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Jason Lee Brown


     While upstairs in bed, almost asleep, Schooney heard Lucky barking outside and car tires crunching across the driveway gravel. The glow of headlights lit the white walls of his room, and when he peeked out the window, he expected to see his father’s new girlfriend, Ring Ring, who had been coming late and spending the night. Instead, when he looked down from his second-story window, he saw Dan Dan standing in front of headlight beams, waving goodbye. Dan Dan’s curly hair glowed red. Schooney hadn’t seen him since the accident—nearly five months ago.  
“Get on up there,” his father, Jonathan, said. He stood next to the opened car door. He was tall and thin with a tight black turtleneck.
     The screen door below creaked open and smacked shut. Pops must have been standing on the porch.
     Dan Dan stopped waving and was still.
     “Go,” Jonathan said, as if Dan Dan was a dog. He pointed to the back door. “Don’t worry. He’s coming, slowly but surely.”
     Schooney hated how Jonathan talked through his nose, a high-pitched sound. It felt like someone was squeezing Schooney’s temples, which tightened the louder Jonathan spoke. Lucky stood in front of the car and barked at him.
     That night Schooney dreamed he was running through a cornfield, green leaves slicing his arms and face. The wounds burned like paper cuts. He heard the engine of a combine gobbling stalks but couldn’t tell where it was coming from, only that it was approaching.
     He woke before sunrise and snuck out to the strawberry patch while the fruit was still cool. On his way, he whistled for Lucky. The dog darted to Schooney from behind the plum trees and trotted at his side until they both sat in the middle of the half-acre strawberry patch that sloped downhill to the mailbox and the county road. He gently twisted strawberries off the stems, waiting for the parade of hot air balloons that had been flying overhead all weekend. He ate one strawberry for every two he put into the green quart containers. The red sun was freeing itself from the horizon when Pops’ truck rolled down the driveway and stopped within shouting distance of the strawberry patch. The pick-up was a red four-wheel drive with a white toolbox in the bed and dents on the tailgate and right quarter panel. Pops stuck his head out the window. “Dan Dan’s going to help. I’ll be back in a few hours.”
     Schooney wasn’t sure where Pops was driving off to. He and Pops had been spending most of their time at The Circle Tavern after finishing chores, but it was too early for that. He hoped Pops wasn’t picking up Ring Ring. He hadn’t even seen her yet, only heard her voice through the floor. After spending the night, she would sleep in until Schooney and Pops left for chores. She would stay long enough to do laundry and pick up the house, but when they returned for the lunch she’d prepared, she was gone. For the first time in months the house was clean and the refrigerator and the cabinets started collecting food.
     The passenger door opened and Dan Dan stepped in front of Pops’ truck and smacked his palm twice on the hood. Lucky perked his ears at the sound and woofed. Dan Dan carried containers stacked inside each other and carefully stepped over the rows of jagged green leaves. Schooney’s stomach ached. He wanted to ask Dan Dan if he remembered anything about the wreck, but he didn’t know how to bring it up. Dan Dan tossed the containers on the ground and sat a few feet away. He plucked strawberries and ate them as fast as he could.
     “Twist them,” Schooney said.
     A long red scar streaked down the right side of Dan Dan’s face, from his eyebrow to his neck. His eyes were green and tired. He plucked a strawberry free and twisted it in the air before chewing on it with his mouth open. Two missing teeth ruined an otherwise perfect smile. Schooney thought Dan Dan was joking until Dan Dan plucked another one and again awkwardly twisted it in the air before eating it. He couldn’t stop staring at the way the scar tissue sunk into Dan Dan’s cheek but bulged out on his neck.
     “Let’s walk the bank,” Schooney said. He got up and headed for the shed next to the farmhouse, wondering why Pops wasn’t there. Inside, Schooney took two guns off a rack and loaded them full of BBs. He handed one to Dan Dan on the way out, and they hiked a quarter mile east of the farmhouse to the creek.

