The trail emerged at a gravel turnoff on the side of Highway 3. Their grandfather’s truck, with its sun-blistered camper and dented right fender, sat with its nose to the edge of a bar ditch.
“Cooler’s behind the seat,” said Ephraim as he lowered the tailgate and tossed the shovels into the back. Jack placed the cardboard box of freshly unearthed arrowheads on the floorboard, then pulled the Igloo from among dirty rags and old newspapers and half-empty bottles of motor oil.
The boys ate biscuits and cheese and drank Dr Peppers. It was hot. Would be another record day, so the weatherman said. Ephraim pointed at the shovels in the truck bed and asked if Jack might want to dig some more here in a bit. Jack swallowed a hunk of cheese and was about to answer when sirens—police, fire, ambulance—erupted in the valley. The tailgate squeaked as the boys scrambled to their feet. Ephraim pointed at the smoke rising from the east edge of town.
“Think it’s the school?” asked Jack.
“Got to be something,” said Ephraim, “all that noise.”
The boys drove fast as possible down the winding highway. In town, the Git-n-Gallup parking lot should have bustled with people gassing-up bass boats and ATVs, but the boys saw no one until they turned onto Birch Street, where it seemed the whole town stood near two fire engines, one a borrow from Pittsburg County. Behind them sat the Sheriff’s patrol car and an ambulance with its lights off.
Ephraim pulled the truck to the curb and killed the engine. When his brother slid out, Jack wanted to follow, but the process of undo seatbelt, open door, place feet beneath legs onto pavement would not organize itself in his mind. Ephraim turned back when he realized Jack was not beside him. Their eyes met, then Ephraim tugged on his cap brim and made his way toward the Sheriff. The crowd shifted, and Jack saw a fireman hacking at the wooden steps their mother sat on each night to quiet her evenings in cigarettes.
“That’s our house. Ephraim, that’s our house,” said Jack, though he knew he was alone.
The crowd shifted again, and Jack could not see the steps. He found his brother. The Sheriff’s hand was on Ephraim’s shoulder and his head was bent. In the morning sun, a white line of skin showed pale beneath Ephraim’s collar. The Sheriff patted Ephraim’s back then moved away. Jack watched his brother stand alone for a few minutes and then walk back to the truck. The crowd parted before him.
As Ephraim slid into the cab, Jack asked if their mother was at the hospital. No answer came.
“Mom?” Jack asked, and he watched his brother take a breath and lift his head. Beneath the brim of his ball cap, Ephraim’s eyes were wide and jumpy. He focused on something over Jack’s shoulder and shook his chin. Jack wanted his brother to say the words, but Ephraim started the truck engine and backed away.
Ephraim did not seem panicked. He did not seem normal, exactly, but he did seem steady, and Jack knew this was how men handled such things. Jack knew that even though he felt like puking or screaming or jumping headfirst out of the truck, he needed to be a man. He took deep breaths and swallowed the bitter spit that worked over his tongue. He shoved his shaking hands under his legs. He did not ask the destination. Anywhere but there was fine.
• • •
Jake thought Ephraim had driven away so that they might go somewhere and talk, but he just kept driving, looping around old highways and logging roads. Around dusk, Ephraim pulled into the Talihina Walmart, scrounged some change from the ashtray, and told Jack he’d be right back. Jack watched Ephraim at the pay phone near the door, his shoulders hunched as if he held-off a biting wind. When he finished, Ephraim entered the store and emerged with a white plastic sack bearing a yellow smiley face. Jack had never wanted to punch anyone or anything as much as that bag.
“Pastor Milliron says we can stay in the church a few days,” said Ephraim. Jack opened the sack. Soap and toothbrushes and toothpaste and underwear.
“Mom doesn’t like him,” said Jack.
“Didn’t say we were getting saved,” said Ephraim, and he turned the truck back in the direction from which they had come. Ephraim had never spoken to Jack like he was stupid before. Jack guessed the less he said, the better.
When the boys pulled into the church parking lot, Sister Milliron appeared at the entrance, her hands over her mouth in a pose of sympathy. “Be grateful,” Ephraim said, and Jack allowed the woman to hug him and run her hands over his hair and call him a “poor baby” before leading them inside the sanctuary.
Jack had not entered that building since second grade Bible School, but nothing seemed to have changed. Arched ceilings and plain windows. The smell of pine cleaner and sweat. Wooden benches faced an altar that read This Do In Remembrance of Me.
