Tooth and Nail
All morning long, my sister and I fought to be rid of one another like a pair of feral cats with their tails knotted together. As I attempted to harvest a clump of hair from the crown of my sister’s head, Mazzy, never one to flinch, smiled at the opportunity to test her mettle. She raked her fingernails along the back of my hands, which had already claimed a bouquet of locks. Having danced this tango many times before, I anticipated her next move. As Bernie had said on more than one occasion, “Balls means courage, but a shot to the balls means you’ll be pissing blood.” Knowledge that I had gained through painful experience long before hearing those words.
I blocked Mazzy’s kick and with no other tactics to deploy, we had reached a stalemate. We stood in the living room like characters on the cover of a comic book locked in eternal battle. That is until an explosion occurred against the wall opposite us. The abruptness of the sound shattered our hostilities. Our eyes were drawn towards the beige carpet that now sparkled like sand. Blue and yellow fragments revealed the location of glass.
“Get in the car!” ordered Bernie, our mother, in a low strained voice. We looked up and saw her standing at the front door trembling with fury. We didn’t move. Seeing that we wouldn’t be easily led to slaughter, Bernie swapped vinegar for honey, “We’re going for ice cream,” she said with a smile.
We ran to the car hootin’ and a hollerin’.
Mazzy and I slapped at each other’s hands as we struggled to open the passenger side door. With ice cream on the brains, neither of us was aware of Bernie’s looming presence. We soon found ourselves on the ground looking up at our mother due to what I assumed was a forceful hip-check. The same hip-check we received if caught lingering in front of the refrigerator or the bathroom sink.
Bernie paid us little mind as she unlocked the door with deliberate care. Once all parties were aboard, Mazzy up front and myself in the back, the truth was revealed. “This ain’t no ice cream social, this here is a reckoning!” our mother announced.
It seemed we had reached the final straw (after nine ceaseless years). Bernie was prepared to give us the old sack treatment, which would begin with a trip to the river. Because Mazzy was seated up front, I concluded she was at the head of the line. First born, first gone. Being the batter on deck, my young mind envisioned a getaway the likes of which even Houdini had never seen. Yet I remained glued to my seat.
Bernie turned the key in the ignition over and over again, but old Betsy refused to start. Betsy was an 85’ Subaru GL with a manual choke, which Bernie yanked as though she were trying to pull the engine through the dash. Car troubles were the worst sort of trouble. Bernie operated with extreme prejudice during such times. We would rather take our chances with the river. Mazzy and I stood at the edge of eternity upon rickety stools with roller skates affixed to our feet. We held our breath.
Finally, Betsy turned over and granted us clemency.
Mom drove without saying a word. Fear prevented my sister or I from asking questions and curiosity kept us focused on the world outside. We drove beyond our neighborhood, beyond the rock quarry that we referred to as the wasteland, beyond the wetlands commonly known as Stacy’s Muck and even past the outskirts of Ebony Towers; housing projects that rested on the uplands that ran parallel along the old post road. The rare times when I had been brought this far beyond the known universe, signs of life were few and far between.
This day was no different. Humanity made an appearance on a billboard. Set between the street and the housing projects, the advert projected an image of menthol bliss. But Mazzy had a keen eye. With a crooked finger, Mazzy began to tap on the passenger side window like a woodpecker. “There’s someone in the grass,” she whispered. My head jerked in the direction indicated and I pasted my face against the glass for a closer look. Just as we were about to disappear around a bend, I glimpsed a pair of feet near the billboard’s steel post, hovering above the grass pointed towards the sun. Accompanying them, a single shoe.
“That my darlings, is a loser,” Bernie said. “I’m gonna show you just where he came from.”
Did she know that person? My mom seemed to know a lot of people, mostly men. Whenever we walked along Main Street, Bernie would be greeted by hoots and hollers; as if she were the belle of the ball as I’ve heard it said. One time, a police officer stopped us on the sidewalk. He stood in front of our mom and stared at her while he licked his lips, as if she were a piece of fried chicken. He then grabbed her boob and said, “Honk.” We all laughed.
The following day, I shared the incident with a classmate. When I finished telling the story, I waited for him to laugh but he didn’t. He looked down at his desk and said, “My mom says your mom makes her sad. I think she’s scary.” I responded by stabbing a pencil into his hand.
Then there were the women who came to the house. Always with clipboards and always looking inside of the refrigerator. Mazzy and I always had to take a bath on these days and we weren’t allowed to say anything until they left. But there was this one time Mazzy couldn’t hold her tongue, and she yelled, “She’s crazy!” But Bernie and the lady were already outside. Mazzy began to cry. She knew something that I didn’t, but it wasn’t discussed.
Betsy now hem-and-hawed down a dirt road, like a diseased cow. Few things allow you to experience just how unsound your vehicle is like corrugated earth. I closed my eyes to keep the nausea from leaving my stomach.
Things came to a standstill and my eyes opened. To my chagrin, the road stretched into the distance like an airstrip that had been bombed by hostile forces. But it wasn’t the road ahead that I needed to be concerned with; a gate constructed of chain link fence cut across our path. I soon learned that its purpose wasn’t to stop us, but to stop them.
“That’s where he came from!” proclaimed our mother, pointing a stiff finger. I assumed she was referring to her friend who had been lying in the grass. The accusatory finger singled out a dark object resting a half-mile beyond the fence.
