Authors: Tim Green
For my unstoppable wife, Illyssa
HARRISON ADMIRED THE NFL
football player, battered and exhausted but unstoppable. Harrison knew about being battered and exhausted, not by the game, but by life. The player looked like a gladiator. Harrison looked like an overgrown farm kid. The player wore a green uniform with silver eagles' heads on the sleeves. Harrison looked down at his own stained and dirty coveralls and the worn-down boots poking from beneath tattered cuffs.
Sweat matted the player's long blond hair and beard. Blood ran down his face, but a light still shone in his eyes. Ghosts of steam curled up from his bare arms in the chilly night air. Skin slick with sweat stretched tight over bulging muscles. The crowd roared its cheers, urging the player and his teammates on to deeds of greatness. Harrison ached to be a football player and for people to cheer him on, but he never could, and they never would. Every day when the final school bell rang, instead of joining the other boys for football practice, Harrison hurried home for chores.
The player on the big-screen TV rammed a helmet down on his head, and the camera followed him out onto the field where he crouched, waiting. When the other team ran a sweep to the outside, the player swooped in like a real eagle, striking the runner, hitting him low and lifting him into the air so that he flipped and crashed to the turf. The player flexed his bare arms and stomped across the field in a parade of glory. The crowd went wild and Harrison couldn't keep still. A small, satisfied grunt escaped his lips.
Mr. Constable pounded his beer can onto the coffee table, spun around on the couch, and glared. “What are you doin' here, Mud?”
Harrison stepped back into the shadow of the doorway. Mr. Constable had called him “Mud” since the day he arrived. That didn't keep Harrison from continuing to think of himself as Harrison, and he threatened the two younger kids, Flossy and Crab, into calling him Harrison in private, even though Dora and Lump, the two older kids, called him Mud.
“I said âwhat'?”
Harrison jumped and knew to answer. “Watching.”
“You got chores. You don't watch.” Mr. Constable raised a fist to prove it. The other hand crept toward his belt.
Harrison nodded, retreating toward the front door of the old farmhouse. Mrs. Constable appeared at the top of the stairs, her hair pulled so tight against her head that her forehead shined like a clean dinner plate. She puckered her lips and shook her head in disgust.
“Shoo!” she said, as if he were a big rodent.
Harrison returned to the barn and found his rusted shovel leaning in the doorway. A single bulb swung from the rafters, pushed by a small breeze. A cow shifted in one of the sick stalls. Her hooves scratched the dry hay. With the shovel in hand, Harrison dropped down into the milking parlor and the soup of manure. Green, brown, yellowâit depended on the feed the cows had taken. Harrison remembered the first time he'd smelled it, and the taste of vomit in the back of his throat.
Shadows flickered in the back corner of the parlor, and Harrison heard the hiss of hoses as Dora and Lump sprayed down the last of the milking machines. He began to shovel, slowly working the soup into the concrete channel and then down the channel until it disappeared into the night, plopping into the spreader below with a sloppy sound Harrison could sometimes hear in his sleep. The smell of cigarette smoke brought with it Cyrus Radford. The orange ember on the tip of the cigarette glowed in the doorway like the single eye of an angry little goblin before Cyrus stepped into the light.
“Where you been, Mud?” Cyrus wore coveralls like Harrison, also spattered with manure, but with no T-shirt underneath to cover the leathery skin draped over his raggedy bones. He scratched the gray-and-black stubble on his chin and spit on the floor.
“Mr. Constable called me into the house.” Harrison didn't like to lie, but it was better than a beating.
He knew Cyrus wouldn't question him being called into the house by Mr. Constable. Even though Harrison suspected that Cyrus hated Mr. Constable as much as any of the kids, Cyrus would never show it. Cyrus was afraid of Mr. Constable just like the rest of them. Who wouldn't be? Mr. Constable was a giant, thick and strong and rumbling with anger at everything life put down before him. His blond hair had begun to fade, but his face was as red as a baby's. His blue eyes were so pale, they sometimes seemed to glint back at Harrison like mirrors, making Mr. Constable seem something more, or less, than human.
“Well, finish up.” Cyrus raised an arm to scratch at the hair in its naked pit. “It's late and I need a drink.”
Cyrus Radford lived alone in a trailer resting on cinder blocks down by the main road. He supervised the milking at five in the morning, noon, and eight o'clock at night. Dora âwho was sixteenâand Lumpâfifteenâhad the job of slipping the suction cups onto the cows' udders as they crowded into the milking parlor. Only Cyrus was allowed to remove the milking machines because Mr. Constable didn't trust any of his kids to know when the cow was completely empty. Harrison's job was to keep the barn clean, an unending and impossible task in a world of manure, dirt, and flies.
The younger kids helped Mrs. Constable around the house, and Harrison didn't envy them, because even though his job was dirtier and smellier, the younger kids were much closer to the tattered end of Mr. Constable's belt. Mr. Constable believed in his belt, just as he believed children needed hard work in order to improve. As the foster father of dozens of kids over the years, Mr. Constable said that was his mission in life, to improve wayward young people in order for the world to be a better place.
Harrison shoveled harder, trying to make up for the time he'd spent watching
Monday Night Football
from the doorway, scraping the concrete and spattering the manure so that tiny droplets speckled his face. Sweat dripped from his nose, and his older foster siblings had already disappeared when he heard Mr. Constable cough from the barn door. Harrison shoveled double-time, scraping and scratching and spattering, because he had a bad feeling about Mr. Constable's huge frame filling the doorway.