     Standing on opposite banks, Schooney and Dan Dan watched Lucky run toward the water and stop just before the edge, as if the Labrador in him wanted to jump but the chow wanted to rethink things. The banks were six feet deep with a thin stream of dirty water at the bottom. Lucky perked his ears before he sprinted up the bank and sniffed around the bean field. He barked and didn’t let up, so Schooney and Dan Dan climbed the bank. Schooney expected another dog or animal but found Lucky jumping and barking at a twenty-inch snake. “Down, boy,” Schooney said. Lucky went down on his front legs and stopped barking. The snake was tan with olive-colored oval blotches down the center of its back, spots on each side. The boys took aim and the snake rose up as if pulled by a string and spread its jaws, puffed its neck. Its belly was black and the head had a snout like a pig. It hissed and shook its short, pointed tail, but the tail didn’t rattle.
    "Puff adder,” Schooney said.
     The snake struck Dan Dan in the pant leg. “He got me,” Dan Dan screamed. He went down on one knee and pulled up his pant leg.
     “His mouth was closed,” Schooney said.
     Dan Dan rubbed his hand over his smooth shin.
     Schooney lined his sights and blasted a BB into the snake’s underbelly. The snake dropped and went into convulsions, twisting and contorting, and Dan Dan cheered. The snake wiggled onto its back with its tongue out. Blood dripped from its open mouth. Lucky circled the snake and barked. Schooney couldn’t believe one shot was all it took to kill it.
     “What’s that smell?” Dan Dan asked.
     “Snake shit itself,” Schooney said. But Dan Dan didn’t laugh. Dan Dan hadn’t laughed today at anything Schooney said. “Look at its hognose,” Schooney said. He waited for Dan Dan to say something funny; Dan Dan jokes and impersonations always had kids on the bus laughing. Dan Dan took his finger and bent up the tip of his nose and snorted like a pig, hopping around the snake. It wasn’t funny. Hunting used to be Schooney’s favorite thing to do with Dan Dan. Dan Dan giggled and cocked his gun as fast as he could and plugged BB after BB into the gray mud where the water had slightly receded. Schooney checked the cloudless sky for the hot air balloons but found instead two buzzards circling a dead possum on the road. The buzzards would soon make their way over to the snake and pick it apart until nothing was left.
     With the sun almost directly above, the creek bed was muggy while the boys trekked upstream, shooting at crawdads, tadpoles, and grasshoppers. Lucky lagged behind thirty yards or so, sniffing. Schooney couldn’t stop staring at Dan Dan’s scar, and the longer Schooney walked the more his stomach cramped up and took his breath away. He stood at the top of the bank and let the breeze cool the sweat in his hair. They had reached the cemetery on the hill with the brick archway and black-metal gates. His mother’s gray tombstone was in the back corner. He still hadn’t visited it since the funeral. He wanted Dan Dan to see the cemetery and his mother’s grave, so he could bring up the wreck.
     Dan Dan stayed at the bottom of the creek. “I’m backtracking,” he said.
     “No, we should cut through the fields and go home. Pops is probably back by now.”
     “I’m going to find the dead snake,” he said. He took off almost hopping as if he’d forgotten how to skip.
     Schooney didn’t want to see the dead snake again, but he followed Dan Dan anyway in some weird hope that Dan Dan would blurt out exactly what had happened during the accident.

     When they located the spot next to the concrete covert to the bridge, there was no snake. Schooney looked overhead; there were no buzzards or hot air balloons, only a lighter blue than before.
     “Find the snake, boy,” Schooney said to Lucky. “Find it, boy, get it.”
     They followed the sniffing dog through the prairie grass between the creek and field with the barrels of their guns pointed at the ground.
     “Look, look!” Dan Dan said. He shot at the ground as fast as he could cock his gun. Dirt kicked up and several gray seven-inch snakes scattered. Air puffed out the barrel again, and a baby snake flipped up and landed motionless. Dan Dan was breathing so fast he sounded like a monkey. Everything Dan Dan did today reminded Schooney of something he wanted to forget. Schooney didn’t know what else to do, so he screamed attack and blasted the dirt. The boys belted out war cries and ran circles around the snakes, celebrating their kill, and for the first time today, Schooney didn’t feel nauseous.
     Lucky, fifteen yards away, barked at the ground, so the boys rushed over. The same hognose snake clumsily slithered through the grass before it rose up and extended its neck. Schooney wondered how it came back to life, if that was even possible. He pumped a BB into the snake’s underbelly and again the snake contorted and bellied up. Dan Dan cocked his gun for another shot.