Marooned in a sea of dirt and broken concrete, sat a square building with an appearance more terrifying than any haunted house served up at a carnival. Its outside walls were pitch black; scorched by hellfire. The doors barricaded by Christ himself and windows with knifelike grins ready to make quick work of their prey. I might have soiled myself would it not have resulted in a lifetime of ridicule from Mazzy.
“That's where they kept them; the bad boys and girls! The school for bad boys and bad girls! Is that where you want to live?” Bernie’s head swung around towards me. The fat on the back of her arms flapped in synchronicity. Her eyes wide as saucers accentuated her bulbous pockmarked face. She looked at me as if the devil were by my side.
To make my feelings unequivocally clear about the matter, I shook my head side to side like a pinball zipping back and forth between bumpers. After several seconds, I slowed the rotation of my noggin to see if I was still the apple of her eye. She wore her poker face like a champ. What are you thinking, dear mother?
With a sudden burst of energy, Bernie swiveled around and shoved open the driver’s side door. Mazzy and I watched as she launched herself from the car and charged the gate. We exchanged horrified looks. What is she up to? Having reached her destination, Bernie laced her fingers through the steel mesh and flung the gate wide open. Had it been locked?
Having accomplished her task, she pulled an about-face and shot us a grin. It was her way of letting us know that there was no turning back. Bernie made her way back to the car at a leisurely pace. She was breathing heavy. Back at the reins, she coaxed old Betsy into plodding forward.
My eyes stayed glued to the nightmare factory in the distance. The more ground we covered the more my fascination increased. Betsy slowed to a crawl as the building loomed upon us. Now closer, I saw that the perimeter was skirted by a chain link fence that had collapsed outward; forced open like the petals of an evil flower dispersing its pollen of wicked children.
“You can’t eat, you can’t shower, hell, you can’t even fart without someone beating you with a stick,” our mother informed us.
Fart was a trigger word for Mazzy. She let out a chuckle.
“You think it’s funny?” she said looking at Mazzy. “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”
Moving onward, we drove through the center of a dark stand of trees. When the light of day once again splashed down upon us, my eyes nearly popped out of my head. I was now looking at a small city composed of bad boy and girl schools. A city built on ill will.
Bernie launched into a guided tour. “That's where they would paddle your behind. Over there is the shack where you’d be electrocuted. And that’s where they’d hang you from your toes and boil you in oil.” Despite these horrible facts, my mind was still trying to grasp the enormity of it all. How many bad boys and girls existed? What made them evil? Were they still amongst us? Are there just as many now? I was pretty sure that I wasn’t one; a bad boy. But a good case could be made for my sister. It was probably for Mazzy’s benefit that Bernie pointed out these haunted structures that once housed the world’s evil. “Take heed, youngin’. Doom be your future. Squelch your satanic ways!”
Of course, neither of us wanted to live in these awful buildings and we were terrified by the things our mother said, but I couldn’t see how we would; this place was closed and abandoned. My real concern was the inmates. At that present time, they had to have been bigger and older like the man in the grass. And if they couldn’t be found here, then where? What about the younger ones? I began to picture parents dragging their children towards sheds and shoving them in, padlocking the doors behind them. My mind continued on this train of thought, creating an infinite number of domestic dungeons: eyes peering out from the darkness of doghouses, limbs poking out from under the lids of toy chests, heads bobbing up and down in the putrid contents of septic tanks, cries and whispers emanating from broom closets, china hutches, crawl spaces, lazy susans, liquor cabinets, and from behind the linens of a Murphy bed; a world bursting at the seams.
Bernie’s voice, which had faded into the background, once again gained our attention through sheer absurdity. “And this is where they would take the fat children and turn them into pillows and the loud, mouthy ones would be made into stereo speakers.” Mazzy turned and looked at her, “What the hell are you talking about?” she said under her breath. But Bernie paid her no mind and continued to spin tales of lunacy.
Eventually the madness waned and exhaustion set in. We ventured home.
The sun was slowly sinking behind the trees when Betsy rolled into the driveway huffing and puffing. Bernie shifted the car into park and switched off the ignition. She removed the keys and placed them on her lap. No one moved a muscle. I soon began to feel at ease, at peace. In my mind, I watched as our family exited the car in silence and made our way into the house. I looked on as Mazzy and I ambled into our bedrooms and plopped down onto our beds; her with a coloring book and I with my action figures. But the toys grew heavy and fell by my side, and though my eyes are reluctant to close they could not resist the lure of sleep. And then as always, the tranquility was blown to smithereens.
“The hell with it, get ready and wash up for dinner,” Bernie said as she exited the car and slammed the door shut. We turned our heads and watched as she took her place on the curb in front of our house. This was where she spent most of her time, most days. Soon her hands began to perform their usual functions - the left pushed and pulled cigarettes into and out of her mouth, while the right operated a cellphone. Bernie’s lips flapped in the wind, spouting non-sequiturs to listeners unknown.
The night was encroaching upon the land. Old Betsy was slowly consumed by darkness. Mazzy and I exchanged looks; looks that told us what the other was thinking. We knew what we had to do. We knew the bad ones were out there and that we needed to protect ourselves, to protect Bernie; our mama. We did the only thing we knew how, the only thing we did well―fight.
Stephen Barone lives in Milwaukie, Oregon. When he is not writing, he works as a special education teacher. His work has appeared in Chiron Review, Commonline Journal, and Wilderness House Literary Review.