She was tall this time, with long legs that shone the color of dark mustard in the light from Mama’s room. Andrew watched her follow Michael into the muted blackness, listened to the door shut with a gentle click.
Andrew was crouching with his back to the wall, blinking sleep from his eyes. He wore only his gray cloth shorts and a single sock. The night air slid against his skin.
He would try to stay awake, but would inevitably end up on the mound of laundry in the hall, head pressed into one of Mama’s T-shirts. If he was lucky, Michael would carry him back into their bed that later that night. If he wasn’t, he would wake up stiff, smelling of Mama’s cooking oil, and slip back into the bedroom before anybody got up. Michael’s friend would be gone, leaving the sheets soaked in a sweet, musky odor.
Andrew crawled over to the laundry pile. He found one of Michael’s big sweatshirts and put it on, wanting both the warmth and his big brother’s smell. The sweatshirt hung loosely around him, the arms dangling past his knees. He bunched the sleeves up around his elbows and went into the living room to find his Transformer.
Their house at night was different than during the day. In the darkness, the shapes of the sofa, the linoleum-topped table, the chairs, were uncertain, as if they might change at any minute. Andrew regarded them with nervousness as he walked. They could be hiding predators, wild animals, in their soft, lumpy forms.
His Transformer was on the carpet, arms jackknifed out to form the wings of an airplane, thick, muscular orange legs bent disjointedly. He snatched him up and ran back into the hallway, where the light from Mama’s room cast everything in certainty. He lay on his side to play with the figure, his face pressed against the itchy beige carpet, adjusting his perspective so he could imagine the toy was enormous and hulking.
The noises began. They were harsh, animal. Andrew pulled a stack of Mama’s clothes over his ears to block them out. In front of him, a miniature version of his brother was punched to a pulp by the protective arms of the Transformer until the carpet was stained with blood.
Just then, he heard Mama’s door open at the end of the hall. He folded himself against the wall but she poked him with the toe of her slipper.
“Andrew? What are you doing out of bed?”
Mama was usually a heavy sleeper. She left the TV on her Judges (Mathis at 10:00, Judy at 10:30, and Joe Brown at 11:00, when Andrew was supposed to be in bed), and they drowned out the sounds of her children. She was asleep by the time Judge Marilyn Millan came on at 11:30 and had never woken up to find Andrew like this, despite the dozens of nights it had happened.
“Playing,” Andrew told her, poking his head, and his Transformer’s, from beneath one of her Winnie-the-Pooh T-shirts.
“It’s almost midnight. Go to bed unless you want me to wake you up for real,” Mama said. Her thin palm twitched where it rested on her thigh.
“I can’t …” he began, his voice a soft whine. “Michael’s …”
Mama swung open the bedroom door before he could finish. From the corner of his eye, Andrew saw his brother, the muscles on the older boy’s back rippling, snaking, the blankets wrapped around his pale torso as though trying to rein him in. The face of the girl was turned toward them, small and pointy and luminescent.
“What the fuck, Michael!” Mama said shrilly. Andrew sunk back down onto the laundry pile and pulled the T-shirt over his head.
“What the fuck’re you doing? Who is this? You kick your little brother out of the room to fuck this bitch?”
He could still hear her.
He could hear the thud of her hand against his brother. The girl cursing, fleeing. The belt. When Mama came to get Andrew, his ears were sore from having his fingers jammed so tightly inside them.
“Go to bed,” Mama said shortly.
Michael’s face was pressed up against the wall, his naked back mottled in pink and red. He looked at his younger brother once, darkly, when he came into the room, then turned away again.
“I’m sorry,” Andrew whispered as he pulled the comforter around him. The sheets were damp, and his skin prickled. “I didn’t mean to.”
Michael said nothing.
The next morning, Andrew’s eyes were drawn to the thin ridges on his brother’s back, angry and red against his white skin.
“I’m sorry,” Andrew said again as he watched Michael shrug his jeans up around his narrow hips.