Sister Milliron told the boys that she had laid clean clothes in the bathroom, and that she had waited dinner for them, and that even if they weren’t hungry, they still needed to try and eat a little something. She pointed at the sheets and pillows folded at the end of two back pews and apologized for not having a spare bed, but said that the new baby would be up most of the night and the church might be a better place for them anyhow. She gestured for the boys to follow and walked out of the sanctuary and into the hall that led to her home.
The meal was quiet and fast. The scrapes of forks and knives and the thunks of glasses set down. It had been years since Jack had prayed over his food. It felt false but polite, and he guessed polite was the better action of a beggar.
In the sanctuary afterward, Pastor Milliron sat with the boys and talked about heaven, and their mother’s good heart, and how they would see her again someday. Neither boy bowed his head. In this, at least, Jack thought they had done right by their mother.
When the Pastor left, the boys took turns in the bathroom. Religious tracts were fanned on the back of the toilet. The Ten Commandments were framed in gold against pink walls. The towels were embroidered with JOHN 3:16. Jack was surprised the soap wasn’t called “Clean as Snow,” and he knew this was the kind of joke his brother would appreciate, but he did not know if joking was okay. He pulled on a set of sweatpants and a T-shirt for Falls Creek Summer Camp. The pants were a little too big, and Jack had to roll the waistband and the bottom of the legs.
Ephraim emerged wearing similar clothes, though the pants high-watered on him. Lanky. That was the word their mother had used. “Lean and Lanky,” she’d said, “Just like Randy Johnson.” Then she’d talk about what all they would buy once Ephraim made it to the majors. Back when their Grandpa was alive and there was time for baseball. Before the bank took the land and the house and the horses, took everything but the truck, and the family moved to town, and Ephraim took his GED and a job at Roy’s Grocery.
Ephraim helped Jack tuck a sheet around a bench cushion, then handed him a pillow that was round and had a large button in the center and seemed useless for sleep. Jack watched Ephraim arrange his own makeshift bed, then empty the pockets of his jeans, rest their Grandpa’s knife atop his wallet.
“Guess you’re glad you brought that,” Jack said, and he knew that these words made it seem like he grieved more for lost possessions than for their mother, and though Jack wanted to defend himself, he feared saying more wrong things, so he lay silent and listened for the rise and fall of his brother’s sleep, a comfort that had eased Jack to rest all his remembered nights. But though they lay no more than two feet apart, he could not hear the smallest press of air.
• • •
The next day, Ephraim met with police and folks from DHS while Jack stayed at the church and said “Thank you” for the canned goods and toiletries and clothes people brought by. He nodded over and over again at the If-there’s-anything-we-can-do, You’re-such-brave-boys, We’ll-pray-for-you, She’s-in-a-better-place, At-least-you-have-each-other, God-bless-your-souls. Some of the women cried and hugged him. Jack stood stiff in their arms. None of them had given a shit two days ago.
In lulls between donations, Jack sorted. Canned goods were stacked according to type, clothing broken into piles of season and size. When Ephraim returned, Jack expected some comment on his work, but his brother did not notice. He pulled the piano bench to rest in front of the altar and placed a large stack of papers onto it.
“Want some help?” asked Jack. They had not spoken that morning as they dressed and folded their sheets and ate cereal with the Millirons. Jack wanted to know what had happened. He wanted to know what was happening now. He wanted to know what would happen. He did not know how to ask any of these things.
“Go for it,” said Ephraim. Jack opened a manila folder and read the first few sentences of a document. When he was younger, he thought that Ephraim had learned all he knew in school, and that as soon as Jack took those lessons, he would be as smart as his brother. But he was a year past where his brother had stopped and still could not match him.
Jack replaced the document and went back to sorting donations. It would be up to Ephraim to handle things. It was always up to him. Jack was the one to make his mother and his brother laugh. But there was no point in that now. No point at all. A monkey could sort things. A fucking monkey. He threw a can of baked beans so hard Ephraim looked up from his paperwork. He asked if Jack was hungry.
“I could eat,” Jack said. He took a few breaths.
“Good,” said Ephraim as he shuffled the papers. “We’ll pick something up on the way back from Johnson’s.”
“Sister Milliron won’t take offense if we don’t eat here?” asked Jack.