Harrison looked up. Cyrus bobbed behind Mr. Constableâjust beyond the lightbulb's reach.
“You been lyin', boy. You been lyin', again.”
Mr. Constable removed the belt and flicked it against the concrete floor with a snap.
CYRUS DANCED A JIG
behind Mr. Constable. Cyrus always liked to watch when Mr. Constable went to work. Cyrus did his share of beating the kids, but he didn't seem to delight in it the way he did when Mr. Constable used the belt. Maybe because Cyrus's switch didn't leave the deep, dark bruises that followed the lick of a belt.
“Ain't you?” Mr. Constable flicked the belt in the air with another expert snap.
Harrison nodded. Tears welled up in his eyes, but they weren't tears from fear; they were tears of rage. He didn't deserve the belt for sneaking a peek at the football game. He did his work, harder than the rest. He could lift two bales of hay at the same time and toss them up onto the back of a truck like they were sacks of groceries. So the fact that he would feel the sting of the belt made him want to explode. His fists clenched, and for the first time in the thirteen long years of his life, he thought about using them against an adult.
He had used his fists against other kids, plenty. That's what landed him at the Constables' home in the first place. It was the fourth foster home he'd been passed on toâpassed on for fighting with other children. But it wasn't the kind of fighting people thought it was. Harrison fought for survival. Sometimes he even fought for others, kids weaker and more frightened than him of the older kids who seemed to haunt their lives.
At his last home Harrison had bloodied the noses and blackened the eyes of two boys three years older than him. No one seemed to care that those same two boys had forced a little kid named Wally to lie down in the grass so they could pee on him. No one seemed to listen, only talk in quiet, hard voices about Harrison, comparing him to a zoo animal, an untamed and untamable beast. That's why he had landed with the Constables. Mr. Constable was known throughout the county as a foster father who could cure even the hardest of bargains. Harrison now knew why.
Harrison turned and looked to the opening at the other end of the barn, but where would he run? He'd run before and knew that it only led to hunger, cold, and ultimately a ride home in the back of a police car before someone “whipped some sense into you.”
“Don't you even look at me like that, boy. Mud boy. You came from mud and you'll return to mud. That's how I named you. Don't be flashin' those angry eyes at
. I'll put the lights right out of 'em.”
Harrison let his shoulders sag.
“That's better. Say you're sorry to Mr. Radford here.”
Cyrus held still and wore the blank look of disappointment. An apology had absolutely no entertainment value for Cyrus.
“I'm sorry, CyâMr. Radford.”
“That's better.” Mr. Constable threaded the belt back into his pants. “And you can thank your lucky stars we got to see the judge tomorrow; otherwise I'd be tanning your sorry hide. Don't you think I gone soft.”
“The judge, sir?” Harrison tried to keep the hope from seeping into his voice. Mr. Constable didn't like the sound of hope.
“Just got a call from the lawyer. Seems your momma's got some funny notions again. Raised a ruckus at the county offices on Friday. Won't come to nothin'. Never do. Finish up. Take a bath so you don't smell for the judge. Then get to bed. I won't even ask you to stop lying. It's just in your nature.” Mr. Constable turned and shuffled off into the darkness.
Cyrus checked over his shoulder before he stepped into the barn, picked his own willow switch from its place on the wall, and smacked it against Harrison's rump. Harrison spun with his fists clenched again. The grin on Cyrus's face went out.
“That's the last time.” The words came out of Harrison's mouth without him even thinking. “You do that again and I'll be on you like stink on a cow patty.”
Cyrus's mouth fell open and he pointed the switch at Harrison. “You get back to work before I tell Mr. Constable what you're up to. You think you're gettin' outta here from some judge? Your momma's a tramp and a druggie. She cast you off like garbage, and once a woman does that there ain't a judge in creation hands her back her kids, so don't you get so smart.”
Harrison stared at Cyrus for a minute, until the older man blinked; then Harrison took up his shovel and got back to work. His hands shook as he shoveled and replayed the scene that had just occurred over in his mind. He looked at his own arms, the thick cords of muscles, hard from work. His feet bulged out the sides of boots made for a full-grown man, and he realized that something had tilted the balance. He had been ready to fight Cyrus, not because he thought he'd get free, but because he thought he could win. At thirteen, he was as big and fast and strong as a weak man. Stronger, in fact, than a man as weak and meanspirited as Cyrus, and he knew in his heart that one part of the nightmare was over. A grim smile twisted his lips.
Harrison finished his work and shut out the light. A cow brayed at him from the herd that shifted and stamped quietly in their pen as he crossed the yard.
“Shush,” Harrison said, still trembling at the exciting realization about Cyrus.
In the bath, he took special care to scrub beneath his nails, behind his ears, and between his toes. He didn't want to look or smell like a farm boy tomorrow. He would see the judge. He might even see his own mother. Cyrus's cruel words about her came back to him and his ears burned with shame and hate. Maybe that was why he had been ready to fight.
He lay down on the bed between his brothers: Lump, a boy who'd once been known as Michael, and Crab, who called himself Luke, until the belt won out. Sleep came hard for Harrison. Tomorrow was apt to be like every other day in his life, disappointing and hopeless. Yet, something told him that it might not.
It just might not.