“Shut up, Andrew.”
“I didn’t mean to is all.”
Mama wasn’t in the kitchen, but her Judges were playing on the little black and white TV on the counter, so Andrew knew she was awake. He climbed onto the folding chair next to the refrigerator and looked around the room. The light coming in through the window above the sink seemed less friendly than usual. It cut across the linoleum in needle-thin white lines, making the curtain that Mama had hung there look faded, limp. Scars of dried-up sauce and blotchy orange-juice spills stared at him from the counters, no longer hidden in the harsh morning sun.
“How many times have I told you not to stand on that damn chair, Andrew?”
He climbed down, but not before grabbing the box of cornflakes. “Sorry.”
Mama snatched the folding chair from him and pulled it up close to the counter, where she could make out Judge Mathis’ dark, square face on the TV screen. Her nightgown slid up her thighs to reveal a thin web of blue lines that cut through the white of her skin. Andrew thought of the imprints on Michael’s back.
“Mama, I’m tired. I didn’t get no sleep last night,” he said as he poured the cornflakes.
“You’re not staying home from school today,” Mama said absentmindedly. “And I’m not driving you if you miss the bus.”
“I could stay home …” he began.
“Andrew, I’m trying to watch this. You got 15 minutes before the bus comes.” She leaned forward to turn the volume dial on the television.
“Sorry,” he said.
Michael came into the kitchen, his backpack already slung over his shoulder. It was the kind you got at military supply stores, camo, like Andrew’s favorite pants, with a zigzag of straps and cords across the back. His short blond hair was shiny with gel.
“You gonna pick me up from school?” Andrew asked anxiously.
Michael grabbed the sleeve of Andrew’s shirt and pressed his face into his younger brother’s. “Yeah, but you better shut up this time, you little shit.”
“Okay. I promise. Sorry.”
“Dumb bitch,” Mama said to the small, fat woman who had told Judge Mathis off. She didn’t hear Michael and Andrew when they talked. She heard plaintiffs and defendants and bailiffs, and especially her Judges.
Michael thudded his younger brother’s shoulder with his big, meaty palm. “Okay. You’re cool. I’ll see you.”
When Andrew sat back down in front of his cornflakes, he was smiling a little. He thought of how he had made his Transformer beat up Michael last night, underneath Mama’s Winnie the Pooh T-shirt, and felt guilty. Nobody else had a big brother like he did.
Andrew was the biggest boy in the third grade, so he sat near the back of the bus with the fourth and fifth-graders, who arm-wrestled and lobbed pencils across the aisles when the driver wasn’t looking. Usually he joined them, but this morning Andrew’s eyelids were heavy. He pressed his head against the seatback and stared at the lines that ran through the brown plastic.
When he sat at his table in Room 112, Andrew stared at his feet. His shoes were new from Target, black with rows of white laces and gray skulls on the side panels. Michael had bought them for him before the first day of third grade. “You’re my little bro, you gotta look good, right?” he had said.
Andrew smiled to himself and to his shoes.
The teacher’s name was Mr. Cadbury, but he told his students to call him Dave. Dave was a thin man with mussed brown hair, rectangular glasses, and three argyle sweaters that he wore on alternating days. He sat on his desk rather than behind it and used words like “cool” and “awesome” to describe math problems and the idea of reading chapter books. Michael said Dave was a faggot.
“OK guys, I’m going to come around and collect your reading homework,” he announced, bounding from his desk.
Andrew pulled the collar of his Vikings sweatshirt up around his nose and exhaled heavily. His breath smelled like cornflakes.
“Andrew? Do you have your homework?”
Andrew shook his head, face still buried in purple cloth. He made a face that Dave couldn’t see.
“Dunno,” Andrew muttered.
The other children were staring at him; he could tell without looking up. Andrew never had his reading homework. Dave sighed and moved on, leaving Andrew hunched over at his table, his short, cropped blond hair poking out from beneath the folds of his sweatshirt.
