one day my brother would lead me to my death.
My brother did something like this Gogol plan to our cousin Molly once. Peed in a jar and gave it to her to drink. “Apple juice,” my brother said. She got a whiff of what it really was and spilled it on her leather shoes, this was at Easter. Molly is an only child and not used to living with a terrorist. Still, she’s no tattletale.
My brother right away knocks on Gogol’s door. Brave. Then he knocks harder, his mouth set, assaulting the flaking paint. I’m sure Gogol is not going to open the door, but the door stutters back and Gogol is there, tall and plaid, stooping. Squinting. “What is it?” he says. Angry red gums.
My brother has the piss bottle behind his back. His chin is raised, but his eyes flash with a look of outrage, which is how I know he is afraid. “What do you want?” Gogol says, louder.
“I brought you,” says my brother.
“What?” Gogol says, not as loud this time. Wary, but curious.
My brother spins around. Slowly, like an ice dancer. He marches through the thicket, smoothing back the scratchy branches with the arm not holding the piss bottle. He skips off down the street. My brother has left me there alone. He hates me, which is why I hate my brother.
As I look at Gogol, his bewildered face, my heart does something strange. Leaps. I’m scared, but I’m conscious of my solo bravery. So I smile at Gogol’s face. Gogol backs into his house and the door nearly closes. “You can come,” he says, stopping the door, holding it. My leg steps in. I’m in Gogol’s house, me.
Cold linoleum floor with black and white squares, wallpaper with flowers, an upright piano, a food stink. He leads me to the back, where a pot bubbles on a stove. The stink has yeast and cabbage to it and something plasticky, like Band-Aids.
“Do you drink Scotch?” Gogol asks. Me, he asks this. I tell him my low age and he nods. He opens the gum-colored fridge, pours me something. I sip it. Fizzy like cola but tangy like bread. I stare at kitchen table, plastic and sparkly, and concentrate on not throwing up.
Gogol sits. “Your father is back in that house for good,” he says. His eyebrows are bushy and white but his voice doesn’t sound that old.
“Yeah,” I say.
Gogol tilts his head.
“I said yeah,” I say louder.
“I was waiting for you to say something else. An explanation.”
“Oh. Well, he doesn’t like to work anymore. He said this house was ours for free since he grew up in it.”
“When your father was a little boy,” Gogol says. Then he trails off. Dad has told us stories, wheezing with laughter, about the things he and his friends did to Gogol’s house when he was my age. Decorating it with toilet paper and Silly String, singing songs about beer bottles at the bedroom window, throwing rocks at the light until it sparked and popped. About Old Man Gogol shaking his fists on the doorstep, threatening them. Old Man Gogol was already Old Man Gogol twenty years ago, which tells you a lot about his oldness level.
“He’s bad,” I say to Gogol, testing the words. “My dad and my brother both, I think, are bad people.”
“Bad,” Gogol repeats. Then, thoughtfully, “No.”
He goes to the pot on the stove and lifts the lid, releasing steam. Stirs the slurry. All over the kitchen are jars filled with pickles. One of the jars looks as though it’s filled with large spiders humping up on each other’s backs, but I don’t think there’s much chance of that being true.
I want to say, “They are bad,” and also, “Thank you for thinking they are not bad.”
“He was going to throw piss in your face,” I say. “My brother.”
Gogol laughs, the laugh turning into a wheeze. Maybe throwing piss in someone’s face isn’t such a big deal after all. Then: “I have an idea for you,” Gogol says.
“Thank you for the drink. I should get going now.”
“Not so fast,” Gogol says. He smiles and says again that he has an idea for me.
I refuse to tell my brother what happened inside Gogol’s house. He refuses to accept my refusal. I tell him he forfeited his right to know through being a wuss. He blusters, says I’m the wuss for having stayed. He was smart and correct by leaving. Classic him. He should get a prize for being so illogical, and probably will later in life.
Our house is small. We both sleep in the basement, a rectangle with large paintings made by my mother long ago. But our beds are on opposite sides of the basement. The fact that we sleep in the same general place would make it easy for me to do Gogol’s idea, which is to put a dead squirrel into my brother’s bed for revenge. Revenge for Gogol because of the piss and for me because of various things: the mudpuddle near-drowning, my haircut, the pencil lead still stuck in my arm, and that’s just this week.
It isn’t a bad idea, Gogol’s idea. But I can tell you what will happen if I do it. My brother will get into his bed and his bare feet will touch the dead bloody squirrel. He will say, “What the fuck,” and shriek and I will laugh, my laughter will be automatic. Then my brother will get ashamed, so ashamed of the fact that he shrieked and so insulted by me laughing at him, that he will rip me out of bed, push me onto the cold floor, and pound me. Stomach, maybe face. Then my dad will switch on the light and come downstairs. My brother will stop beating me and look innocent and whine to my dad about the dead squirrel. Then my dad will punish me.
When my dad goes back to bed, my brother will threaten to kill me for what I did, will tell me that he intends to flay the skin off my body with fishing line in little pieces, then put the pieces in the microwave until it they are nice and crisp and eat them. He may even do it.
The next day, my brother with his fat face gives me a rope burn on the dyke. He gives it to me on the back of my knees, pushes my face into the dry grass and gives the burn to me while we are out looking for arrowheads. For no reason, just because he found some rope.
So it’s not that I don’t want to do Gogol’s idea. It’s just that I need more information about how to do it without dying from being killed by my brother. Or I need some other idea that can’t be traced back to me.
When my brother gets some new Garbage Pail kids and needs to put them in a binder, it’s the perfect opportunity. This time, when I knock on Gogol’s door, he doesn’t look as bewildered.
In the kitchen, I don’t gag as much at the fizzy drink. It’s just part of the routine now. How nice it is to have a new routine.
“My brother is bad,” I say to Gogol at the sparkly table, “but I can’t do your dead-squirrel plan as it will lead to my death.”
“Ah,” Gogol says. Smiling a little. He is drinking tea and stirs something into it, a reddish powder.
“I wanted to see if you had any other plans or ideas for me. Good revenge tricks,” I say.
Gogol looks out the window at his backyard thicket, contemplating. “You need something that will really show him the error of his ways,” he says.
“’Yes.” I am pleased he understands it automatically.
Gogol asks me if my brother saw me walking over to his house and I say no, he doesn’t know where I am. No one in the world does. Gogol seems pleased with this information. “Come with me,” he says.
So I follow him down to the basement, which looks a lot like our basement where we sleep. I wonder if whoever built Mr. Gogol’s house built our house, if Gogol and I are connected in that way.
At the bottom of the basement stairs, he points at a small room which looks a lot like the small room off the basement at our house. I go into it. I am thinking there will be tricks in there, good revenge tricks that can’t be traced back to me. “Okay,” Gogol says, and he closes the door. A sound of metal on metal.
I am in the small room with the door closed in my face. The small room with only one small high window, boarded up. I turn the doorknob and push but the door doesn’t open. I knew it wouldn’t, my hand knew as it went for the knob.
“Can I come out now?” I say loudly but politely to Gogol through the locked door. Immediately, I understand everything that is happening to me. I know that this is my house now. On the other side of the door, I hear him sniff. “Can I please come out?” I say again. My voice breaking, getting wild. I hear footsteps going up the stairs. I hear the door close. There are no revenge tricks in this small room except the trick that has been played on me. “I don’t like it in here, I’m getting scared,” I say. Then I scream, at Old Man Gogol, “Hey! I am not bad. I don’t deserve this. They are bad. They need to be punished.”
But he knows that already.
© Emily Flouton
[This piece was selected by Damyanti Biswas. Read Emily’s interview]