Little more then papery skin stretched taught over bones that poked through in hills and valleys, the brothers huddled shoulder to shoulder as they listened through the walls of their bedroom. Wounded cries; boorish enraged grunts came through in broken, muffled bursts. And they waited for the horrible noises to end, silence stretching until dawn shown bright and amber through their ragged curtains when it finally did.
Their Father, the brute, was at the kitchen table the next morning, slobbering over his breakfast, his blubbery jowls slick with drool. Every time he shifted on his chair, his massive bulk sent his saucer and his plate and his grime encrusted cup into a clattering dance. Porcine were the sounds that crept from the corners of his mouth, as he shoveled his meal into it, the wet smacking constant and grotesque. Bent over the stove was his wife, thin and frail as she split an egg on the edge of her skillet. The sound was soft but sharp, like a joint cracking under tension, replaced in a breath by the sinister cackling of sizzling oil.
“Boys!” came the hog’s bellow, the crack of a whip against the back of the condemned.
The brothers were crammed into a dust laden kitchen corner, a place they often sat while the adults ate first. In unison, as if they were tethered by invisible strings, they looked up at the sound of their father’s voice.
“Come o’er to the table. I wanna talk to you.”
Wariness weighted their footsteps, the smaller of them trembling as they clambered up on to chairs opposite the beast.
“Don’t worry. I ain’t gonna hitcha. We’re just gonna talk.” He paused to squash a sausage between rotten teeth of yellow and black, the juices bursting, cascading down his chin. “I know you two been listenin’ to me and your ma fight. I built them walls myself, and they be paper thin. And you boys gettin’ old now. No doubt you’ll be tryin’ to understand better soon.”
One of the brothers stuck a boney finger into his mouth, bit down until the flesh was indented with a perfect mold of his teeth. The other pressed his form into the edge of the table, like a cat leaning into the palm of a stroking hand.
“You two in need of a lesson. Not like them stories I telled you. Go on and git yourselves washed up after bre’fast. We’re gonna be takin’ the truck today.”
Outside the house, over the worn grave of their dead sisters, where the earth had withered away and surrendered to burrowing insects and decay, they filled the rusted metal tub for their bath. The water from the well was murky, the color of moldered leaves, as they slipped naked beneath it, scrubbed away the accumulation of their days spent amongst the dusty acres of their property. No thought of the dead upon which they bathed came to mind, their oldest sister having been slain by a pack of marauding dog-like men, the youngest swayed unto death weeks after she’d been born. Such was the way of these lands. Survival was for the clever, and the one’s with health and luck.
Dressed in decent clothes, jeans that hadn’t been torn or soiled yet and shirts their mother had sewn on a whirring, ancient machine, the brothers fed the oil can into the hungering throat of the truck’s gas tank, one of them scrambling up the door and through the window, starting the engine. Their father leered when he spilled from the front door and saw everything had been prepared, jelly rolls of his face quivering like the supple body of a sting ray. He sat in the driver’s seat, body so huge that the cab could barely accommodate him. The boys were forced to ride in the bed, a factor they didn’t mind at all. They loved the view, as they puttered down the grooved track of the main road. The criss-cross of once feathered, golden wheat fallen in rot, the humps of crumbling buildings peppering the horizon. Sometimes they saw the remnants of animals, their bleached bones laid out on the sides of the road as if portents. On this day, they were lucky to glimpse a hawk, a black, graceful curve against the backdrop of a sky tinted yellow.
Morning tumbled into afternoon as the truck rumbled to a halt. The brothers followed their father to the edge of the tree-lined wilderness that yawned in front of the truck, their bodies close enough that their clothing brushed when they moved.
“Quiet now, boys,” their father ordered in a whisper thick with spittle. “There’s deer still round these parts, and it be mating season. They runs away if they hear us.”
Like snakes on muscular, scaled bellies, the three of them hiked through the forest, the boys enraptured. High above their heads, trees that reached the clouds towered over them, birds nesting in their boughs. Flowers of violent purple and red, washed out orange and every other imagined color sprouted from the ground. Life had always been dominated by the drab for the boys, grey and beige bleeding into one another; black and brown congealing into something in between both. They had never seen as vibrant a display, and the slighter one dropped to his knees, fingers clasping handfuls of the newfangled discovery.
But their father snatched him up again, dragged him deeper into the woods until they came to a clearing. And that’s when they had the real thrill of gazing upon the magnificent.
In the center, head bent to a patch of dense grass, an eight-point buck stood grazing. At their approach he reared his head, and they froze in their tracks, watching its quivering, muscled body from the cover of the brush.
Their father dared to venture closer, to the edge of foliage.
And that’s when the trap was sprung.
Covered under the thickness of branches and dirt, the beast hadn’t seen it. His cry was like the call of the wolf, long and mournful, woven with agony as the teeth bit into his leg. Jagged metal punctured flesh. The crash he made as he went down sent the already startled buck sprinting, hooves beating out a panicked rhythm as it sought its safety. In the aftermath the man-beast lay mewling, spit spurting from him, as if the vessels that supplied it had been severed. Great, gasping breaths wracked his chest. They’d had a pet fish once, the brothers, and it had done the same when their father had clumsily knocked its tank over, its body writhing, gills flexing as it spasmed along the floor. But worst of all was their father’s leg, the trap ripe with rust having gone in deep to the bone. Blood welled from the wound, thick and black as tar. It poured in a dark rain to the grass, turning the earth the color of death.
They watched their father’s struggles, waited for them to cease before they turned and followed the path back to the truck, their steps unnaturally spry. The older brother let his slighter sibling into the cab first, jumping in after him. They’d been teaching themselves to drive, while their father, in his moth chewed armchair, posed as a slumbering beast in the noon day sun that slanted from their windows. But the older one was taller and could reach the gas and brake pedals without aid, so he got the privilege of being behind the wheel.
Back the way they’d come they traveled, greenish white glow piercing toxic clouds to light the path back to their dilapidated home. Vermin scurried out of the way as they pulled into the driveway, squealing with contempt. There mother was at the stove, in the same position she’d been when they’d left, stirring a pot of what could by identified by scent as stew. It was as if she hadn’t moved all day. She looked up at the sound of the door slamming closed, searching with wary eyes for the presence of her husband.
But he was not to be found that day, nor the next.