“I imagine she’ll be relieved,” said Ephraim.
• • •
The funeral home sat only a few blocks away, but the boys still drove. It was murderous hot, and the truck offered them some protection from the stares. All their lives, the boys had existed like neighborhood dogs, everyone aware of them but no one responsible for them. As long as they didn’t tear anything up, they were left alone. Now people stared. Stared and whispered or stared and nodded sympathy. Jack wished there was a way they could fade back again.
Ephraim parked in the back alley, and the boys walked around the porch to the front door of the funeral home, their sneakers making thudding noises on the hollow wood. Matt Johnson answered their knock wearing a tight navy suit and scuffed brown shoes and led them to a small office crowded with oversized furniture.
After wishing they were gathered over better circumstances, and a comment about their mother’s smile that was meant to convey sympathy but made both of the boys uneasy, Matt pulled from a drawer a glossy brochure that heralded an Economy Package of $265/month for five years.
Five years. They did not know where they would store the canned green beans and boxes of Q-tips and packages of socks, and this man wanted them to sign-up for five years.
In the silence, Jack watched Matt Johnson grow uneasy, begin to run his hands over the desk. Ephraim handed back the brochure.
“She’s burnt pretty bad?” he asked.
Matt Johnson winced, but nodded.
“Okay then,” said Ephraim. “How much to finish it?”
A sound erupted from Matt Johnson, a kind of barking cough Jack was fairly certain the man had never made before. To keep from laughing, or crying, or maybe both, Jack kept his eyes on his hands, clenched and relaxed his fingers, watched the colors go from white to red.
• • •
As the boys walked out of the funeral home, Ephraim asked if Jack was okay with what had happened.
“When they going do it?” asked Jack.
“Tonight, I expect,” said Ephraim.
Jack looked back at the funeral home, could see the door that led to the hallway that led to the stairs that led to the basement where the body of their mother lay, a body that was no longer a body because flesh was needed to make a body, and so this was instead a thing that was both more and less grotesque in its separation from anything resembling the alive. But it still seemed better than the last memory he had of her, sitting across the kitchen table from a man with yellow armpit stains, shuffling dominoes and pouring Early Times into paper cups.
“Can we see her?” Jack asked.
Ephraim pulled a leaf from a bois d’arc and spun the stem in his fingers. “How do burgers sound?” he asked.
Jack said burgers sounded fine.
This was what men did, he guessed. This was how men handled such things. They would eat their burgers and burn their mother and that was how this was done.
Jack thought they would head to the Braum’s, but Ephraim turned down Maple Street and parked behind the old schoolhouse-turned-florist shop and cut the truck engine.
“Remember when she marched us up there in the middle of the night?” Ephraim asked, pointing to a trailhead just visible in the overgrowth.
Jack nodded. Ephraim had shaken him awake and told him to dress in jeans and long sleeves, and they had followed their mother through town and to this trailhead and into the woods without a word of explanation as to why. It was a night not long after their Grandpa died.
Her father’s death, Jack realized, and wondered how he had never thought of it that way before.
“We only had the one flashlight, and briars kept catching at our shirts, and it seemed like she’d walk and we’d follow until we all collapsed,” said Ephraim.
Jack remembered Ephraim’s hands on his shoulders and how, every now and then, just when Jack thought he would start to cry, Ephraim would squeeze, and the squeeze would give Jack a few more steps.
“I was going to turn around, you know. You had school in the morning, and there was a shipment of apples due in by five, but right when I was about to turn back, we pushed through some sweet gum trees, and there we were, on this big limestone slab perched over a waterhole. I pulled you back, it was hard to see the ledge, but she kept walking, stepped right up to it and stood there, real quiet, for a long time. I wanted to say something, ask what we were doing or how she even knew about that place, but then I guess a cloud shifted because that clearing lit up and . . . Jesus, Jack, she glowed. All that hair of hers, that white-gold hair Grandpa always talked about had caught spiderwebs on the trail, and she stood there and shimmered like she wasn’t even attached to the earth.”
“That’s what I want you to think about,” he said. “That’s who I want you to remember.”
Jack did not remember this, but he liked the thought of their mother with shimmering spider hair, so he nodded. It was not a memory, not exactly, but it was almost as much.
• • •
When Ephraim drove back to the church, he pulled in front of the doors and kept the truck idling.