     Schooney held out his hand. “Wait.” He crept closer, Dan Dan shadowing him. The snake was still. It wasn’t breathing. Schooney squatted and poked it with a finger. Nothing. He grabbed its tail and tossed the snake in the air. When the snake landed, it flipped back over on its back and was still. “It’s faking,” Schooney said. He picked up the snake, which remained limp. Schooney asked Dan Dan if he wanted to carry it home and put it in the garden. Dan Dan nodded and grabbed the tail, the snake still keeping up the act.
    Schooney and Dan Dan wandered toward the farmhouse, the tail of the snake pinched between Dan Dan’s fingers. Sweat collected and beaded down Dan Dan’s scar like a gutter.
     “Do you remember the wreck?” Schooney said.
     “Sure,” Dan Dan said.
     Lucky jumped up next to Dan Dan and snapped. Dan Dan got excited and teased Lucky with the snake. He swung the head toward Lucky’s mouth and Lucky again jumped at it.
     “Stop it!” Schooney said. “Leave it alone.”
     Dan Dan’s face dropped as if Schooney was talking to him, and he tossed the snake into the ditch.
     “What do you remember?” Schooney said.
     “Hitting the telephone pole with my head,” Dan Dan said. “Cracked it in two.”
     Schooney didn’t know why Dan Dan would say this. He gripped the BB-gun’s hot barrel with both hands and stared through the tall green leaves that blurred in and out with each heartbeat. He couldn’t see the snake or even focus in the green blur grass, and in his dizziness he remembered this:
     His mother is sitting at the kitchen table, a 500-piece puzzle spread out in front of her. The room smells like cardboard. She has connected the outside edges and is filling in the center. He is next to her collecting all the green pieces that, when put together, show a lush bean field behind a red barn. He has been begging his mother to baby-sit Dan Dan. Dan Dan’s father, Jonathan, wants her to drive Dan Dan home after supper. Jonathan works late in Springfield and is afraid something will happen to Dan Dan.
     “I shouldn’t have mentioned it,” Schooney’s mother says.
     “Come on,” he says. “It’s only for a couple weeks.”
     “Yeah, then summer starts and Jonathan will want Dan to stay here all day. That’s what he does, imposes his life on yours. I love him to death, but sometime he asks too much.”
     “It’s fun having someone to play with,” Schooney says. He snaps a green puzzle piece into another and though the knob sticks in the slot, it does not fit. He can feel her staring at him. She pulls his shoulder close and kisses him on the head.
     “I’ll make a deal,” she says. “Keep Dan Dan occupied until I drive him home and I’ll do it. For you.”
     “I’ll make Jonathan pay me, and we will treat ourselves to Dairy Queen once a week, just us.”

    Near the farmhouse’s driveway, Lucky darted into the weeds along the edge of the bean field. Schooney and Dan Dan hadn’t talked since Dan Dan had dropped the snake.
     “Badger,” Dan Dan said. He pointed at something moving. He ran after it while Schooney stood with his gun at his side. Dan Dan and Lucky weren’t chasing a badger. “Get away from it,” Schooney said. “It’s a skunk!”
     Lucky darted behind the skunk and herded it toward Dan Dan. Dan Dan aimed the gun. The skunk stomped its front feet.
     “Get away,” Schooney said.
     The skunk charged Dan Dan but stopped short. It edged backwards, dragging its front feet.
     “I got it,” Dan Dan said. He stepped forward, staring down the barrel.
     The skunk twisted its body into a U-shape, head and tail facing Dan Dan. Dan Dan popped a BB into the skunk’s backside, and the skunk flinched, then flexed its hip muscles and sprayed an oily yellow stream that hit Dan Dan’s legs. He stumbled backward and fell on his ass. Lucky, just a few feet away, sprinted toward the house. Dan Dan held his eyes and coughed. He stood and stumbled away from the skunk. “I can’t see,” he said. “I can’t see!” He staggered once more before bending over and puking.
     “I told you to get away, Dan Dan!”
     “Schooney.” He rubbed his eyes and breathed heavily. “Don’t leave me.”

    Schooney walked up the driveway, imagining Dan Dan following him everywhere he went, for the rest of his life.
     When they reached the farmhouse, Schooney whistled for Lucky and told Dan Dan to strip off his clothes. He ran inside the kitchen, and when he returned with a large can of tomato juice, Dan Dan was in his white underwear with his boots, pants, shirt, and socks piled next to him. He made Dan Dan sit in the middle of a blue plastic pool and hold Lucky in front of him. The red juice poured onto Dan Dan’s head flowed over the long scar and down his shoulders.