On the way to lunch, Andrew spoke to no one. He put a plastic-wrapped cardboard dish of tacos, a carton of plain milk, and a dish of shredded lettuce on his Styrofoam tray. He pulled his hood over his head as he ate.
“So, you okay?” Dave slid onto the bench next to Andrew. His sweater smelled stale.
Andrew looked darkly up at his teacher. “Yeah.”
“All you have to do is read for thirty minutes a night, get your mom to sign off on it,” Dave said, tapping his thumbs against the side of the table.
Andrew said nothing.
“You’ve got to start turning your homework in.”
Or what? Andrew thought. He shut his eyes tightly, willing Dave to leave. Spears of light from the fluorescent bulbs in the ceiling played on his eyelids.
“I know your brother used to go to school here. He had to take third grade twice, didn’t he?”
Andrew’s chest burned. If Michael could hear Dave the Faggot talking about him, he would be furious.
“You don’t want to have to do that. You’re smart enough to go on to fourth grade. You just need to start making an effort.”
Andrew peeled the plastic away from the cardboard dish and picked up a taco. The tortilla was shiny and yellow with grease. He put it back down and looked over at Dave. “Can I just eat my lunch?”
Dave sighed again. “Okay, Andrew.”
‘Does it hurt?” Andrew asked, watching the way Michael shifted his back against the cloth of the driver’s seat.
“Naw.” Michael tapped the cigarette resting between his fingers on the edge of the cup holder, sending a thin line of smoke up through the window. “I decided I’m not taking it any more, though. Next time she gets on me, I’m leaving.”
Andrew frowned. Michael was always threatening to leave, especially after he and Mama fought, but he never did.
“I didn’t take it from Dad, and I’m not going to take it from her either,” Michael continued. His eyes went dark.
“Mama’s not like him,” Andrew said quietly. His stomach twisted.
“Don’t defend her,” Michael spat, flicking his cigarette out the window. He swerved the car up against the curb with a single, slick motion. “Okay. Here we are. You hungry?”
Andrew peered out the window. They had pulled up in front of a McDonald’s, narrow and scummy, squeezed between a dusty Ethiopian deli and pawnshop. A homeless man, his jacket the same stone-gray of the wall he slumped against, stared blankly through the window at Andrew’s small, pale face. “Yeah,” he said.
“Well, I got a meeting later, but I was thinking we could get something to eat first.” A meeting. Andrew liked the sound of the word. Mama never had meetings. But Michael — Michael was important.
“Okay,” Andrew said eagerly.
“Hey man, can you buy me some food?” The homeless man approached Michael, stumbling a little, as they left the car. “Hey man, just a hamburger, can you buy me some food?”
“Get the fuck off,” Michael said.
“Just a hamburger.” The man’s face was yellowing at the edges, like old paper, wrinkled at the corners of his eyes and nose; he turned to Andrew, bending his face close to the younger boy’s. It was thin and sallow, as though he was sucking in his cheeks. “Little man, you don’t want me to go hungry, do you little man?”
“I said fuck off, old man.” Michael grabbed Andrew’s arm and jerked him inside.
“How come we can’t buy him a hamburger?” Andrew asked as they stood in line. He shuffled his feet back and forth on the slippery, slush-covered tiles, as if running in place. “He looked hungry.”
“Look man, we watch out for ourselves, okay?” Michael said.
“Okay.” Andrew glanced back over his shoulder. The old man had sunk back against the wall, face receded into the hood of his jacket. “Can I have a cheeseburger?”
“Sure. Happy Meal? Or—wait, what am I saying? You want a Mighty Kids Meal, right?” Michael winked.
“Right,” Andrew said.
They got their food and sat down, and Andrew opened his brightly colored bag to find that the woman at the counter had put in a girl’s toy: a pink plastic horse with a curl of a waxy purple mane and a shooting star emblazoned on its chest. He thought about complaining but decided against it. He liked the horse’s big blue eyes, and thought maybe his cowboy could ride on it when they got home. Andrew set the figurine on his lap and ran his fingers through the horse’s mane as he ate.