“I’ve got a few things to take care of,” he said. “If you’re tired of people, hunker down in the baptismal. No one will look for you there.”
Jack could not think of a reason to protest, and so he found himself in the baptismal listening to people congratulate each other on being so charitable and thoughtful and kind. They said other things as well. Sooner or later, they said, Reap what you sow. When he finished the burger, Jack wadded the waxed paper and removed the drain cover and pressed the ball as far as he could down the pipe.
Just before sunset, Pastor Milliron called for him and his brother, but Jack did not move from the baptismal floor. He lay on his back and watched the wooden eaves turn from brown to gold to black, and waited for the sounds of the church to be joined by the sounds of Ephraim. When light rose and his brother had not returned, sobs began to crack Jack’s chest. How many times had he told her that he hated her? That she was worthless? That Ephraim was his real parent and she could up and die for all he cared? Jack cried harder and felt like a baby for crying, and he cried more for being such a worthless baby of a man.
After he lay quiet again, his throat sore and his sleeves damp, Ephraim appeared. He looked over Jack’s red eyes and swollen cheeks and told Jack to find something nice in the clothing piles and meet him at the truck.
In later years, the boys would argue over what they had worn and how hot it had been and which one of them had thought to grab a hymnal. These were quiet arguments, the kind they would have only at night, and only after a few beers, and only in order to avoid other, larger fights they could never reconcile. But those were days yet to come. On this day, they would bury their mother.
A wooden box sat on the bench seat. The joints were dovetail and the pine stained the color of pumpkin seeds. Varnish smell filled the cab. Brass clamps held the lid tight.
“Mr. Stayathome let me use the TechEd shop,” said Ephraim. “Why I didn’t get in last night.”
Jack had washed his face and changed into a button-down shirt and a pair of jeans. He was glad his brother had not commented on the crying. He hoped he never would.
Jack held the box steady as the truck rocked over broken pavement. He did not ask the destination. There was only the one place.
• • •
Their grandfather’s house had collapsed a few years back under heavy snowfall. The barn still stood but had become a shelter for raccoons and snakes and opossums. One of the leasers had plunked a few Tuff sheds near it. Jack knew some things were past fixing.
Ephraim stomped and stretched the barbed wire fencing. Jack slid through, then took the box and did the same for his brother. The boys circled the house to what they had called their backyard, though it was just a small, tree-ringed clearing that separated the place from a hayfield. Jack remembered trying to catch falling autumn leaves. He would tilt his head back and leap and spin. His mom had called him something. Some word that meant “dizzy all the time.” He wished he could remember it.
“I figure we can spread them a handful at a time, we can dump them straight out of the box, or we can bury the whole thing between the trees she hung the hammock between,” said Ephraim.
Jack did not know why these were the options, but he could tell from the way his brother said the word hammock that this was the best choice, so he walked there and set the box in the tall grass.
“I’ll grab the shovels,” said Ephraim, and he started back to the truck.
“Do they know what happened?” asked Jack. It was the question he had wanted to ask all along but had been unable to think of the words. Now that he said it, it seemed simple enough. Ephraim stopped walking.
“They say she fell asleep smoking,” he said.
“She didn’t smoke in the house,” said Jack.
“I told them that,” said Ephraim.
“What about that man? The one last night?” asked Jack.
“His name was Jim,” said Ephraim. “And I told them that, too.” Then he tugged on his cap brim and set off in the direction of the truck.
When he could not see his brother, Jack kicked the ground. A hard dig. Grass. Tree roots. Not that the hole had to be deep. Or all that wide. Jack knelt and lifted the box again. An entire person. Their entire mother. Jack’s hand hovered over a clamp, but he’d waited too long, Ephraim would return any moment.
Jack cocked his ear. Nothing. The truck wasn’t far. Ephraim should have been back by now.
He stood and started back, then returned to gather the box. What if they could not find her? What if some animal crept out of the trees and took her away?
The shovels stood propped against the tailgate. Jack saw that Ephraim was in the cab, his head bent and his eyes closed. Jack approached but stopped when he heard the sound.
Not much of a sound. He would not even call it a murmur. But Jack knew if he pressed his ear to his brother’s chest, the noise would deafen.
AMANDA BALES received her MFA from University of Alaska Fairbanks. Her work has been nominated for Best New American Voices and has appeared in The Nashville Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Pithead Chapel, and elsewhere. She teaches at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.