     “Rub it in,” Schooney said. The smell burned his nostrils and was so thick he could taste it. He pinched his nose. He had to get away from Dan Dan, but there was nowhere to go. Even the breeze couldn’t remove what had spread throughout the entire farm. Schooney exhaled hard through his nose to stop the burning which was getting worse.
     Pops’ truck rolled up the driveway, white dust rising behind the dented tailgate. Lucky barked and wagged his tail. Schooney noticed someone else in the cab when Pops parked next to the shed and stepped out. Pops had been limping slightly for the past few weeks as if missing a sole off one shoe. His black suspenders and blue jeans sagged off him like a fishing bib. Schooney guessed Pops had lost nearly twenty-five pounds since the accident.
     Pops shook his head at Dan Dan who was scrubbing tomato juice under his armpits and on his shins. “Hose them off,” Pops said. “Thought I told you not to use tomato juice anymore.” Without looking back at the truck, he went inside the kitchen. The screen door smacked behind him.
     Schooney unraveled the hose and pulled it toward the pool. He stared at the silhouette in the truck that seemed to sway as if floating. His thumb pressed over the hose’s metal tip. Water fanned out over Dan Dan’s head and a tiny rainbow appeared every time Schooney shook the hose.
     “Too cold, too cold!” Dan Dan put his hands over his face and curled into a ball. Lucky ran off and stopped in the front yard and shook, flinging water and tomato juice in all directions like a sprinkler.
     “Out of the pool,” Schooney said.
     Dan Dan hopped out. The red water had stained his white underwear and dripped down his legs.
     Pops stepped off the back porch with hydrogen peroxide, liquid soap, baking soda, and a small bucket resting on a metal tray. He set the tray next to the pool and waved for the person in the truck.
     The door opened and a woman walked toward them with her head down. It was Ring Ring. Her dirty yellow dress matched her stringy hair and hid her tiny frame. She held a duffle bag in front of her stomach. She had been staying a bit longer each visit and Schooney assumed she’d be around a lot more.
     “This is Schooney,” Pops said.
     “Hi,” she said so quietly Schooney barely heard her over the water spilling out of the hose. She hugged the duffle back.
     “Hi, RR,” Schooney said.
     “It’s Rhonda,” she said.
     “I know,” he said. “But I like RR.” He vowed then and there to chase her away from the farm. He thumbed the tip of the hose and water spit out into a stream next to her head. A slight mist hit her face.
     “Tomato juice doesn’t work,” Pops said. He shook the empty can like a maraca before he handed it to her. “Will you take this inside?”
     “I can’t smell nothing,” Dan Dan said, stepping back into the pool.
     “Barnyard effect,” Pops said. “Fifteen minutes in an outhouse, you won’t smell shit either.” After Ring Ring took the empty juice can inside, Pops mixed the peroxide, soap, and baking soda inside the small bucket then told Dan Dan to rub it all over.
     Schooney whistled, and when Lucky sprinted back, he sprayed the dog with the hose. Lucky jumped and chomped at the stream of water.
     “Rub the dog, Dan Dan” Pops said.
     Dan Dan scrubbed Lucky’s fur and hummed as if he were in his bathtub at home.
     After Schooney hosed them down, Dan Dan and Lucky ran figure eights on the front lawn. Schooney rinsed the pool and when he dumped it upside down, it sounded like thunder. While winding the hose underneath the window, he could hear pots and pans clanking inside the kitchen.
     “Find him some clothes to wear,” Pops said.
     Schooney’s neck and shoulders tightened with each difficult breath. He didn’t want Dan Dan around for one more second.
     “I’ll take him home,” Pops said, as if he felt the same discomfort.
     Dan Dan screamed, “Look! Look!” He stood in the front yard in pink underwear, pointing over the strawberry patch to the cloudless horizon.
     Across the cornfields, five hot-air balloons floated against the blue sky. Each balloon had bright reds and yellows that reminded Schooney of playing cowboys and Indians with Dan Dan. Schooney was wishing he had his own balloon when a green one with gold stripes hovered above the house. Dan Dan yelled and waved at the three people standing in the brown basket, his voice swallowed by wind and distance. The people waved back, and Schooney imagined standing in that basket, floating away, watching Dan Dan get smaller while hopping up and down like he was jumping an invisible rope.