“What’s that?” Michael barked when he saw the flash of pink on Andrew’s knee.
“Lemme see.” Michael snatched it from his younger brother’s hands. He held the thing up to the light. “What the hell is this? I thought you wanted a Power Ranger?”
“I did. It’s okay, though.”
“What are you, a fag? You want a My Little Pony?” Michael snapped. He stood and strode across the floor to the counter, leaving a wake of brown slush behind him. The woman there regarded him dully, with eyebrows raised.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
“Yeah, you see that kid over there?” Michael gestured toward Andrew. “Does he look like a fuckin’ girl to you?”
Andrew bent his head and stared at his burger, trying to ignore his brother’s voice. When Michael returned with two Power Ranger toys, he smiled weakly and stuffed them in his pocket. “You gotta demand what you want,” Michael said as he sat back down. “See how I did that? I even got you two. You can’t be a pussy.”
“Okay.” Andrew took a bite of his burger and chewed vigorously. “Dave talked about you today.”
Michael swallowed. “The faggot? What’d he say?”
“Said about how you had to do third grade twice,” Andrew said, shrugging.
“You should have punched him in the face. Fuck him.”
“I woulda,” Andrew said quickly. “I was gonna.”
Michael clapped him appreciatively on the arm.
“So listen, I got a meeting to go to. You wanna help me out?”
The homeless man said nothing to them as they left McDonald’s. Andrew walked with his hands jammed into his pockets and stared at the skulls on his shoes, not wanting to look him in the eye.
“What do I have to do?” Andrew asked when he and Michael were back in the car.
Michael slid a cigarette in between his lips. “You’re gon’ be my lookout,” he slurred, holding it there as he flicked his lighter. “Thum of my guyth are—” Michael took a drag, then took the cigarette out of his mouth. “They’re saying some shit, and I gotta set them straight. All you gotta do is make sure nothing goes wrong.”
Andrew bit his lip. “What if it does?”
“What are you, scared, little bro?” Michael jabbed him with his elbow. “Nah, nothing’ll happen, you just gotta make sure no other guys try an’ sneak up on us. If you see somebody, shout.”
“Okay.” Andrew pulled one of the Power Ranger toys from his pocket. “I’m not scared, you know.”
“Course you’re not.” Michael said seriously. “You’re brave.”
“Thanks,” Andrew said. There was nothing better than having Michael think you were brave.
They drove to the river, where Michael parked the car behind a dumpster. Andrew had been to the river with Dave’s class that fall, when they had walked along the path and searched for gauzy cocoons that clung to the soft undersides of milkweed. But he never went in the winter. Andrew frowned.
“Why are you having your meeting here?” he asked.
Michael shrugged. “Why not? Here, you can just sit in the car. Jay and Kev are already down there—” he gestured towards the banks, “—so if anybody else comes, you honk the horn. Got it?”
“Okay.” Andrew’s chest puffed a little with a sense of importance.
Michael reached into the back seat, where he pulled out a heavy-looking paper bag and shoved it into his coat pocket. “Good man,” he said, and left.
Andrew leaned his nose against the cold pane and watched as Michael made his way through the snow. His brother’s jeans sagged down past his thighs, his jacket drooping long and black. Michael fingered something inside the paper bag as he went. After a few moments, he disappeared into the forest, where the bare trees protruded from the snow like bones against the fleecy gray sky.
Andrew pulled his knees beneath him in the passenger seat. He took out his Power Rangers and pulled them from their plastic wrapping, setting them both on the windowsill: the Blue Ranger, with a pinwheel-shaped pattern on his chest and a karate-chop arm, and the Platinum Ranger, whose white-gloved hands were curled into fists. They began to fight, teetering dangerously on the edge of the sheer cliff of the car door, each one battling not to plummet to his death.